Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Sitting on a Marine Superhighway....Why Vizhinjam Makes All the Sense in the World!

First of all, a hearty round of congratulation to those of us who were looking forward to the landmark Vizhinjam deep-water container transshipment terminal and port project coming to fruition, for now the long-delayed enterprise has the best possible backer in India at the moment, albeit after a two decade long gestation period. Kudos to Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy, and Trivandrum MP, Dr. Shashi Tharoor, for showing extreme persistence and patience in getting the project through some very troubled political waters.

 That said, while one would expect everyone in Trivandrum and Kerala to be in support of a project that can and will change the economic face of the State and even of India as a whole, that is unfortunately not the case. A plethora of articles and reports have flooded the print, video, online and social media channels, questioning the project's viability, the very need for it and the massive harm it will supposedly wreak on the environment and the livelihoods of "tens of thousands" of fisher folk in the vicinity.

I will not do any favors to these malicious articles by providing links to them here but I am sure all of you have come upon at least one of them in the last few weeks. Surprisingly the nay sayers have ranged from lawyers without a cause to religious leaders who should find better ones to speak about, all united by two elements - a hatred for the Vizhinjam project and the utter lack of any knowledge about whatever they spout in objection to the port.

Let's take the high road here and examine a few key tenets of their arguments based on cold, hard data. Firstly, they claim that Vizhinjam will not be able to attract sufficient traffic to be viable, apparently not enough ships pass by close enough to Vizhinjam to consider stopping at the port, despite the fact that anyone looking out to sea from a high enough vantage point in Trivandrum can see a near continuous procession of ships sailing past. Secondly, the opponents of the project claim that the livelihoods of tens of thousands of fisherfolk will be utterly decimated by the above said non-existent ships entering and exiting the port. Thirdly, they claim that the utter failure of the Vallarpadam container terminal in Ernakulam bodes ill for the prospects of Vizhinjam as a transshipment terminal. Important sounding arguments indeed, let's take a look at their veracity.

To help us accomplish this, I am going to lean on a marine location system called the Automatic Identification System (AIS), which identifies and tracks the location of ships using a combination of other ships, AIS stations and satellites. AIS data for the Kerala coast is available in real-time on a map via MarineTraffic.com and other similar services. It's conveniently available on an iPhone app and has fascinated me over the last few weeks as I have been glued to it in preparation for putting this post together.

Here's what it looks like.

Now, it's common knowledge that a number of shipping lanes converge close to Vizhinjam - the one along India's West coast, the one connecting the East and West coasts, Malacca to the Persian Gulf and Malacca to Suez. The last two account for almost a third of the world's shipping traffic.

Now in case, someone's wondering if there are actually any ships sailing close to Vizhinjam, despite the aforementioned ease of looking out the window and seeing them sail past, here's a screenshot of what's typically out there.

Each of those arrows is a ship, the red ones being tankers of all types, carrying oil, liquefied natural gas (LNG) and LPG (a.k.a. cooking gas) while the green arrows indicate dry cargo carriers, ranging from container ships to bulk cargo (coal, iron ore etc) carriers and even car transporters.

Typically, there are a few supertankers or, to be more precise, Very or Ultra Large Crude Carriers, either carrying crude oil from the Persian Gulf to the Far East (Singapore, China, Japan, Korea etc) or returning to pick up more. There're also tankers carrying refined oil products and LNG. 

However, Vizhinjam being conceived as a container transshipment terminal, we are most curious about container ships at the moment. And there are dozens of them sailing past, including a very healthy number of what are referred to as Ultra Large Container Vessels (ULCVs), behemoths that carry 16,000 containers or more, up to 19,000, at a time. Belonging to the world's top container lines such as APM Maersk, MSC and CMA CGM, these giants are typically plying on the Malacca - Gulf and Malacca - Suez (and thence on to Europe) routes and usually pass within 100 nautical miles of Vizhinjam, which is only about 5 hours worth of sailing time at typical cruising speed.

