Originally Published 2012-08-17 00:00:00 Published on Aug 17, 2012
India's Maritime Agenda may appear to be a major step forward, but unless translated into a time-bound action plan which is resolutely implemented and closely monitored, it may remain merely another document.
Maritime agendas on mere paper won't do
For generations, our people have held, firmly, to the belief that India’s security and fate were inextricably linked to the mighty Himalayas. Even two centuries of colonial rule by European powers, directly attributable to their mastery of the seas, could not shake this inherited continental mindset. In the 1890s it took the persuasion of Admiral Mahan’s powerful writings to convince his countrymen that the USA was actually a sea power. A hundred years later, a similar transformation has been brought about in India by the equally powerful phenomenon of globalization; because international trade, at the heart of globalization, is carried overwhelmingly by sea, and so is energy, the lifeblood of industry.

This realization has brought India’s maritime domain into sharp focus. The financial commitments made by the Government of India to the navy’s acquisition programmes are a clear acknowledgment of the importance accorded to maritime power. A nuclear attack submarine was inducted a few months ago, while a ballistic-missile boat awaits commissioning, with more to follow. An aircraft carrier is undergoing trials in the Barents Sea, while another is under construction in Kochi. Indian shipyards are said to be executing orders for 50 odd warships and submarines.

Possibly, there are few countries in the world, today, with such an ambitious warship-building programme; and that is why foreign analysts who note our navy’s growth are prompted to query the historical basis for a poor country like India aspiring to become a maritime power. The question that is posed most often is: "What is the rationale that underpins your maritime ambitions?" While we do not need to justify our maritime ambitions to anyone, these are questions worth addressing briefly because there are many, in our own country, who have similar doubts too.

India’s maritime past

One needs to spend just a few days in SE Asia to see how deeply those countries have been permeated by Indian culture, languages and religions. This deep imprint is the legacy of India’s "soft power" projected by intrepid mariners, merchants and missionaries, over centuries, through the medium of the seas. It is a testimony to the great seafaring and maritime tradition, nurtured by a succession of royal dynasties on our eastern seaboard from 5th century BCE to the 13th century AD. Similarly, from the west coast, intrepid Indian mariners were trading with Persia, Mesopotamia and Rome as far back as 2000-3000 years BCE; a seafaring tradition older than that of Greece, Sparta or Carthage.

Today, when an Indian looks seawards, he sees his country as a huge peninsula jutting a thousand kilometers into an ocean named after it. With a long coastline containing 200 major and minor ports, ten million tons GRT of merchant shipping, a huge EEZ and a seafaring community whose number exceeds the total population of many European nations, he sees maritime growth as imperative for securing his country’s vital interests. Also, a historical fact that rankles in his mind is that invaders who came across the Himalayan passes stayed on to be assimilated into our culture and society; but those who arrived on our shores by sea came to conquer, plunder and exploit.

A maritime tradition can only survive on a sound ship-building industry, and here we need to remind ourselves that we are the proud inheritors of the world’s oldest dry-dock built during the Harrapan period circa 2400 BC in Lothal, Gujarat. While the ancient indigenous dhow-building tradition of our west coast ensured that Indian hulls were ubiquitous in eastern waters, seven generations of the Wadia family of master-shipbuilders constructed superb merchant ships for the East India Company and warships for the Royal Navy, with stout Malabar teak.

In independent India, the seeds of a self-reliant blue water navy were laid almost half a century ago, when the government was persuaded by the navy to pursue indigenous warship production. In the face of great skepticism, both at home and abroad, Mazagon Docks delivered the first Leander class frigate, INS Nilgiri, in 1972. Our ingenious naval architects took over from there, and went on to stretch, broaden, re-design and re-arm this hull-form, and to give us eleven more ships, ending with the unique Brahmaputra class. We have come a long way, since then, and today when an Indian warship sails into a foreign port; it is seen with admiration, not unmixed with surprise that Indian industry is capable of such sophistication.

Here we were fortunate in having a farsighted naval leadership, because no nation has ever become a maritime power by importing naval hardware from abroad. Competent warship building shipyards are the sine qua non for achieving ascendancy at sea. Encouraging the shipbuilding industry is a matter of vital national interest because it can not only deliver warships, submarines and merchantmen, but also have a hugely beneficial impact on the country’s manufacturing sector and industrial outlook. Unfortunately, the concept of sea power, and what constitutes the maritime domain have remained ill-defined and hazy in the mind of our political leadership.

