Maritime Policy of India Need a Long Term Vision

Synopsis: Maritime policy of India lacks a long-term vision to counter China’s expansionist designs in the Indo-Pacific. There have been a lot of issues with previous maritime policies, resulting in a huge gap between India & China’s current maritime capabilities.

  • Today, China has not only overtaken the US Navy in numbers, but it is also the world’s top ship-producing nation. It has the largest merchant navy, coast-guard and fishing fleet/maritime militia in the world.
  • An economically strong, expansionist, and militaristic China is a concern. Because it will use the Maritime Silk Route initiative to expand its sphere of influence and ensure dominance in the Indo-Pacific.
  • The PLA Navy’s crucial role in this endeavor relies on its formidable maritime/industrial capabilities.
  • On the other hand, the maritime sector in India is characterized by inefficiency & long -term vision.
Gap b/w India & China’s maritime capabilities

China laid down its first indigenous aircraft carrier in 2015 and commissioned it in 2018. Work on India’s first indigenous aircraft-carrier commenced in 2009 and, in 2021, the ship awaits completion.

Evolution of India’s maritime policy and issues involved
  • Sagarmala: India launched its first “maritime modernization” plan -“Sagarmala”, in 2003, almost simultaneously with China. The plan was announced with the stated objective of ensuring that all major ports would be connected to the Golden Highway Quadrilateral through a network of expressways. It will facilitate country-wide goods traffic to-and-from ports. It was abandoned within months, following the declaration of the general election.
  • National Maritime Development Plan (NMDP): Then in 2005, Sagarmala was replaced with the National Maritime Development Plan (NMDP). This plan remained confined to modernization of port infrastructure and enhancement of rail-road connectivity to these ports.
    • Seven years after its commencement, the Lok Sabha was informed that only 82 of the 276 projects had been completed. While 30 had been dropped and 66 were still in the planning stage.
  • Maritime Agenda 2020: In 2011, the government decided to abandon the NMDP-2005. It was replaced with a new 10-year plan titled Maritime Agenda 2010-2020 (MA-2020). While the Sagarmala-2003 and NMDP-2005 were focused mainly on port modernization and enhancing rail-road connectivity, MA-2020 had a much broader scope. It envisaged an outlay of Rs 5 lakh crore to achieve huge leaps in shipping tonnage, shipbuilding, and coastal trade, apart from ports, cargo handling, and other capacities. But, MA 2020 suffered from two problems:
    1. Firstly, it had set extremely unrealistic targets; aiming to increase in just 7-8 years shipbuilding capacity by five times. It will enhance cargo throughput in Indian ports by four times.
    2. Secondly, it showed clear signs of confusion regarding its objective. It cited as “a roadmap to guide this ministry” in one place, while at other places it cited itself as “more an agenda for consideration, rather than agenda for action”.
    3. Thus, MA-2020 also failed to achieve anything of substance before it was overtaken by the next plan.
  • Revival of Sagarmala: The next government that came to power in 2014 followed the earlier practice, and having terminated MA-2020, revived the Sagarmala project.
    • Like all its predecessors, Sagarmala-2015 also focusses on modernizing ports and enhancing connectivity.
    • This version of Sagarmala was better as it had a structured, progress-monitoring framework.
    • However, data from the Ministry of Shipping’s Sagarmala Project Tracker, updated until September 2019, shows a project completion rate no better than past trends.
    • While the plan aimed to create 40 lakh direct jobs and 60 lakh indirect jobs, in 2019, the government admitted that only 10,000 jobs had been created.
Maritime policy of India - upscProblems with India’s maritime sector 
  • Excessive focus on port connectivity: The exclusive focus of successive governments on port development has led to gross neglect of other critical components of India’s maritime capability.
    • These include merchant shipping, shipbuilding, ship repair, seabed exploration, and fisheries, etc. All of these have implications for India’s maritime security as well as its “blue economy”.
  • Initiating programs with inappropriate aims, choosing unrealistic targets
  • Abandoning/renaming projects and not ensuring faithful implementation
  • Major ports are overloaded and inefficient
  • Dying shipbuilding industry: India’s contribution to commercial shipbuilding globally is less than 1% today, which is far lower than the 3.5% achieved in 2007-12. Only 20 of the country’s 25 shipyards — big and small, private or state-owned — are functional.
  • Inadequate merchant fleet: India’s imports of crude oil, LPG, food, coal and fertilizer supplies, which constitute the country’s commercial security, are all carried on foreign-owned shipping vessels for an estimated freight bill of $52 billion in value annually.
  • Seabed exploitation yet to take off
  • Backward fishing industry

What needs to be done?

India should evolve a National Strategy for the maritime sector for the next 50 years. This maritime policy should receive Parliament’s approval to ensure its survival through changes of government.

The naval power is going to play a decisive role in the India-China rivalry. But this can only happen with the backing of a strong maritime sector.

Also read: Maritime security and connectivity in Indo-Pacific

Source: The Indian Express

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