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National Maritime Day Celebration: Keynote Address; By Commodore R. S. Vasan IN (Retd.)

C3S Paper No. 0051/2016


The National Maritime Day was celebrated in Chennai on 05 April 2016. The Full text of the address by Guest of Honour Commodore R. S. Vasan IN (Retd.), Former Regional Commander Coast Guard Region East, Director Chennai Centre for China Studies and Head Strategy and Security Studies, Center for Asia Studies is given below:

Your Excellency, Governor of Tamil Nadu Dr. Rosaiah, Captain Das, Chairman of the organizing committee, Captain Vivekanand, Vice Chairman, Mr Bhaskarachar, Chairman Port Trust, other members of the organizing committee of the National Maritime Day celebrations, distinguished audience, young cadets who will be the torch bearers of the maritime industry, ladies and gentlemen: It is both a pleasure and honour to be here with you  on this momentous occasion and take part in  the celebrations to mark the 53rd National Maritime Day and share some of my thoughts  with  you.

While thanking the organisers for inviting me, first of all I would like to extend my felicitations and warm greetings to the sea farers, their families and all other stake holders in a maritime India on the occasion of the National Maritime Day. It is only due to the hard work and commitment of those involved in the Maritime Enterprise that rapid strides are being taken to build a prosperous maritime India. It is largely due to the sustained efforts of those in the industry that maritime trade and connectivity is being nurtured, sustained and promoted.

I must say that the Prime Minister Narendra Modi has demonstrated his sublime understanding of the maritime power potential of India. He was quick to draw our attention to the Tiranga, the national flag of India which has an Ashoka Chakra that is blue in colour with twenty four spokesin the center. The deep blue coloured wheel indicates the centrality of the oceans to India’s wellbeing and prosperity. While there are other rich meanings of the twenty four spokes, to make it contextual, we could look at it as a clarion call for a 24×7 commitment to promote the cause of a vibrant maritime India.

India is the only country after which an ocean is named, the Indian Ocean. Geography has blessed India as the land mass juts in to the Indian Ocean bisecting it to the Arabian Sea on the west and the Bay of Bengal on the east. The long coast line of over 7500 kilometers, Island assets both on the east and west has conferred an abundant exclusive economic zone of 2.1 million square kilometers in which India has exclusive rights for harnessing both the living and non-living resources. This provides for both opportunities and challenges for deriving maximum benefits from ocean related activities  and could be even compared to the mythological “Samudramanthan”  that provided wealth and prosperity.

In that context, the term blue economy has assumed enormous importance and great strides are expected to be taken to harness the oceans in responsible way without endangering the fragile marine environment. This includes shipping, fisheries, recreation, energy, off shore exploration etc., This well informed audience is aware of the blue economy initiatives of China in the form of Maritime Silk Route and the One Belt One Road which  are both ambitious and imaginative. This will change the maritime contours of Asia, Africa and even Europe by expanding circles of connectivity and connecting new market destinations. With the growing economies of the developing countries of the region, there would be considerable addition to the maritime traffic and related port activities challenging the maritime environment. A major portion of the sea routes pass under the watchful eyes of India which is a net provider of security and stability in the Indian Ocean. India cannot afford to be left behind in its own back yard nor can it be seen as conceding strategic space to China which has progressed by leaps and bounds by proactive polices and economic investments far and wide.  In this context, the initiatives of the present Government to reach out to the maritime neighbours is noteworthy. The ‘neighbourhood first’ has a great maritime connotation which needs to be sustained by constant engagement and proactive policies locally, regionally and globally.

Returning to the theme of the day that we are celebrating, it is also a day for stock taking and introspection. For decades, we have continued to talk about the dozen odd major ports with hardly any new additionsand about two hundred minor ports with incremental improvements in their all-round performance and output. There are good signs for the future of the maritime industry as both the Centre and the States are now engaged in revamping the entire maritime enterprise structure to be more responsive and competitive. These require major restructuring, policy changes and phenomenal investments to make them competitive, vibrant and productive. The initiative cannot be left to the Public Sector Undertakings alone and the private industry definitely has to pitch in. Both the Government and the private players have a greater role to play with increasing stakes in the coming decades in this sector.

The percentage of Indian shipping still hovers below the 1.5% of the global gross tonnage leaving huge gaps in potential and capability. This should not be seen as a disadvantage but needs to be considered as an opportunity to enhance the Maritime Power Potential of the country. The forthcoming maritime summit from 14 to 16th April in the commercial maritime capital of India, Mumbai has generated considerable interest and hopefully will reinvigorate the industry.

