INTERVIEW: Brought professionalism in Kochi port administration: Chairperson Dr M Beena
As her tenure ends on October 3, Beena reflects on the challenges she faced and the milestones the port achieved while navigating the tough phase.
KOCHI: Dr M Beena, the first woman chairperson of the Cochin Port Authority, has been instrumental in steering the establishment through highly challenging times in her five-year term.
As her tenure ends on October 3, Beena, who will take now charge as the Handlooms Development Commissioner under the Ministry of Textiles for a two-year period, reflects on the challenges she faced and the milestones the port achieved while navigating the tough phase.
Q: What has been Cochin Port's biggest achievement under your leadership?
The port has its strengths and weaknesses. My challenge was to leverage my strengths and overcome my weaknesses. In terms of quality, I can confidently say we are the best in India. Cargo handling at the port grew by 21% from 29.14 million tonnes in 2017-18 to 35.26 million tonnes in 2022-23. Pre-berthing detention of vessels reduced by 52.22% from 12.67 hours in 2018-19 to 6.04 hours in 2022-23.
Likewise, the turnaround time dropped by 5.11% from 35.21 hours to 33.41 hours. The port was awarded the “Sagar Shreshta Samman” by the Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways- 2022-23 for the lowest container turnaround time. On the financial front, the port's operating profit doubled from Rs 159.58 crore in 2017-18 to Rs 338.13 crore in 2022-23.
For the employees' welfare, adequate allocation was made to the pension fund, which has now increased from Rs 130.78 crore in 2017-18 to Rs 853.01 crore in 2022-23. The port has achieved the highest turnover of `763.56 crore in 2022-23. Professionalism was brought into the port administration.
Q: Kochi port has geographical limitations and we have to spend a huge amount on dredging. How are we overcoming the limitations?
Due to the heavy siltation in the Kochi backwaters, we have to carry out dredging regularly. We have changed the policy from depth-based dredging to need-based dredging. This helped bring down the dredging expense from `140 crore in 2014 to 125 crore in 2022-23.
Q: Exporters have been complaining about inordinate delays in clearing perishable cargo by central agencies in the name of quality checks. Handling charges at the International Container Transshipment Terminal are also high. How are you addressing these grievances?
We have reached out to exporters and held grievance redressal meetings to address complaints. Following the intervention of the port authority, the FSSAI (Food and Safety Standards Authority of India) now allows the importers to shift the perishable cargo to their storage facility after collecting samples for testing. We facilitated a discussion between central agencies and exporters which helped reduce the delay in issuing clearance.
Q: Cargo handling at ICTT saw a decline in 2022-23, with the volume falling from 7.35 lakh TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) in 2021-22 to 6.95 lakh TEUs in 2022-23. What was the reason?
We had a windfall during 2021-22 due to the economic crisis in Sri Lanka. We received around 33 ship liner calls. Hence, container handling was high We negotiated with mainline operators for the diversion of 33 vessel calls and handled 25,402 TEUs between November 6, 2020, to March 29, 2021, during congestion at the Colombo Port. The crisis helped us establish direct links with international operators which will prove beneficial in the long run. MSC Shipping started regular services to Kochi after the crisis. We were able to establish that Kochi can be a second port for ship liners if there is a crisis in Colombo.
Q: How will the opening of Vizhinjam deep sea port affect Kochi port?
Container handling contributes to only 30% of the revenue for Kochi port. Our main strength is oil imports. I think the opening of Vizhinjam will pose a challenge to Tuticorin port and the impact on Kochi will be less. The Union government aims to reduce the volume of containers going to Colombo for transshipment to Indian ports. If the dependence on Colombo is reduced, Vizhinjam will not be able to handle the huge volume of transshipment and I think Kochi will get a share of the business. Vizhinjam is not a competitor for Kochi. In fact, we have to collaborate.
Q: What about the diversification plans of Cochin Port Authority?
- With the aim to tap employees' talent, we have strengthened the civil engineering division. We have undertaken civil works for the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard. We constructed the new jetty of the Coast Guard and Navy’s North Jetty. We also completed the development of the all-weather harbour in Lakshadweep and developed a tourism terminal in Goa. Cochin Port has secured civil projects worth `628.5 crore and earned a PMC income of Rs 26.77 crore already for the work completed so far.
Q: Development of the Kochi fishing harbour has been delayed. When will it be completed?
We got approval for a fantastic project. It will be a modern fishing harbour with all amenities. We got the funds but the contractor has been delaying the project. We will have to terminate the contract. Fishermen too are agitated due to the delay. The target was to complete the project by March 2024, but it will be delayed. We have 25 acres of land and facilities for pre-processing, an ice plant, workers' resting room. The catch will be shifted from the vessel using conveyor belts. It is a Rs 123-crore project.
Q: Any project that you could not complete?
I wanted to increase the draft at International Container Transshipment Terminal from 14.5m to 16m. The proposal has been submitted to the Ports Ministry.
Q: What was the most satisfying moment for you?
Kochi Port facilitated the free berthing of three Navy vessels carrying 1,478 evacuees from Maldives in May 2020. During COVID-19, when all ports were apprehensive about supporting seafarers, we handled 1,017 ships with 17,875 seafarers being changed in 1,167 tug operations, the highest handled in any Indian port during the pandemic.