Constituents of the maritime domain

Very few historians or strategists, including Admiral Mahan, have attempted a precise definition of sea power; preferring to provide historical examples and commentaries, instead. Surprisingly, it is Soviet Admiral Sergei Gorshkov who provides a good, umbrella definition when he says that "Sea power emerges as one of the most important factors for accelerating the nation’s technical and industrial development and consolidating the economy." He spells out the major components of sea power as: "…ocean research and development, the ability to exploit seabed resources, a strong merchant navy and ocean-going fishing fleets, with the ability to meet the needs of the state; and finally, the presence of a navy to safeguard the interests of the state."

The term sea power, however, retains a military connotation, and since we are examining maritime capacity building, we need to look at a larger canvas which encompasses much more than navies and grey hulls. In India, we use the term, "maritime sector"; which is officially, described by the Ministry of Shipping and Transport as comprising of: ports, merchant shipping, ship-building and inland waterways. Many other components that are integral to the maritime sector do not find mention here because in the organization of the GoI they are farmed out to different ministries. For example; offshore exploration comes under the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas; fisheries are in the purview of the Agriculture Ministry; seabed exploitation is looked after by the Department of Ocean Development and the Navy and the Coast Guard come under the MoD.

The question then arises; who will put this jig-saw puzzle together? Today, there is no single government agency, which has either the of responsibility or the authority to act as the focal point for India’s maritime policies and interests. Nor is there an organization which has the physical means to exercise control over the myriad activities that take place on and under the oceans. Apart from the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard as many as sixteen different ministries, departments or organizations, some of which I have just mentioned, are involved in ocean-related matters. That is the reason why for 65 years we have been unable to formulate a maritime vision, and there is lack of cohesion and coordination in maritime policies; mainly because there is no one to provide leadership and focus, and the left hand does not know what the right is doing.

Today, due to an absence of strategic thinking at the political as well as bureaucratic levels, we find that India has utterly failed to capitalize on the immense potential that resides in the maritime sector. While the world has moved on, our ports and infrastructure remain inefficient, our shipbuilding industry is sluggish, and merchant shipping grows at snail’s pace, offshore energy exploitation is stagnating, the fishing industry is backward, and human resource development is inadequate. We are sitting idly on a gold-mine which could generate huge employment and investment opportunities and actually transform our economy. At the same time, nations which were on par with us, or even lagging behind in many indicators, a few decades ago, have surged ahead because of the vision, dynamism and resolve they have demonstrated in this vital arena.

A very sensible proposal for the constitution of a multi-disciplinary Maritime Commission to coordinate activities, conceptualize plans, fast-track projects and exercise oversight in the maritime domain has been mooted many times, in the past 20 years, by the navy. On each occasion it has run into rough weather and finally foundered on the rocks of petty inter-Ministerial rivalry and bureaucratic insecurity. As in most such cases, politicians have preferred to sit on the fence and let things drift. A nation such as ours urgently needs to evolve an overarching Maritime Policy and to create a central agency to monitor its implementation.

It was in this, somewhat bleak, scenario that many of us were pleasantly surprised to learn about the launch of a document titled "Maritime Agenda 2010-2020", by the PM in January 2011. While I am sure you will get a professional appraisal later today, let me offer a few brief comments from a layman’s point of view of the agenda, now known as MA 2020.

The Maritime Agenda 2010-2020

In its own words, the document envisages an ambitious maritime agenda for the decade 2010-2020 to create, build and sustain the maritime infrastructural needs of the country for the next decade. This agenda envisages an investment of Rs 5 lakh crore in maritime development over the next 10 years, involving quantum jumps in ports and cargo-handling, shipping tonnage, shipbuilding and coastal trade amongst other capacities. While this is, no doubt, good news, one must retain healthy skepticism on a few counts until events prove otherwise.

To start with, this is the third perspective plan to be announced in a period of seven years; first we had Sagar Mala in 2003, this was followed by the National Maritime Development Plan in 2005, and now the MA 2020. Although there has, undeniably, been growth and forward movement in most areas, I doubt if it can be attributed to any of these plans. Secondly, the targets that have been set in the latest plan seem over-ambitious, if not unrealistic, especially if you go by the yardstick of past performance. Thirdly, neither the economic nor political environment is currently conducive to any major initiatives.

At a cursory glance, the agenda, running into a daunting 450 pages, appears a, somewhat, confusing document, and I offer a couple of examples. In the Foreword, the Minister of Shipping has said that the MA 2020 is a perspective plan which identifies priority areas, and will form a roadmap to guide his ministry. A few pages later, in the Preface, the Secretary Shipping cautions that the observations and statements of MA 2020 do not reflect the position of the GoI, and that each item will require scrutiny and decision-making before it receives approval. He concludes with the negative caveat that it is "more an agenda for consideration, rather than agenda for action"!