As for as the maritime enterprise is concerned, the four strong pillars   are the Government, the Ship Owners, the Port operators and last but  not the least the human capital. Coming to the most important factor of human resources, it is good news that the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) has been ratified by the Indian Government in October 2015 and will come in to force this October. Hopefully the maritime instruments, such as the Standards of Training Certification and Watch keeping (STCW1978), Safety of Lives at Sea (SOLAS1974) and Marine Pollution (MARPOL73/78) conventions which are already effective operating in tandem with the MLC should bring about sea changes. Applied together, these instruments should addresscrucial issues related to harnessing the human power potential of our sea farers and other stake holders in a holistic manner with due consideration to the environment.

We cannot forget the ordeals faced by the sea farers on many counts. There is a need to pay particular attention to acts of piracy and armed robbery which is rampant in different parts of the world. As per the report of the ReCAAP, Singapore last year there were over 200 incident in Asia though there was substantial reduction in piracy off the Somalian coast. It is to the credit of the global community that they joined hands and brought together maritime forces to the region to take on the challenge of containing this menace. There were also other measures such as the declaration of the High Risk Area and adoption of the Best Management Practices promulgated by the International Maritime Organisation and initiatives by ship owners and crew that has prepared the seafarers better to take on these challenges in many parts of the world.

While the Navies and the Coast Guards of the world continue to work together to take on this scourge, there has to be a sound mechanism to ensure that those affected by piracy are provided all support including counseling, financial help for families and moral support. From a humanitarian point of view, this can be achieved by promulgating national laws that complement the Maritime Labour Convention and make it incumbent for Indian flagged vessels to comply with the laws for supporting those affected by piracy and armed robbery.

There is also a serious lacuna in the way we train our seafarers. With the proliferation of maritime training institutes in the country, there are thousands of seafarers who graduate from maritime academies and institutions. Unfortunately, the standard of those passing out leaves a lot to be desired in a competitive global environment. A major problem has been the lack of exposure to sea during training. With the few exceptions of some reputed institutes, it is no secret that even after many years in nautical institutes; some of the cadets have not even stepped on a ship let alone embark for training. This lowers the credibility of an Indian sea farer who is in competition with others who have the benefit of organized sea training from other sea faring nations. It may be recalled that the theme for the world maritime day last year was “Maritime Training and Education” and many forums in India discussed the way ahead. It is hoped that the deliberations in many such forums have paved way for better way to manage the output from the maritime training academies in India.

India’s ship building and repair capability has been growing steadily over the years. The fact that we can build nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers and large merchant and warship should catapult us in to the big league of ship builders. Yet, there is still a lot of distance to cover in being able to compete with countries such as South Korea, China, Taiwan and others who have established their ship building and repair capacity and capability. Based on the experiences in building and repairing both war ships, submarines and merchant vessels, it is now necessary to pool in expertise, shift gears and have proactive policies to ride the wave of a growing economy. Even small countries such as Singapore and Sri Lanka appear to be way ahead in the area of managing ship related activities whether it is turn round of ships, repair of ships or ship management.

There are many areas in which India needs to step on the gas to ensure that the full maritime potential of this country is realised. The productivity and efficiency of our ports in addition to planned up gradations and modernizing are also dependent on the hinter land connectivity and inland waterways which are not up to the mark. On an optimistic note, the Indian ports are doing well and with many new initiatives on the anvil, the new Government appears to be on the right track to derive maximum benefits from the maritime sector by planning investing and engaging other stake holders

One is reminded often that this is the century of the seas and also an Asian century. But for India to become a vibrant maritime power, it has to remove many stumbling blocks that impede progress. The theme chosen for the World Maritime Day this year is about the indispensability of shipping to the world (“Shipping: Indispensable to the World”) and that again should bring about key changes in the understanding the complexities involved in promoting shipping as a catalyst for growth of India.

Finally, on this day there is a need to remember the hard work, commitment and dedication with which the people in the maritime sector have applied themselves to strive for excellence.  Based on the past experience and even perhaps mistakes made by us, we need to move forward resolutely not just to make in India, but to make and propel a maritime India to greater heights.

Jai Hind.

[Commodore R.S Vasan IN (Retd) is Director, C3S and Head, Strategy and Security Studies. Email: director.c3s@gmail.com]

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