So, yes, the ships are out there. And, yes, with 21 meters of natural draft, the Vizhinjam port can handle the biggest of them with fully loaded drafts of around 16 meters. This is much more than can be said of most of India's other major container ports, with the exception of Mundra and Pipavav. But those ports are more than 1000 miles from the Malacca - Suez shipping lane and would need at least 2 additional days of sailing to reach. Given the rapidly growing volume of export-import cargo volume of the world's third largest economy and soon-to-be-largest population, it makes eminent sense for the giant vessels, also (affectionately) called "mother ships" to drop off and pick their boxes at Vizhinjam and have them transported to and from other ports via smaller feeder vessels which can enter much shallower ports like Ernakulam or Tuticorin.

Big container ships passing by? Check. Capability to handle them? Check.

Now this also puts paid to the claim that the traffic to the port will jeopardize the lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands of fisherfolk and also destroy the ecological balance in the area. Tens of thousands of ships and over a Billion tons of crude oil pass by every year, Vizhinjam or no Vizhinjam. When the port is operational, two or three ships a day will divert from the shipping channel to enter the port through a well marked approach channel. Hardly any difference from what's happening now. In fact, with the port's marine traffic control, equipped with marine radar and satellite positioning systems, in operation, fisherfolk will be even more safer, not less so. As for the marine life in the seas around Vizhinjam, they are no more likely to be mowed down by a ship with the port as now.

Vizhinjam needs minimal capital dredging to bring its basin and approach channel to a 21 - 23 meter minimum depth and almost no maintenance dredging to maintain that depth. This is probably a first in the annals of deep water port construction, especially in India where most ports struggle to maintain even a 12 meter draft. Hence the volume of dredged material generated during the construction and operation of the port, often the cause of environmental damage, will be negligible.

Now one wonders why all these supposed "activists" who're crying foul of the supposed environmental impact of the Vizhinjam port turn a blind eye to the mind boggling volume of muck being dumped by dredgers struggling to maintain even a 14 meter draft at the ailing Cochin Port. By the port's own admission, 21 Million cubic meters of silt has to be dredged out of the harbor and approach channels at the loss-making port to maintain just about half the draft that Vizhinjam will have, sans dredging. Isn't that all of that muck (enough to reclaim approximately one square kilometer - 250 acres of land every year off Vizhinjam!) doing ANY ecological damage? Of course it is. Do those dredgers and ships (relatively small ones, of course!) running through the Mattancherry fishing harbor pose risks to the lives and livelihoods of fisherfolk? Yes, they do. But then only Trivandrum seems infested with "activists", such as the ones found hugging random trees on roadsides (mind you, only trees that can be easily reached by air-conditioned cars from their air-conditioned homes). Maybe it's because the State Capital is a good place to live in or maybe it's because many of these pseudo environmentalists are bankrolled from the place where they are dumping all the silt into the sea.

Now that points one and two have been demolished and disposed off safely in deep water, let's look at point three.

It's based on the utter failure of the Vallarpadam container terminal and it goes that if a container facility 220 Km to the North is at risk of being abandoned by its operator, how can Vizhinjam work? Apparently, DP World is seriously giving up the ghost on its congenitally crippled venture in Cochin which has not only failed to record any significant traffic growth from the time DP World took over the former Rajiv Gandhi container terminal a long time ago. Indeed, its cranes probably spend more time serving as back drops for malayalam movies or rests for the sea gulls than handling containers.