With 300 out of 450 pages being devoted to ports and infrastructure the focus of the Agenda seems biased towards this area. Of these 300 pages, more than half contain charts and tables relating to trivial data about port projects which are already underway. The section on shipbuilding and ship-repair, a mere 30 pages long, concedes that the industry is languishing, and expresses the noble intention of developing it to international standards, and bringing self-sufficiency in building and repair of commercial vessels by 2020. The target for shipbuilding and ship-repair has been set at 5% and 10% of global market share respectively, and for employment generation at 2.5 million new jobs; and all this is supposed to happen in the next 7½ years. Similarly grandiose targets have been set for the explosive growth of the merchant fleet and trained manpower for the maritime sector.

On a more pragmatic note, the MA 2020 seeks the revision of several of archaic laws pertaining to the maritime sector, and recommends the formation of an Indian Maritime Council to bring together all sectors of maritime activities, both public and private. There is a comprehensive plan to improve the functioning of the Indian Maritime University. Possibly as a means to escape the bureaucratic stranglehold, which grips all organizations in the country, there is a recommendation to form an Indian Maritime Cadre, and to have several key positions in the maritime sector manned by maritime professionals.

Although the MA 2020 does represent a comprehensive study of all the aspects of the Indian maritime sector, it still seems to be an inchoate document. This is because, while the document identifies the deficiencies that need to be addressed, and projects some hyperbolic targets, it remains vague about roadmaps and execution plans. Unless the implementation of those parts of the agenda that find government approval is undertaken in the "mission-mode" and progressed in a time-bound manner, it is likely to meet the fate of its predecessors.

In September last year the National Maritime Foundation had joined hands with CII to organize a national seminar on shipbuilding in which some aspects of MA 2020 were discussed by a mixed gathering of industry representatives and IN and Coast Guard officers. Perhaps, later in the proceedings, you will get to hear about the recommendations that emerged from this seminar. During the course of the day, you are also going to have a set of experts who will, present to you and, discuss many aspects relating to shipbuilding, ports, technology and much else. But in the concluding part of my talk, let me, briefly, share some thoughts - in an amateur capacity - about salient aspects of maritime capacity building.

Warship building

Today, there is widespread realization of the vital need to have a navy which will protect India’s vast maritime interests and help maintain peace in the region. The IN has, for decades, visualized the emerging environment, and, with perseverance, acquired hardware, trained human resources and fashioned a professional maritime force. In this process the naval leadership has remained firmly focused on building the navy in our own shipyards, and its commitment to indigenization has remained steadfast.

Warship construction is, however, directly related to maintaining the navy’s force levels; an issue that impinges on national security. Therefore, the "flip" side of the coin requires an equally passionate commitment by the shipbuilding industry to meet requirements of high quality and timely delivery. Unfortunately this has rarely been the case, for two reasons.

Firstly, every indigenous warship building project has been dogged by huge time delays and embarrassing cost overruns, which have not only had an adverse impact on the navy’s induction schedules, but also eroded its credibility with the Ministry of Finance. While delayed delivery of imported weapons and sensors, and changing NHQ Staff Requirements may have aggravated the situation, the shipyards have been happy to use these lacunae to cover their own slippages and boost the cost.

Secondly, the public sector culture has ensured that the work ethic, efficiency and productivity of our shipyards have remained at dismal levels. Moreover, the fact that their books are full with orders, from captive customers like the IN and Coast Guard has engendered a sense of complacency. One has rarely seen signs of commercial, financial or technical innovation in these enterprises. There is much ground to be covered in the industry, as far as modern technical practices, financial management, efficiency, productivity and human resource management are concerned

An additional cause for concern relates to the fact that a warship that we declare as "75%-80% indigenous" is actually equipped with propulsion, guns, missiles, torpedoes, radars and many other systems which are imported, and whose value may be 75%-80% of the ship’s actual cost! Indigenization has, therefore, become a mirage because it is restricted to hull fabrication, integration of imported systems and installation of minor on-board systems. This failure on the part of the Defence R&D establishment represents a major vulnerability in our national security.

It is encouraging to see that private enterprise has made a forceful entry into the warship building arena. However, private shipyards face a dual challenge. First is the trap, that they cannot get orders till they have warship building experience, and they cannot gather experience till they get orders! Second is the invisible but impenetrable barrier erected by the Department of Defence Production, which makes all the right noises in public, but will shed blood to prevent an order being taken away from the PSUs. So the private sector still awaits a level playing-field to make its mark, which will only happen by creating mutually beneficial partnerships and JVs in which the public and private sectors can learn from each other.


