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Unions Fear Privatisation of Ports Pose Threat to Employment and National Security

As Maritime India Summit 2021 opens gates for privatisation, trade unions fear foreign players’ role in the maritime sector.

Hyderabad: As the Union Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways (MoPSW) is organising the Maritime India Summit 2021 in virtual mode from March 2-4, port workers’ unions are worried that the central government’s agenda of aggressive privatisation in India’s maritime sector will result in unemployment among Indian seafarers in the long run.

While the ministry has recently repealed the Major Port Trust Act 1963, replaced it with the Major Port Authorities Act, 2021, and is planning to repeal the existing Indian Ports Act, 1908, and Merchant Shipping Act, 1958, with new legislations; unions argue that the legislations are being made for favouring the interests of corporates and may pose a severe threat to the national security. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the summit on Monday, March 1, and said that the MoPSW has created a list of 400 investable projects which have an investment potential of $31 billion or Rs 2.25 lakh crore. 

“India’s long coastline awaits you. India’s hard working people await you. Invest in our ports. Invest in our people. Let India be your preferred trade destination. Let Indian ports be your port of call for trade and commerce,” Modi said to the foreign investors.

T Narendra Rao, general secretary of Water Transport Workers’ Federation of India said that PM Modi did not talk about the needed development of ports and port infrastructure in his inaugural speech. “Maritime India Summit is not useful to the port employees nor the port industry at large,” he said.

Also read: Unions Gear up to Resist Threat of Privatisation of Ports As Govt Brings New Law

The main agenda of the Summit appears to be handing over the state owned ports to corporates and foreign companies, argued V S Padmanabha Raju, general secretary of the United Ports and Dock Employees’ Union, affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). Speaking with NewsClick, Raju said that the central government policies in the maritime sector pose a threat to employment and national security on the coast line.

“In the last six years, the Modi government has not provided the required support for major ports. The consequence is that only two thirds of the capacity of the ports are under utilisation,” said Raju. 

“With the Major Ports Authorities Act, 2021, the Union government has kept it open for divestment or privatisation of major ports by bringing them under the purview of the Companies Act. Now, with the proposed changes in the Indian Ports Act, 1908, and Merchant Shipping Act, 1958, the Centre wants to take the control of minor ports from the coastal state governments and open gates for foreign and corporate players in the maritime sector,” Raju said, expressing his fears. He said that the Modi government is doing exactly the opposite of what needs to be done for the sector.

In her budget speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had announced the Public Private Partnership mode for major ports in 2021-22. 

“Major ports will be moving from managing their operational services on their own to a model where a private partner will manage it for them. For this purpose, seven projects worth more than Rs 2,000 crore will be offered by the major ports on Public Private Partnership mode in Financial Year 21-22,” she said.

Rao argued that the cargo handling is the core activity of the ports but the Finance Minister has considered it as a ‘burden’. “This policy will effectively reduce the government revenue from ports,” he said. 

“If the government really intends to strengthen the maritime sector, it should have increased public investments in industrialisation and agriculture. This will help the port and dock industry thrive with increase in imports and exports. But it has not been the case,” said Raju, adding that the government may boast about the private investments in the sector which are coming from the summit, but in the long run, hundreds of India’s seafarers may lose their jobs and the country will see a fall in revenue from the sector.

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