Since October, the Jawaharlal Nehru port near Mumbai has seen container snarls. Long queues of cargo-laden trucks waiting to enter the port are a regular sight these days at India’s busiest container gateway.

First, it was a labour strike at the Nhava Sheva International Container Terminal Pvt. Ltd (NSICT), the facility run by Dubai’s DP World Ltd, which triggered the congestion. Barely had the management of NSICT settled the issue with the workers when trailer operators at the Gateway Terminals India Pvt. Ltd, the facility run by a joint venture of APM Terminals Management BV and India’s state-owned Container Corp. of India Ltd, started a go-slow campaign to press wage demands.

Gateway Terminals is the biggest of the three container-loading facilities operating at the port. As the terminal started getting choked due to the go-slow by the trailer operators, it has resorted to operational restrictions such as closing the export gates, since the beginning of the month, through which containers meant for export are brought into the terminal. This has led to shut-outs of export containers, lower berth productivity, missed ship connections and abnormal delays in shipment of export containers and clearance of imported containers.

The event has come at an inopportune time for India’s exporters, who are racing to send their goods to customers in the US and Europe in time for Christmas. India’s exports grew 13.47% in October to $27.27 billion from $24.03 billion a year earlier, making it the fourth straight month when exports grew in double digits, according to the commerce ministry.

Shipping lines are planning to levy a congestion surcharge from their customers to compensate for any additional cost charged by the terminal operator. Some export containers meant to be shipped through Gateway Terminals are now being sent through the other two facilities run separately by NSICT and the Indian government-owned port itself.

This has, however, created a fresh set of problems.

Container carriers calling at Gateway Terminals with import containers have adopted a dual berthing concept by taking berth slots at NSICT and the port-run container terminal either on additional payment basis or on some other business commitments to load export boxes. These costs will be passed on to the exporters.

With Gateway Terminals remaining closed for export intake, container inventory levels at the other two facilities has shot up to their threshold handling limits, causing serious berthing delays for ships and massive export traffic queue (almost 15-20 km) on the approach highway connecting the gateway port.

If the situation persists, the shipping lines could look at the possibility of shifting some of their operations to the ports at Mundra, Pipavav and Hazira in Gujarat.

Exporters said that the port authorities concerned do not seem to have given any serious thought to tackling the issue though the situation started developing in the beginning of October.

This is because the issue essentially involves the management of Gateway Terminals and transporters. It is common in the container terminal industry to outsource to third parties the task of moving containers inside the facility—from the terminal wharf to its storage yard and from the yard to the wharf.

Gateway Terminals has given this business to four transporters who bring their own trailers and workers to carry out this task, for which they are paid by Gateway on a per container basis.

Trailer owners have a separate wage agreement with the personnel who operate the trailers. These trailer operators have now resorted to a go-slow, seeking more money to operate the trailers.

The container terminals operating at the port are virtually held to ransom at frequent intervals by these trailer operators, who also have the backing of some local political outfits, making it difficult for the port management to deal with the issue.

Port officials reckon that labour problems may escalate in the coming months and last till a new government is formed in New Delhi after polls that are due by May next year.

The port has also been affected by the absence of a full-time chairman after the earlier incumbent demitted office in May.

With no concrete solution in sight, the exporters who ship their container cargo through the port have warned of bypassing the main gateway.

Jawaharlal Nehru port, which handles more than half of India’s container cargo passing through its harbours, is already seeing a decline in volumes.

Between April and October, the three container terminals at the port handled 2.37 million containers, less than the 2.49 million it handled during the same period a year ago.

Private ports located at Mundra and Pipavav have gained at the expense of Jawaharlal Nehru port. Given the way it is operating, it runs the risk of losing its pre-eminent status as a container port unless all the stakeholders come up with a long-term solution.

P. Manoj looks at trends in the shipping industry.

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