Of all the Indian flagged vessels, a little over 10% have been built in Indian shipyards because of higher costs, lengthy delivery periods and, sometimes, due to indifferent quality. Countries like China, South Korea, Japan and even Vietnam have monopolized the world’s ship-building, and hold 75% of market share. It is a measure of India’s myopic vision that we have failed to capitalize on our many natural advantages and to create an efficient and dynamic shipbuilding and ship-repair industry.

Against nearly 500 defence and civil shipyards that China has created, we have a total of 27; eight in the public sector and the rest in private. The public sector shipyards often lack the technology and finances, as well as work ethic and the spirit of innovation to become truly competitive.

The shipbuilding industry in India currently accounts for just 1% of the global market share. The target of achieving 5% share of global shipbuilding by 2020 set by the Maritime Agenda is, no doubt, ambitious and will require a herculean effort. But it can be done, provided a proper national strategy is crafted by which the shipbuilding industry is accorded a high-priority status, and given the necessary support and subsidies as in other countries.

Ports and merchant fleet

Although the new Maritime Agenda aims to quadruple cargo throughput, most Indian ports are already operating at close to 100% capacity and will require expansion. Compared to the efficient cargo handling and quick turn-around times available in the Asia-Pacific, including China, Indian ports are sluggish and grossly inadequate to meet the cargo-throughput requirements of our booming economy. Considerable planning and investment would be needed to enhance infrastructure and improve our human resources to bring Indian ports to anywhere near international standards.

India’s merchant fleet comprises 1000 ships of 10 million tons GRT whose average age is around 16 years. It is the world’s 15th largest fleet but can carry less than 10% of our foreign trade. India’s shipping capacity is, therefore, not only woefully inadequate for its needs, but is also qualitatively mismatched to market demands; lacking container, product and specialized carriers. Dependence on foreign shipping means not just a loss of earnings but also represents a strategic handicap.

Human resource development

Finally, let me turn to a few issues relating to India’s vast human resource pool. We are repeatedly reminded that the "demographic dividend" will constitute a huge asset for India in a world which is rapidly ageing. However, the fact remains that unless we can educate and empower this burgeoning young population, and find them jobs, this advantage could turn into a nightmare. A few avenues in the maritime sector come to mind.

Firstly, the world’s merchant fleets are looking desperately for people to man their ships, and only a handful of countries appear to have suitable manpower to offer. Currently China is the biggest provider, with over 155,000 crewmembers at sea, but it comes as a surprise to note that tiny Philippines, with a population of just 10 crores, sends 130,000 men to sea. India with ten times this population contributes a mere 87,000. Given a little bit of planning, coordination and resolve, there is no doubt that India could train much larger numbers of young men and women to take up billets on ships worldwide.

The pursuit of enhanced shipbuilding targets should open huge employment opportunities; both in shipyards and in the ancillary industries that will be spawned as a consequence. Here again, raw youth, by the thousand, need to be put through polytechnics to impart the skills necessary.

Another fertile avenue is India’s un-structured fishing industry which could generate employment for thousands of youth if properly organized, and equipped with mechanized ocean-going trawlers accompanied by factory ships for processing the catch.

Let me, at this juncture provide a small example of what strategic thinking and planning can achieve in the maritime field. China has recently deployed a fishing fleet in the South China Sea to bolster its territorial claims, and what has caught observers by surprise is its composition. The fleet consists of a 32,000-ton factory ship, along with a 20,000-ton oil tanker, two 10,000-ton transport vessels and three 5,000-ton supply vessels. They will support about 500 mechanized trawlers fishing in the contested waters. The factory ship is one of only four such in the world, carries 600 workers who will process up to 2,000 tons of seafood per day. Obviously someone in China has created a strategic vision for the fishing industry. Compare this with India’s rag-tag fleet of 200,000 small boats and canoes which struggle day after day to bring home tiny catches.

Lastly, hydrocarbon exploration, and non-conventional energy generation through wind, tidal and wave energy, as well as inland waterways remain under-exploited areas of the maritime sector. They all contain huge potential for our economy and employment generation too.

Culture of strategic planning

As I near the end of my talk, let me digress a little from my theme and indulge in a bit of philosophy; the object being to consider why we, as a nation, have so often disappointed ourselves by not seeing the writing on the wall, and by allowing so many obvious opportunities slip through our hands for lack of strategic planning and thinking. Generally one looks for answers to such questions in history, but India’s chequered past tends to convey confusing signals.

