DP World's rocky passage in India

Mumbai's creaking infrastructure is hampering operations, but DP World is keen to expand despite only breaking even.

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From the cabin of the quayside gantry crane, suspended 50 metres above the docks, you can watch every turn of the Howrah Bridge container vessel as it comes in to dock. It has been waiting in the deepest channels of Mumbai Harbour for the tide to allow it to make its approach to Jawaharlal Nehru Port, India's biggest container port. Far behind it lies the skyline of Mumbai's "island city".
But for Sujeet Singh, the general manager of operations at DP World Nhava Sheva container terminal, there is nothing majestic about the ship's entry. "See, we just lost three to four hours," he grimaces. "The incoming vessel has high draft and the tide can't match it. We are calling it the best port in India and we can't bring in vessels with a depth of more than 12.5 metres."
Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) is India's largest container terminal facility, handling 4.1 million containers (known as Twenty-foot Equivalent Units, or TEUs) in the year to March, a 23 per cent increase on the previous year. It has three container terminals within its facility. I
n some respects DP World Nhava Sheva - India's first private container terminal when it opened in 1999 - has been a success. This year, it brought in almost three times the 550,000 TEUs set out in the initial concession agreement. "It is a very, very important port facility for us," said Ganesh Raj, the managing director of DP World for the Indian subcontinent. "And from an efficiency point of view it's probably one of our best."
Next week, DP World will submit its preliminary bid as part of the process at JNPT to develop a new 330-metre stretch of quay directly to the north of the DP World terminal. It faces competition from up to 21 other bidders, split between rival international port operators and Indian construction firms. Victory is by no means certain. India's Planning Commission has brought in a new tendering process for the development of ports, with a scoring system that gives little credit to a bidder's experience in international port operations. Instead, it seems to favour India's home-grown construction companies.
In the first test case, bidding for a new container facility at Ennore Port in Tamil Nadu, neither Singapore-based PSA International nor DP World even made the short list of six companies. PSA International has challenged the short list in court, but even if it wins, the court's judgment on the guidelines of the new bidding process may be too late for the bidding process at Nhava Sheva.
Mr Raj argued that excluding the world's leading container terminal operators threatens to worsen India's inadequate container capacity. "As it is, infrastructure development in the ports sector is already three to four years behind schedule in India," he said. "They are now bringing in the wrong people. It is ridiculous to say that PSA and DP World are not technically qualified. We are the second-largest and the third-largest ports operators in the world."
Last year, DP World Nhava Sheva handled 2,513 TEUs per metre of its quayside, one of the highest rates in the world. Most ports manage less than 1,800 TEUs per metre. But the port is plagued by infrastructure and capacity constraints. Mr Singh's frustration at the port's limited depth follows a delay of more than five years on JNPT's part in carrying out essential dredging. Most worrying for DP World's management in Dubai is that the terminal is not making much money. In 2006, the Tariff Authority of India cut the rates that DP World can charge at DP World Nhava Sheva by 28 per cent. Under the 1999 concession agreement, the royalties that the port must pay to the government increase each year.
"With some of the business we handle we actually make a loss at this moment," Mr Raj said. The best the company can hope for in this fiscal year is that DP World Nhava Sheva breaks even.
Looking down from the gantry over the stacking areas of the three terminals, it is easy to see how urgently infrastructure development and growth is needed. It seems inconceivable that the rows of containers stacked in the dock area of the three terminals represent 60 per cent of India's total container imports and exports for three days. This stacking area would not be impressive in a European port, a Chinese port or at Jebel Ali, but it serves 1.2 billion people in India. India's container trade is set to triple to 21 million TEUs a year by 2016, as containerised trade in India increases from 30 per cent of exports to closer to the world average of 70 per cent.
DP World Nhava Sheva itself is at breaking point. Mr Raj does not think efficiency can increase much beyond last year's 1.5 million TEUs, irrespective of any improvements that DP World introduces. "Between 1.45 million and 1.5 million TEUs. That's about it," he said. "Theoretically, you can push this port up to two million TEUs. But for that to happen, the average dwell time in port has to fall below one day, and the customs formalities that exist in India and other operational issues outside the terminals don't allow for this to happen."
So DP World's hopes for Nhava Sheva rest on winning the bid for the 330-metre quay expansion. It has spent several years with the port authorities arguing that the stretch is too small to be defined and tendered as a new container terminal. "If it is anyone else but us, it will be a constrained facility of 330 metres," Mr Raj said. "The container ships coming into port today are nothing less than 270 to 280 metres in length. "So if you even tie the lines across, you need an additional 50 metres, which implies that you will automatically creep into our 660-metre berth in DP World Nhava Sheva."
For DP World to remain a major player here, the coming bid is important. But the risk that it will see a repeat of Ennore and not even make the shortlist is real. The company is facing problems dealing with local authorities elsewhere in the country. It has started arbitration proceedings with Chennai Port, which has accused the company of not meeting its commitments under the concession agreement. At Mundra in Gujarat, it risks being ousted from the Mundra International Container Terminal because its concessionaire, Adani Group, argues that the transfer of ownership implied by DP World's takeover of P&O Ports, its previous partner, was not approved.
DP World's biggest development projects in the subcontinent are the two new ports it is building in Kulpi, in West Bengal, and Vallarpadam, in Kerala state. When completed, Vallarpadam will be the largest terminal in India.
But the stretch of coast next to JNPT is also likely to expand. JNPT plans to shift the port's liquid terminal and build more quay space. And just south of JNPT, at the village of Rewas, the Indian industrial giant Reliance Industries is buying up land for a massive new terminal that will have a quayside of at least two kilometres, and possibly as much as three or four kilometres.
It is not just the short quay that is a drag on business here at JNPT. The line of lorries waiting on the road that comes into JNPT can stretch to five kilometres. Space on the trains that carry away roughly one-third of the containers is difficult to get. "The road outside the gate is the worst thing," said Darius Dadachanji, the general manager of engineering services at DP World Nhava Sheva. "It is the main bottleneck. You can put US$500 million (Dh1.8 billion) into making a port, but if you've got no road it doesn't make sense."
There have been improvements. It is now only 25km from the port's gate to the new Mumbai-Pune toll road, and another fast new road is expected in nearby Panvel.
Mr Raj said that dredging the harbour was an even more pressing need. After five years of delays, Van Oord Dredging won the bidding for the contract in August last year. But it then dropped out after India's central government delayed giving its final approval for more than six months. Even if work started tomorrow, the dredging would still not be completed by 2011. "We have offered our services to the port," Mr Raj said. "We went and told them that if they wanted us to help out in the dredging, we were quite happy to help out. But it has got to make financial sense for us." So far their offer has been rejected.
JNPT's position opposite India's most populous city and next to the manufacturing hub developing between Mumbai and Pune almost guarantees its future importance. And the surge in imports to India so far this decade has given DP World Nhava Sheva one of the best balances between export and import compared with anywhere else in the world. Container ships can arrive and leave fully loaded - an attractive proposition for ship owners.
But to keep its pride of place in DP World's Indian ports business, a breakthrough needs to be made with the Indian authorities. "If we can get everything sorted out, Nhava would be one of our most profitable ports," Mr Raj said. "But it certainly isn't now."