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Sagar Samriddhi: Charting a Brighter Maritime Future

Greetings on Indian National Maritime Day 2023

On April 5th, India celebrates National Maritime Day to commemorate the first successful voyage of an Indian-owned ship, the SS Loyalty, from Mumbai to London in 1919. This voyage marked a significant achievement for India's maritime history and set the course for the country's future as a seafaring nation. Despite this milestone, India took several decades to start commemorating National Maritime Day officially.

Seafaring and Maritime Journey of India

Seafaring and maritime trade have been an endemic part of Indian ventures for a few millennia. The Indian Ocean has been a major centre of global trade since ancient times, with India occupying a critical location at the centre of the region. The country's coastal geography and proximity to important trade routes have made it a hub for maritime activity for centuries.

According to the Ministry of Ports, Shipping, and Waterways, maritime trade accounts for about 95% of India's total external trade by volume and 70% by value. The Indian shipping industry carries about 1.2 billion tons of cargo each year and is responsible for the transportation of 80% of India's crude oil requirements.

However, there was a time when India suffered from what is called "sea blindness," which refers to a lack of awareness or attention paid to maritime issues. This era cost India its sovereignty and economic autonomy, as colonial powers exploited the country's maritime weaknesses to establish their dominance. India's lack of focus on developing its maritime capabilities also hindered its economic growth and development.

“Without a thriving merchant fleet engaged in carrying India’s seaborne trade which is more than 80% of her overseas trade, and the trade of other nations as well, we have no locus standi,” Late Vice Admiral MP Awati at Indian Naval Academy, Ezhimala in October 2014

Indian Maritime Icons

Despite this era of sea blindness, a few maritime icons progressed India's maritime vision despite the odds. One such icon was Lovji Nusserwanjee Wadia (1702–1774) the carpenter from Surat who becomes the master craftsman at the Bombay Dockyard (now Naval Dockyard. Another was Walchand Hirachand, the founder of Scindia Shipyard (now Hindustan Shipyard Limited) in June 1941. The Indian Navy and its visionary pioneers have been a galaxy of iconic titans among whom we have mentioned late Vice Admiral MP Awati.

On National Maritime Day 2023 a 91 year old living legend, Capt TK Joseph is being Bestowed the Highest Award of the Shipping/Maritime Industry in India ,"SAGAR SAMMAN VARUNA AWARD " by the Govt. Of India. Capt Joseph, an extraordinary Maritime Teacher was Principal of Lal Bahadur Shastri College of Advanced Maritime Studies and Research (today IMU, Mumbai) and also Captain Superintendent of Training Ship Rajendra (while this author underwent pre-sea training in 1982-83). Further, he was also the author of many excellent professional books on Nautical Studies.

A special mention needs to be made of another amazing living legend, Commander Abhilash Tomy, Kirti Chakra, I.N. Retd. As we read this, an awe-inspiring sea warrior is creating Indian Maritime History onboard a Rustler 36 sailboat named "Bayanat." Having sailed for almost eight months around the globe in the Golden Globe Race 2022-23, Commander Abhilash Tomy will inspire maritime consciousness across 1.4 billion and more of humanity.

Progress of Maritime Power through Indigenisation

India has made significant strides in developing its maritime power through indigenisation. The country's emphasis on developing its own shipping and naval capabilities has enabled it to become more self-sufficient in the maritime sector. For example, the Indian Navy is equipped with several domestically developed ships, including the INS Vikrant, India's first indigenous aircraft carrier.

However, India's progress has not been without challenges. The country's efforts at developing its maritime power have been hampered by a lack of adequate infrastructure, high operational costs, and a shortage of skilled manpower. Additionally, the country's dependence on imports for critical components, such as shipbuilding equipment, has also slowed down progress in the sector.

It is encouraging that India has made a recent emphasis on "aatma nirbharta," or self-reliance. With imported components masking true indigenisation there is a need to transition from pseudo self-reliance to innovation and growth. It is vital especially in the maritime industry to abhor short-term gains and be diligent in the pursuit of long-term sustainable development.