So does it bode ill for Vizhinjam? No it does not. The reasons are simple enough for even the most feeble minded self-styled port expert to comprehend. Vallarpadam failed to take off because of three primary reasons. First, it has struggled to achieve any sort of pragmatic draft because Cochin is a estuarine port, beset by chronic siltation as explained above. It claims to have a 14 meter draft but has been caught out on this multiple times. First, the ship bringing the giant ship-to-shore (STS) cranes to Vallarpadam itself had to wait three weeks out at sea because of insufficient draft, then an LNG tanker calling at the moribund terminal at Puthuvypeen suffered the same fate and most recently, the launch of India's first indigenous aircraft carrier from the Cochin shipyard was delayed apparently because the gates of the shipyard could not be opened because of siltation. In short, Cochin is no longer viable as a hub port in an age where ships are so much bigger than when it was conceptualized in the early part of the last century. Today, container ships with capacities of 5,000 TEUs, that need 12 -14 meters of assured draft are being pushed into feeder routes by the flood of newly built behemoths with capacities of over 10,000 TEUs that now dominate the main shipping lanes, Cochin is best suited to be a feeder port to Vizhinjam, that can serve hinterland cities such as Coimbatore and Bangalore.

The second issue is evident from the difference in traffic density near Cochin and that near the tip of the peninsula, where Vizhinjam is located.

A closer inspection usually reveals that none of the giant container ships or supertankers that pass close to Vizhinjam on their way to or from the Malacca Straits, Suez or the Persian Gulf pass close to Cochin as they veer off towards the East heading to or coming from Suez or the Straits of Hormuz (the Persian Gulf). Thus ships have to make a significant additional deviation to call at Vallarapadam, more so than at Colombo, Tanjung Pelapas or Vizhinjam. With each ULCV carrying up to half a Billion dollars or more of cargo, the shipping lines are loathe to divert them off the most direct route and lose time getting the cargo from the producers to the consumers.

An even closer inspection of the ships located close to Cochin usually reveals three or four dredgers of the Shipping Corporation of India hard at work dumping all of those millions of cubic meters of muck into the sea. It'd also reveal that most ships that call at the port are a fraction of the size of those that could call at Vizhinjam. The only time a VLCC/ULCC comes close to Cochin is to unload its cargo at a floating Single Point Mooring (SPM) facility located 19 kilometers off shore

Yes, a ship that can easily call at Vizhinjam has to unload 19 kilometers outside Cochin Port to avoid running aground. That says it all, doesn't it?

So, in short, Vallarpadam has been an abject failure because it was built in the wrong place. Had the container terminal been built first at Vizhinjam, it'd have been giving Colombo, Tanjung and Singapore a run for their money now, instead of meekly accepting feeder services to and from these ports. The failure of Vallarpadam only means one thing for Vizhinjam, it should have been built twenty years ago!

Now that we have put all of the propaganda against Vizhinjam to rest (at least for the logically inclined among us), there're a couple of additional points that I have long since theorized but which I have confirmed from looking at the literal traffic jam of ships off the coast of Trivandrum.

Firstly, a significant portion of the dry cargo ships passing by us are bulk carriers headed to or from Mundra, where Adani Ports operates the world's biggest coal import terminal capable of handling a mind-boggling 60 Million tons a year - almost three times as much as the whole of Cochin port can. With its draft of about 19 meters, Mundra can handle Capesize bulk carriers of 180 - 200,000 DWT. Vizhinjam can handle even bigger ships of 250,000 or even 300,000 DWT. I know that Vizhinjam has been marketed as a "clean, green" port and coal is a dirty word in more than one sense, especially among environmentalists, but I strongly believe that there exists a strong case for either a Ultra Mega Power Plant (most likely to be located in Tamilnadu of course, because of a dearth of land in Kerala) or a coal transshipment terminal or both. The coal transshipment terminal can unload 250,000+ DWT ships and load the coal on to smaller Handymax and Panamax ships that can service shallower ports like Mangalore, Cochin or Tuticorin. Coal terminals need not be "dirty", the modern ones like the EMO in Rotterdam maintain high environmental protection standards.

The same holds true for LNG, Vizhinjam is the closest port in India to emerging sources of LNG such as Australia, Mozambique and Angola, and hence the best location for an LNG terminal and LNG-fueled power plant.

