India occupies a commercially enviable location on the globe, straddling the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The country’s coastal front and backyards are home to the vibrant Indo-Pacific economies. Capitalizing on the striking international trade opportunities these attributes present should be a no-brainer for Delhi.
Yet India’s fortunes as a global trading power have been dogged for years by a glaring anomaly: 30 percent of the nation’s export and import sea-based cargo must be transshipped via foreign hubs. The majority of the country’s ports are grossly inefficient and cannot accommodate state-of-the-art ocean-going vessels. This constraint on trade directly affects India’s economic growth prospects.
Second only to China in global population, India’s historically slower growth has, at times in recent years, matched, indeed exceeded, China’s. Given the dominant role by China in world trade flows, the narrowing of the gap in economic growth between the two “Asian Giants” has been surprising to many.
In part, it is due to a secular structural slowing of China’s economic engine, which stems from Beijing’s continued adherence to, if not expansion of, the role of the state in the country’s enterprise and banking sectors.
On the other side of the ledger, India has been able to generate spurts of growth, driven by Delhi’s execution of some long-needed economic reforms, largely focused on the financial sector, taxes, energy subsidies, business licenses for small and medium firms, and foreign investment in railways.
However, notwithstanding India’s economic stall in the last year—owing to the Covid-19 pandemic—whether Delhi is able to engineer a sustained pattern of higher growth than China remains very much an open question.
It shouldn’t be. But domestically entrenched political economy barriers to the modernization of India’s ports and logistics system are making it so. Rather than dredging harbors to permit large container ships to offload directly at India’s shores, smaller “feedering” vessels, which do not require much depth, play a dominant role.
Indeed, for decades India’s ports have been protected from natural competitive forces—the participation of large scale, cost-effective ships and the availability of employees eager to work longer hours and at competitive wages. The ports also have been shielded from adopting the technological advances in logistics operations that world class ports elsewhere around the globe have enthusiastically embraced.
The result? Higher shipping costs and thus increased prices charged for imported components Indian business need for their enterprises to be competitive on world export markets, and inflated prices on imported goods sought by Indian consumers.
The reluctance of India’s leaders—in politics as well as in business, both at the local level and nationwide—to have the courage to remove this homemade ball and chain on India’s economic development prospects is akin to each of them pointing a gun at his or her own head and shouting: “Stand back or I’ll shoot.”
The media reports about the giant container ship Ever Given’s “journey” through the Suez Canal has educated many about the state-of-the art of shipping and how much world trade depends on such vessels. Could this be an eye-opener for India to modernize and dredge its ports to compete with China?
In fact, China has not shied from exploiting India’s “transshipment dilemma” to its own advantage. Not only has Beijing been naturally filling the void generated by India’s ossified port networks, but it also has been proactively exacerbating India’s problem.
The poster child for this is China’s “Belt and Road” investment in a state-of-the-art port in Sri Lanka. It was not a happenstance: over 70 per cent of Sri Lanka’s transshipments are linked to India.
India’s Port Political Economy Challenge: Domestic and Foreign Constituencies
The political economy complexity for India to confront the challenge the country faces if it truly wants to unwind the dynamics perpetuating (indeed in some cases actually strengthening) the deleterious transshipment relationship that has been built with Sri Lanka over many years cannot be underestimated. It will require actions not only by domestic constituencies in India but also or foreign constituencies.
Domestic Constituencies: Those Profiting from Inefficiencies Are Concentrated; The Losers Are Diffused. The constellation of the immediate domestic stakeholders in India is marked by the pursuit of positions that run counter to one another. What is absent is a powerful constituency that can bridge these interests to promote national economic welfare for India.
On one side, are the stakeholders comprising the executive and legislative branches of government at the national, regional and local levels; port regulators at these three levels; labor unions; and domestic vessel and logistics operators. All told, it is a relatively concentrated interest group—both in terms of characteristics and number.
With only a limited role by the private sector in ports and logistics, the various governmental entities and regulators are “captured” both by the labor unions, who, understandably, are intent on preserving jobs, and by domestically owned and operated vessels, the ownership of which is a mix of the private sector and governments.
At the same time, oversight of India’s logistics industry is highly fragmented. There are more than 20 regulatory agencies overseeing the core of the sector, supplemented by another 40 governmental entities. The most pernicious consequence of the regulatory quagmire, lack of clear governance, and few if any checks on the power of the sector’s interest groups is the inability of India to attract investment capital—whether from domestic or foreign sources—to modernize the sector.
The country’s so-called “major” ports, which number only about 20 but account for more than 70% of Indian traffic, are operated by the central government. India’s “minor” ports are administered by regional and local governments and number almost 200.
The absence of a vigorous private sector in India’s ports and logistics businesses is particularly problematic given the large scale of the country and its global location of the country and thus what is at stake in terms of India’s economic growth potential.