If we go back to the 3rd century BCE, we find that the philosopher and strategist Kautilya, who served as an adviser to Emperor Chandragupta Maurya left us the Arthashastra. This detailed Sanskrit manual on statecraft, economics, foreign policy and administration amongst other subjects, mentions functionaries such as Chief Controller of Shipping and Chief Controller of Ports. It describes facilities provided by the kingdom for ports and harbours, navigation, safety of shipping and nautical rules; all clear indicators of visionary rulers and long-term planning.

Six hundred years later, the Gupta dynasty also produced able rulers, and while their empire did not match that of the Mauryans’ in expanse, their reign is regarded as the golden age of India, where the people did not want for anything. These two empires were the exception to the rule, and did not serve to establish an enduring template, nor were these rulers followed by men of vision, except for a few Moghul emperors.

A dispassionate study of our subsequent history clearly brings out the lesson that it was the complete lack of strategic vision and leadership on the part of our rulers, and their inability to rise above internecine feuds and petty rivalries, that led, repeatedly, not just to military defeats and subjugation by invaders, but to economic, social and industrial stagnation.

Says Jawaharlal Nehru in The Discovery of India: "It seems clear that India became a prey to foreign conquest because of the inadequacy of her own people and because, like the British, the invaders represented a higher and advancing social order. The contrast between the leaders on both sides is marked; the Indians for all their ability, functioned in a narrow, limited sphere of thought and action, unaware of what was happening elsewhere…"

Here is what Aravind Adiga, the author whose debut novel "The White Tiger" won the 2008 Booker Prize had to say in a scathing piece in Time magazine.

"Historically, Delhi has probably been ruled by a more continuous string of misfits, incompetents and cowards than any other imperial city, which may be why its has been sacked so often - among those who did the honours were the Mongols, the Persians, the Moghuls and the British. So many boastful tombs and forts designed for so many third rate sultans…..Delhi’s kings lost their thrones and heads with remarkable regularity, a phenomenon that is still repeated every few years during India’s elections."

American analyst George Tanham undertook a sociological examination of India’s strategic culture in the early 1990s and, in a short monograph, drew pointed attention to certain shortcomings in Indian society. According to him, "… the forces of culture and history and the attitude and policies of the independent Indian governments worked against the concept of strategic thinking and planning." Tanham’s proposition essentially says that a combination of lofty Hindu philosophy and a fatalistic outlook, combined with the constraints of the caste system, have historically hindered the Indian mind from looking too far ahead, both in time and in space.

If we reject historical examples as well as Tanham’s theories, then there is only one explanation for our sorry state; the political system we have adopted. The sheer intensity of political activity in India, leave the politician no time for governance. The need to attend to constituency, party, Parliament, electioneering and, of course, political survival make heavy demands on his time. The sophisticated Indian politician, therefore, creates political space by detaching himself and operating on the metaphysical plane. In this context former PM Narasimha Rao is reported to have declared; "When I don’t take a decision, it’s not that I don’t think about it. I think about it and take a decision not to take a decision."

Most politicians leave the running of ministries to bureaucrats, who for all their brilliance and administrative skills, are not known either for commitment or for decision-making. So if there is there any salvation, it lies, obviously, in private enterprise, because as the saying goes: "India grows at night while the government sleeps."


As a former naval person I feel that a strong and balanced navy is vital for India’s march towards major power status, and such a force will soon be a reality; largely through the navy’s foresight and indigenous efforts. However, as I mentioned earlier, the navy remains just one ingredient of the country’s maritime capability. We need to ensure that all the other ingredients required to make India a vibrant maritime power are pursued with equal vigour.

Countries like China, South Korea and Japan have, during the past few decades crafted world-class infrastructure for their maritime sectors, and become ship-builders to the world. It is a measure of our myopic vision and lack of strategic thinking that we have failed to capitalize on our many natural advantages and create an equally efficient and dynamic maritime sector. Sixty-five years after independence, we seem to be still groping in the dark, even as small countries like Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam are surging ahead.

MA 2020 may appear to be a major step forward, but unless translated into a time-bound action plan which is resolutely implemented and closely monitored, it may remain merely another document.

Here we must not forget that the public sector has had its day and failed to live up to the nation’s expectations. Our private sector has manifold strengths, and has proved itself in the international arena. The time has now come to invite the private sector to help maximize maritime capacity-building by creating public-private partnerships, and joint-ventures, or even leasing, outsourcing and off-loading as required. The powerful synergy of both public and private enterprise must be harnessed for the national good.

(The above is the text of Admiral Arun Prakash’s inaugural address at the ORF conference on ’Enhancing India’s Maritime Capacity, held on August 8, 2010. Admiral Prakash is a former Chief of Indian Navy and currently, a member of the National Security Advisory Board)

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