And finally (yes, I am done!), with thousands of ships of various sizes going past every year, one would think that Vizhinjam might be a good location for a pit-stop for ships. Ship repair and maintenance and bunkering (refueling and provisioning ships) are two activities that come to mind. It still boggles the mind that the Kerala Government preferred the shallow harbor at Azhikkal instead of Vizhinjam or nearby Poovar for a ship repair/building yard but it seems that saner minds may finally be prevailing in this regard. Currently the yards at Singapore and Dubai dominate the ship repair business in the Indian Ocean area. Since most repair and maintenance is done when ships travel empty after delivering their cargo, Vizhinjam is well placed to repair the thousands of ships that are traveling back from the Far East and to the Gulf. One hopes that the Government will incentivize the business by offering attractive tax breaks and so on. This should also be done for bunkering services, where small tankers can refuel ships passing close to the coast.

Strangely enough, I had made many of these arguments and then some in a post written almost exactly four years ago. You can skim through it for further business areas that could be developed at Vizhinjam.

In short, I hope that all of you consider the prospects of Vizhinjam with your own eyes and minds, and try your best to dispel the unsubstantiated arguments against it by a cliche of self-proclaimed "experts" and the vested interests that back them, some closer to home than others. The proof is right out there, literally sailing past your eyes.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Vizhinjam gets a Developer.....

I hope that at least some of you are still checking the blog for updates despite my absence over the last few months. Profound apologies for the silence all this while, and without trying to offer a plaintive explanation for it, I was and still at very occupied with the intense work related to another, equally Trivandrum-related venture. You can read more about it on its Facebook page.

Since March, our principal architects, RSP Design Consultants, have been working with a world-class team of design,...
Posted by Taurus Investment Holdings India on Monday, June 15, 2015

The best way to kick start the blog is with a happy post about a piece of news that a lot of us have been waiting for a long, long while now. A piece of news that has won an election, galvanized public opinion on Social media and in the streets and sent shivers down the spines of vested interests near and far.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the Vizhinjam project finally has a developer, after years and years of failed bids and protracted wrangling about the most recent tender process. And the best part is that the winning bidder is Adani Ports - India's biggest private port developer, owner and operator and possibly the only India company with the capability, experience, global partnerships and the deep pockets to develop and successfully operate India's very first deep-water, container transshipment terminal and Kerala's only deep-water, multi-cargo port.

Adani Ports has officially accepted the mandate to build "India's first deep water trans-shipment port which has been...
Posted by Vizhinjam International Seaport on Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A few hurdles have been crossed but many lie ahead before the first giant container ship, hopefully a behemoth of the MSC Oscar class (Adani Ports has a strategic tie-up with the Mediterranean Shipping Company that owns the world's class of largest container ships and whose terminal arm operates at deep water container terminal at Mundra, as well as with with CMA CGM - another global Top 3 container line). Incidentally, Adani Ports and MSC have already set the record for the largest container ship to call at an Indian port, when the 14,000 TEU capacity MSC Valeria called at Mundra in mid-2013. The MSC Oscar class carried almost 50% more containers, and other ports in India, can only dream of accommodating such giants.

Kudos to Dr. Shashi Tharoor and the Chief Minister, Sri. Oommen Chandy for standing fast in the face of massive opposition, both from within their party and from external political forces, and going ahead with issuing the Letter of Acceptance to Adani Ports.

My take on the "Adani Port" controversy in Kerala & why going ahead is in the national interest: http://t.co/jxjDyHSM2V
Posted by Shashi Tharoor on Sunday, July 12, 2015

Fingers crossed for the weeks and months ahead before construction starts on India's first ever deep water, container transshipment terminal.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Curtain Falls on the Best Ever National Games!

After two weeks of spirited competition, and packed venues that showcased amazing participation from the people of Trivandrum and Kerala, the 35th National Games of India have drawn to a close in Trivandrum.