The other group of domestic stakeholders consists of India’s private sector shippers, and the nation’s businesses and consumers who utilize them. Where inefficiencies in these countries’ port and logistics sectors arise, the competitiveness of both domestic shippers and business suffers; the former in terms of having to charge higher rates, and the latter in terms of facing higher costs for imports of the inputs they require and the need to charge higher prices for the export of their outputs to maintain margins, which, in turn, makes such exports less competitive in their destination markets.
At the same time, domestic consumers lose because they must pay higher prices for imported products. Members of labor unions are, of course, also consumers. In India, logistics accounts for about 18% of the final price of goods, which is twice as high as it is in developed countries.
Herein lies a contradiction that—apparently—union members haven’t fully sorted out: As successful as they may be in preserving their jobs, the result, paradoxically, is that they also end up paying higher prices for the goods they purchase. And these higher prices are not only with respect to imported products they buy, but also domestic products, whose sellers may be able to raise prices because effectively they can be shielded from competitive pressure otherwise engendered by cheaper imports. Thus, in a very real sense, with one hand the transshipment problem giveth jobs, but with the other it taketh from the wallet.
Although this latter group of stakeholders is greater in number than the first group, it is considerably more diffused. Without a powerful champion that can unite their interests, their “public policy voice” is necessarily not sufficiently heard.
Consequently, national economic welfare is both distorted and constrained. Indeed, much of the population in India believes the governing elite is inexorably tied to the political and economic interests of the first group, which not only misdirects their focus away from enhancing and sustaining domestic growth at the national level, but also retards each country’s international competitiveness in global economy.
Foreign Constituencies: The Direct Effects from China’s Role in Sri Lanka. The effects of China’s role in Asia’s port and logistics sector distorting the magnitude and nature of shipments into and out of India and Sri Lanka loom large. Indeed, it is not over the top to suggest that through its Belt and Road Initiative, China has proactively (perhaps deliberately) exacerbated India’s pre-existing Sri Lanka-linked transshipment problem.
This has come about through both Beijing’s investment in, and the provision of services at, the countries’ port and logistics sectors. In so doing, Beijing’s actions are being exacted not only on each countries’ domestic constituencies but also on other foreign parties participating in their markets. Indeed, in some cases, the actions undertaken by the Chinese actually serve to preserve if not strengthen—both directly and indirectly—the asymmetric status quo constellation of the domestic constituencies propagating the Indian-Sri Lankan transshipment pattern.
This is especially so with the effects of China’s investment in Sri Lanka’s new inland Hambantota port on foreign logistics providers in India. Eighty five percent of the construction costs for Hambantota inland was funded by the Chinese government’s Export Import Bank. It would be one thing to expect efficiencies to come out of new port. But the operations of the port are the responsibility of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority, which is also state owned.
The direct effect has been in Sri Lanka, with the establishment of a modern port by the Chinese. China’s investment in Hambantota was initially welcomed by Sri Lanka’s governing elite. But when the Sri Lanka government became unable to service the debt to China, resulting in Beijing effectively taking control of Hambantota, anger and resentment by the Sri Lankan population was palpable.
At the same time, the Chinese have also invested in part of the existing port in Colombia, especially new container terminals.
Foreign Constituencies: The Indirect Effects from China’s Role in Sri Lanka. The indirect effect is evident in India. With the advent of Hambantota and the new investment at Colombo’s port, China’s investment served to propel Sri Lanka becoming a significant hub for transshipment services from to India. Indeed, vessel-related charges at Indian ports are 5 to 6 times that of competing ports, such as Colombo.
On India’s east coast, the main “major” ports feedering with Colombo are in Chennai, Kolkata, Tuticorin and Vizag. Along the west coast of India, the primary “major” ports engaged in feedering with Colombo are those located at Cochin, Mumbai (India’s largest port), and Mangalore
This has only served to strengthen the lot of the constellation of India’s vested domestic interests who, by preserving the shallowness of the country’s ports, which is well-suited to the long-established network of smaller feedering vessels. This sends an unmistakable signal to mega container ships that they should go elsewhere.
At the same time, the insufficient depths at Indian ports are a direct result of the country possessing deficient dredging capabilities. The thinness of this capability is because there are few new entrant dredging companies. After all there is little incentive to do so. This is obviously a vicious circle. Worse still, powerful labor unions have little interest in allowing for state-of-the-art labor-saving technologies to reduce logistics costs.
All told, the habit of maintaining the use of sub-optimally sized and costly inefficient smaller vessels creates a multi-knotted problem for the country: there’s a greater need for transshipment from third countries—hence the role assumed by Sri Lanka—combined with heightened disincentives to accommodate modern cargo ships in India’s ports.
Moreover, there are further costs engendered—both in terms of wages paid to Indian dockworkers and time lost—due to the increased unloading and loading required in the handling of smaller volumes of cargo from vessels whose scale is far from state-of-the-art. Although this may help Indian labor unions achieve their objectives of attaining greater job security and higher wages than might otherwise prevail, it further diminishes the incentives for Indian investors to fund the adoption of innovative techniques used in other ports of the world.