Shri Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India in the foreword to Maritime India Vision 2030, has said, “​​To shape our maritime prowess into a robust engine of the nation’s development, we have given top priority to port-led development. We firmly believe that the immense potential of our coastline strength needs to be harnessed to the fullest.” This has to be progressed beyond semantics and with inclusivity.

The Blue Economy Distortion

The concept of the "blue economy" has gained attention in recent years as a means to promote sustainable development through the ocean's resources. However, this emphasis on the blue economy has run into the risk of unrestrained coastal infrastructure building, which can have negative impacts on coastal ecosystems, communities, and seafarers.

According to a study, India's coastal states have proposed more than 300 port projects, which would require the acquisition of more than 150,000 hectares of land. This massive expansion of port infrastructure could lead to a loss of livelihoods for coastal communities and significant damage to the marine environment.

Despite the crucial role that coastal communities and seafarers play in India's maritime economy, they often remain subalterns in the country's economic and narrative discourse. According to the International Labour Organization, there are over 200,000 Indian seafarers, but they often face poor working conditions and low wages.

Additionally, coastal communities are vulnerable to natural disasters and have limited access to resources and opportunities. In the “Sagarmala” model of urbanised growth the last voice to be heard is of the declining economic heft of coastal communities and their craft. Indigenous boat building is one such craft that runs the risk of endangerment in our lifetime.

Few would know that the restrictions imposed globally during the pandemic affected seafarers in a manner beyond the usual tales of woe played out on our television screens. To date the restrictions haunt the crew of ships even in Indian ports!

Turnaround to Maritime Growth

India is poised to turn around to maritime growth primarily through three key strategies: green shipping, maritime education and research, and promoting maritime consciousness.

(a) Green Shipping: India has set a target to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions from the shipping sector by at least 50% by 2050. To achieve this goal, the country is promoting the use of alternative fuels, such as liquefied natural gas and biofuels, and investing in clean technologies, such as fuel-efficient ships.

(b) Maritime Education and Research: India has been investing in maritime education and research to build a skilled workforce and develop cutting-edge technologies. The country has established several maritime universities and research institutes to train students and conduct research in areas such as ship design, maritime law, and marine biology.

(c) Promoting Maritime Consciousness: India has also been promoting maritime consciousness through various initiatives, such as the Sagarmala Program, which aims to develop India's coastal infrastructure and create employment opportunities for coastal communities. Additionally, the country has launched campaigns, such as "Samudra Setu," to raise awareness about the importance of the ocean and its resources.

Forward with Hope

The saga of SS Loyalty and its boldness as a venture India's, celebrated as National Maritime Day is a reminder of the country's rich maritime history and its potential for a prosperous future. India's seafaring and maritime trade heritage spanned a few millennia, but an era of sea blindness cost the country its sovereignty and economic autonomy. Despite this, a few maritime icons progressed India's maritime vision, and the country has made significant strides in developing its maritime power through indigenisation.

However, India's maritime development has not been without challenges. The blue economy runs the risk of unrestrained coastal infrastructure building, which can have negative impacts on coastal ecosystems, communities, and seafarers. Coastal communities and seafarers remain subalterns in India's economic and narrative discourse.

India is poised to turn around to maritime growth through green shipping, maritime education and research, and promoting maritime consciousness. These strategies will enable India to build a skilled workforce, develop cutting-edge technologies, and promote sustainable development. It is time for India to regain its global influence through maritime prosperity and secure its rightful place as a seafaring nation.

“I would venture to suggest that a decisive but perhaps unstated factor which has had a vital influence on the external perceptions of India is our maritime capability.” Admiral Arun Prakash, Former Chief of Naval Staff

Building maritime capability has to be a national movement. On this National Maritime Day, let us remember the story of the SS Loyalty and take inspiration from India's maritime history as we chart a course towards a brighter maritime future.

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