Kerala triumphed as the Best State with a total of 162 podium finishes, including 54 gold medals. A proud achievement for a State with just 3% of the population of India. 

But the people of Trivandrum which hosted the vast majority of events including the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and the Athletic competition can be especially proud with how enthusiastic their support has been to the National Games. Every venue was packed every day and the sportspeople were often cheered on with the kind of passion usually reserved for cricket or football.

The 35th National Games hosted by Trivandrum have been widely heralded as one of the best ever held, not just in terms of the level of spectator enthusiasm and the quality of the competition but also in the world-class standards of the facilities.

National Games done! What next, the Asian Games or who knows, the five circles.....?

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The National Games cometh to Trivandrum

The clock has wound done, it's here. The 35th National Games of India will light up Trivandrum and the rest of Kerala for the next two weeks.

The star of the event is the stunning Trivandrum International Stadium, just inaugurated right next door to Technopark, and Karyavattom.

Kudos to IL&FS and its team of engineers, and to the National Games Secretariat to completing this magnificent structure, by far the best of its ilk in India, in record time. You can get introduced to some of the incredible people behind the scenes here. These folks deserve more than a big round of standing applause. They have proved that sound project management practices can deliver a world-class product in India in record times, sans the need for any retired supermen from Ponnani!

The stadium is simply stunning and you can see a great photolog here and a back-the-scenes tour of the interior of the pavilion here. Thanks so much to the team behind Thiruvananthapuram Updates!

I so desperately miss not being at the Stadium right now and in Trivandrum for the Games but for those of us stuck elsewhere, the entire Games will be webcast here.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Closing out 2014

As 2014 draws to a close, there have sadly only been a few bright spots for Trivandrum in the sphere of economic development with most major projects including Vizhinjam, Knowledge City, the MRTS and road development in suspended animation.

The most notable certainly has been the wonderful progress made towards the completion of the world-class Trivandrum International Stadium.

Here's another brilliant photo-log from the folks at Thiruvananthapuram Updates

Thanks, guys, for keeping everyone updated on the status of this landmark project that the Kerala media have (thankfully!) chosen to ignore.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

...and we're Back!

I confess, I have been away for over five months. 150 days. Nearly half a year. Shameful! Guilty!

I do have a little bit of an excuse, a professional one, and one related to Trivandrum. In a good way, I promise. While I have been chipping away at it for over two years now, the last few months have seen a frenzy of activity as we finally closed a long drawn out acquisition process for what will, hopefully, be a landmark development for Trivandrum, generating tens of thousands of much needed jobs and creating a truly world-class piece of urban infrastructure.

Not the lamest of excuses, I hope. And hopefully while this should keep me very busy in the coming months, I will find more time to post regularly here.

If you'd like to know more about our project, you can check our the Taurus India website and Facebook page.

In the meantime, the only other significant project to make any sort of headway in Trivandrum over the last few months and years is the Trivandrum International Stadium. Here's where it stands 61 days before the Opening Ceremony, a hive of feverish activity, with more mobile cranes in action than any other construction site that Trivandrum has seen before, one that would not be quite out of place in New York, Dubai or Shanghai!

Panorama of the Trivandrum International Stadium; November 29, 2014
(Click for a bigger version)

Lots of great pictures of the stadium here and here.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

35th National Games from Jan 31 - Feb 15, 2015 in Trivandrum!

The 35th National Games of India will be held in Kerala, predominantly in Trivandrum, from January 31 to February 15, 2015.

Trivandrum not only hosts the lion's share of the events at about half a dozen venues across the city as well as the state-of-the-art Games Village but the State Capital will also be the venue for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Games, at the upcoming, stunning new International Stadium near Technopark.

To remind us of how close we are to the Opening Ceremony, I will keep a countdown timer at the top of the right border of the blog till the Games are done!