Taken together, these various costs translate into Indians not only paying more for imported products, but also producing goods for export that, by dint of their higher total-delivered-cost in the foreign markets in which they are sold, lose their price competitiveness to products sold by others, either domestic producers or other exports based in third countries.
The impact of China’s investment in Sri Lanka is not only felt by domestic parties in India. It also has served to constrain the growth and profitability of foreign providers of port and logistics services operating in India. Rather than being able to service mega carriers—as they do in their modernized ports and logistics facilities elsewhere in the world—they continue to operate, in part, within an environment dependent on transshipments from Sri Lanka.
It is obvious why these foreign logistics providers might shun India in favor of other locales in the region or, at best, reluctantly serve India while keeping an eye out for better opportunities. India’s aggregated ranking in the World Bank’s Logistics Performance Index (LPI) among 160 countries stood at 44 in 2018 (the most recent year for which data are available). While this represents a rise from 54 in 2016, India’s main competitors in port and logistics have a higher aggregated rank: Singapore’s aggregate score was 7, China’s was 26, and Malaysia was 41. By way of comparison in other regions, UAE ranked 11th, the Czech Republic 22nd , and Chile 34th.
Significantly, however, India’s score in 2018 on two key individual sub-components of the LPI aggregated ranking was much worse than the rest of the sub-components, and worse than most of the other countries referenced above. India ranked 52nd both in terms of “quality of infrastructure” and “degree of timeliness,” such as ship turnaround time. On the “timeliness” measure, Singapore ranked 6th, China 27th, and Malaysia 53rd. The UAE ranked 4th, Czech Republic 16th and Chile 31st.
If Delhi is really interested in holding on to the incumbent best-in-class global logistics operators already present in the country, let alone attracting other such providers, these data should be a wake-up call. While the Indian government has launched two major projects – “Sagarmala” and “Bharatmala”– to improve the country’s freight logistics system, especially modern port-to-inland corridors, the ports remain a national albatross in a globalized logistics market.
The Strangest Twist of All: Indian Investment in a Sri Lankan Ports?
In light of the foregoing, wouldn’t one think it strange if India were to invest in Sri Lanka to beef up that country’s transshipment capacity? Think again. Although such a project, originally conceived in 2019, was temporarily put on hold by the Sri Lankan authorities in February 2021, in fact, as of March 2021, India is indeed proceeding with in a joint venture with Japan and Sri Lanka to invest in a new transshipment facility in Colombo’s port. It’s currently conceived as Sri Lanka having 51% ownership of the operational company, with India and Japan owning the remaining 49%. This would add yet another transshipment hub in Sri Lanka alongside of China’s.
From the standpoint of India’s long-term economic interest and the country’s international competitiveness vis a vis China, this would seem highly ill-advised. There are three reasons why.
One, establishing multiple transshipment facilities on Sri Lanka is unlikely to be competitively sustainable. Not only will there be downward pressure on transshipment rates for all parties arising from ruinous competition—so low that revenues may not be able to cover costs—but China also will not refrain from proactively subsidizing its facilities costs in order to drive out competing transshipment facilities.
Second, and far more important, if the goal of reducing or eliminating India’s transshipment problem has any merit, trying to accomplish this through actions taken by India in Sri Lanka to make transshipment even more cost effective, will, if anything exacerbate the real problem in India. Simply put, taking action in Sri Lanka to solve a “made-in-India” problem is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.
Finally, any resources invested by India in Sri Lanka in fact should be invested in India first and foremost—to both (i) modernize and dredge the major ports that are currently primarily reliant on transshipments from Sri Lanka and (ii) expand and/or establish new state-of-the art transshipment centers in part in order to compete with Colombo and other foreign transshipment locales. Indeed, the worst combination would be one in which India fails to deepen its own ports and goes ahead to support the modernization of Sri Lanka’s ports. If anything, India would be wise to entice the Japanese to create a joint investment in modern port and logistics hubs in India.
What to Do?
Mitigating India’s “transshipment problem”—especially its Sri Lankan-linked core—the effect of which is analogous to imposing a nationwide surcharge on “total delivered costs” of imports shipped into, and exports shipped from India, is thus a key economic challenge for the country to raise its competitive game in world trade.
In fact, dealing head-on with this challenge presents India with a critical opportunity to compete more forcefully in the global economy with China, which is both the main on-stage and behind-the-scenes external actor in propagating the problem. But there is no hiding the fact that the fundamental source, indeed growth, of India’s transshipment challenge is rooted domestically and it has a long history and inertia to overcome.
If Delhi is clever, it can capitalize on this opportunity through systematically creating an incentive structure for state-of-the-art public-private-partnerships in the global logistics industry that involve both India’s domestic businesses and foreign logistics enterprises from countries with which India has strong alliances or wishes to build new ones.
It would be a tragedy if Delhi’s desire to improve India’s competitive standing in international trade remains wishful thinking. It is hard to not believe that the Chinese would be more than gleeful.