How Vizhinjam Port Can Change India’s Shipping Fortunes

‘It will be important strategically and geographically because there is no port in India which is as close to the international shipping route as Vizhinjam.’

The first ship carrying cranes from China will be docking at Vizhinjam port on October 4, Kerala Minister for Ports Ahamed Devarkovil told the media last week, PTI reported.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Union Minister for Ports Sarbananda Sonowal will participate in a function to be organised at the Adani-run Vizhinjam Port to receive the ship.

The Kerala minister said three more ships will be coming to Vizhinjam, one in October and two in November after the arrival of the first ship.

The port, being constructed at an estimated cost of Rs 7,700 crore (Rs 77 billion), is expected to be commissioned by May 2024, Devarkovil said, adding that Adani Ports Private Ltd has decided to complete all the work by December this year.

“This is the one and only port in the country that provides more than 20 metres of depth without dredging and is closer to the International Maritime Channel,” Devarkovil added.

“This is going to be one of the biggest ports in the world, and it is going to give a great financial benefit to Kerala as it is going to handle all the transhipment requirements,” Rajesh Jha, MD and CEO of Adani Ports Private Ltd, told PTI.

Vijayan unveiled the logo and name of Vizhinjam port in Thiruvananthapuram on Wednesday, September 20, 2023.

“Today, the largest container vessel now in service needs a depth of 17 metres and Vizhinjam has a depth of 20 metres. It means, even if the size of the vessel goes up from 24,000 TEU to 30,000 TEU, the only port in India which will be able to accommodate such ultra large container ships will be Vizhinjam,” Dr Jose Paul, former acting chairman, JN Port, Mumbai, and former chairman, Mormugao Port Trust, Goa and adjunct professor, Indian Maritime University, Chennai, tells‘s Shobha Warrier.

The first of a two-part interview:

When I interviewed Father Eugene H Pereira, who led the agitation against the Vizhinjam port, he had said the project would be an environmental disaster and would also affect the livelihood of thousands of fishermen. As an expert on port management, how do you respond to it?

Probably, Father Eugene does not seem to have studied the development of ports worldwide where there have always been agitations and protests by the local population.

This is not an isolated incident in the history of port development the world over. Some of the port development programs in the US and Europe were held up for years together, even decades.

You cannot develop a port on the sea coast without disturbing the ecology of the area because you have to undertake dredging in the identified area.

You have to create an approach channel for the ships to come in, and you have to provide a sheltered harbour.

In many ports breakwaters have to be constructed to ensure tranquillity in the enclosed water spread area to provide safe shelter to ships anchored within the protected port environment.

In that process, certain amount of changes will take place in the coastal geography of the place, and certain amount of environmental problems are bound to come up.

Please remember that in all the port development projects, there is a compromise with the nature for larger public well-welfare and well-being and faster national economic development.

Where should the thrust be? Economic development, nature or the livelihood of the people?

As far as the livelihood of the people is concerned, I understand that the government of Kerala has taken a number of welfare measures.

It may not be adequate, but I understand that now concrete and concentrated efforts are being made for rehabilitation of the families who have to be evicted from the project site.

This has happened in all the port development programmes, not just in India but all over the world but in different scales and more widespread.

I do not want to mince my words when I say, it is certainly a negative thinking that in the name of people getting affected, we should stop port development.

Father Pereira says it is going to be a disaster for the country but I beg to disagree with him totally.

What about the port developments that have taken place in the new major ports of New Mangalore in Karnataka?

The shocking effects of climate change are being felt all over the world. So, should we be destroying environment in the name of development?

Let me tell you about the New Mangalore port. I was the deputy chairman of the port for five years. New Mangalore port was declared the ninth major port in India by the then prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi in January 1975.

Do you know how that port came into existence?

There was an old port in Mangalore which was on the combined confluence of two rivers, Gurupur and Nethravati. Then, the harbour engineers suggested to the government that it was not the right site for building a major port.

So, roughly about 10 nautical miles to the north of the old port, the new port was constructed by building breakwaters encircling the port area with adequate protection on either side.

Naturally, the entire area had to be dredged for that, and there were fears at that time that serious environmental impact would be felt in the coastal region.

A proper scientific study was conducted which recommended that when you construct proper breakwater, it would provide additional protection to the coast. That was how the new port was constructed and developed.

It was declared a major port on 4th May 1974! Years have passed. Nothing has happened to the coast.

Tuticorin port also was developed in Tamil Nadu state. These ports were declared major ports in 1974 and even after almost 50 years, there is no environmental impact.

On the contrary the local, regional and national economy thrived.

You mean, the fear of an environmental disaster when the Vizhinjam port comes into existence is unfounded?

I would say it is all exaggerated.

Not only that, the critics have not studied how port development takes place in other countries. They also encountered the same problems but there were compromises with the local population by making them understand the kind of advantage they would stand to gain when the port starts functioning.

Let me go back to the New Mangalore port story again.

After the port was ready, an oil refinery came up close to the port. Mangalore chemicals and fertilisers came up just across the harbour. Thermal plants were established in the vicinity of the port.

The Government of India constructed huge underground strategic crude oil reserves to tide over adverse oil crisis. These strategic assets would not have come up in the absence of a major port.

Do you know how many employment opportunities the local population got because of these industrial establishments?

Moreover, a large number of industrial units in Mangalore are thriving because there is a port in its proximity.

I understand recently tourist vessels have started coming to the port.

Will these activities not improve the economic well-being of the people?

Certainly, it will.

So, should we also not study the economic impact of a port on the local and regional economy?

Why do you feel Vizhinjam will become an important transhipment port in India?

It will be important strategically and geographically because there is no port in India which is as close to the international shipping route as Vizhinjam.

The ultra large container vessels and very large container ships need to make only a small diversion of 20 nautical miles from the international shipping route to reach Vizhinjam.

No other port in India either on the East or West Coast is situated in close proximity to the international shipping route.

The second advantage is, many ports in India which are on the riverine side are saddled with the problem of regular maintenance dredging. Cochin port is a specific example.

Every year, about Rs 100 crores to Rs 120 crores (Rs 1 billion to Rs 1.2 billion) are being spent for the maintenance of the shipping channel to ensure adequate depth for safe passage of ships through the approach channel.

The advantage of Vizhinjam is that within a small distance of 3 km from the shore you get a natural depth of 20 metres!

Because the natural depth of the port is so much, there is no need for dredging or if at all required, it will be insignificant.

Today, the largest container vessel now in service needs a depth of 17 metres and Vizhinjam has a depth of 20 metres. It means, even if the size of the vessel goes up from 24,000 TEU (according to Wikipedia: The twenty-foot equivalent unit (abbreviated TEU or teu) is an inexact unit of cargo capacity, often used for container ships and container ports) to 30,000 TEU, the only port in India which will be able to accommodate such ultra large container ships will be Vizhinjam.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/

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