Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call on Thursday for businesses to participate in the creation of infrastructure that will make India’s 7,500-kilometer coastline an “engine of growth” is certain to be widely welcomed. Speaking at a summit in Mumbai, he spoke of raising a staggering Rs 1,00,000 crore to more than double India’s port capacity by 2025 — a precondition for creating the smooth logistical networks necessary to link the country’s businesses to the global economy. There will have been those in the audience, though, who would have raised a sceptical brow at the PM’s promise that investors would enjoy “a pleasant journey”. This year’s Economic Survey is only the latest of a series of official declarations calling for poor maritime infrastructure to be addressed on a war footing. In 2014, for example, Union Shipping and Ports Minister Nitin Gadkari promised eight new ports, as well as rail connections to the 12 existing ones. The same promises, give or take a minor matter of detail, are made on the National Investment Promotion Agency’s Invest India website — which, it seems, no one has bothered to update since 2012. In past years, money has been frittered away on creating new ports where it might have been better spent improving efficiency at existing ones; the quality of services at many state-run facilities remains, by international estimation, dismal.
Ideas for the way forward have never been in short supply. Gadkari’s promise of new ports, connected by railways and roads, is one building block. Experts have suggested building small ports along the coast, as well as reviving long-disused inland waterways, to ease the load on highways and facilitate regional trade. Efficiencies at ports, business advocates have been saying, could also be dramatically increased, bringing down the time needed to handle freight, and the cost of doing so. These measures, however, need focused political action — and that, the record shows, has been in somewhat shorter supply than well-meaning speeches.
This points us in the direction of a deeper malaise. For the most part, India has been oddly reluctant to embrace its maritime potential: A reluctance that is all the more perplexing because of a heritage of oceanic trading that dates back to the Indus Valley civilisation, and ancient networks that spanned from the South China Sea to Zanzibar, Aden and Rome. The reasons might lie in the dominance of a political culture drawn from the Indo-Gangetic plains. The truth, however, is that no great industrial civilisation has been built without strong maritime foundations, including naval power — and India can be no exception. In decades to come, Indian economic power cannot and will not improve unless it builds a vital maritime tradition, and the infrastructure to sustain it.