India's long-distance trade surged during colonial times. Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata saw shipping tonnage increase from around 0.1 million tonnes to more than six million tonnes between 1798 and 1914.
As time went by, some countries in India’s neighbourhood emerged as more efficient players in such trade. Container ships have to spend days on average between entry and departure at many Indian ports. In Sri Lanka’s Colombo, ships take less than 24 hours. But India has improved in recent years.
The average turnaround time at major ports has fallen from 127 hours in 2010-11 to 53 hours as of 2021-22. It was nearly 200 hours in the early 1990s as seen in chart 1 (click image for interactive chart).
Kolkata port’s turnaround time improved from 149 hours in 2010-11 to 83 hours in 2021-22. Turnaround time has more than halved in Haldia, to 51 hours. Chennai is at 53 hours. The Jawaharlal Nehru Port in Navi Mumbai had the fastest turnaround, of 28 hours, in 2021-22. It was at 63 hours in 2010-11, and has improved in the decade since (chart 2).
The government has pushed a number of initiatives to strengthen ports. The Sagarmala programme seeks to bring down logistics costs by improving coastal shipping. The government noted that water-borne transport accounted for around six per cent of India’s transport mix. It is 12 per cent in the US, 34 per cent in Japan and 47 per cent in China. Waterways transport is cheaper than road and rail, according to the note prepared on Sagarmala.
Port traffic has increased in recent years. Major ports have added more than 100 million tonnes in additional traffic since 2014-15 to mark a 24 per cent increase. Port capacity has done even better by growing 83 per cent or more than 700 million tonnes (chart 3).
The role of private companies and improving efficiency may well determine if India is able to go back to playing the role it did before in international trade.