Asharp step-up in security measures following a recent theft of containers has sharply slowed cargo clearances out of Jawaharlal Nehru (JN) Port, which handles at least 60% of all container traffic in India, and is raising concerns about a potential logjam just when Christmas and New Year orders are starting to pick up.

The container backlog comes follows the tightening of procedures by customs authorities and the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) for screening trailers carrying cargo-laden containers after four such containers were reported stolen on 17 August.

Increased security, the result of recent thefts, is already causing congestion at the Jawaharlal Nehru Port

The security staff have also slowed the clearance procedures of trailers entering or leaving the port and, to add to the problems, trailer operators ferrying containers to the port have threatened to strike work within the next two days if the situation doesn’t improve.

A series of meetings between the port’s management and transporters have so far failed to resolve the concerns.

“If this situation continues, the entire port will come to a standstill," insisted S. Krishnamoorthy, managing director of Speedy Multimodes Pvt. Ltd, which operates the largest container freight station in the port area.

“Due to new, tightened security measures at JN Port’s gate, trailers are struck for around 35-40 minutes instead of two-three minutes earlier," noted Sanjay Potdar, president, Nhava Sheva Container Operators’ Welfare Association, which has a membership base of over 1,000 trailers. “We are not against security. But if the situation is not improving, we may resort to a strike at the port." The association is instrumental in carrying full or empty containers in and out of the port from the container freight stations.

As a result of the delays, India’s busiest container port is now witnessing a container backlog of over 10,000 twenty- foot containers, including empty containers that are turned around for exports. “The backlog is primarily due to non-availability of trailers to evacuate the empty containers from the port. There is no vessel delay due to this," said S.N. Maharana, chief manager (operations) in charge at the port.

It takes an average of 28-30 hours for a ship calling at a container terminal owned by the port to discharge, reload cargo and set sail again. According to some port users, the time taken to clear an import container is now going to shoot up to at least five days compared with just two days during normal times. They said trailers are only able to make about 500 trips to the port and back against more than 1,000 trips earlier.

One exporter, who didn’t want to be named, said the slowdown in clearing containers will drastically bring down the productivity of the port and could affect the deadlines of export orders to the US and European markets. “To cover up their inefficiency, the CISF has introduced cumbersome security measures, which has thrown the trade completely out of gear. Very soon, the port will become congested," claimed Om Prakash Agrawal, senior vice-president, Bombay Customs House Agents Association, a cargo forwarding body.

Said Birendra Yadav, a truck driver, who was waiting in the long queue outside the port’s gate to get in: “I have been in the queue for the last two hours. I think I can only be back with container by evening. Earlier, I could do at least five rounds. Now I hardly complete one."

Said another independent transport operator, who owns some 30 trailers for operations at the port: “Over a dozen trailers are stuck inside the port for more than 12 hours in the name of tightened security check. Exports are going to be affected as we are unable to provide empty containers from port to container freight stations."

“It is financially unviable to carry out operations as it is taking at least 16-17 hours for a single round trip against an average of seven round trips a day earlier," said another executive of the Nhava Sheva association.

A transporter, who also did not want to be named, claimed that the security staff, including the CISF, customs and port officials at the gates, are demanding money to allow the trailer inside the port. “The port gate staff is asking an average of Rs80 per trailer," he said. “And in the name of security check, they are harassing by re-checking the driver’s pass, registration and other documents in every trip."

Shanti G. Jaidev, CISF commandant at the port, said she was not authorized to speak to media. However, a CISF officer, who did not want to be identified, denied allegations of bribes. “Partly, the container backlog is due to the strike by workers protesting against the special economic zone developed by Reliance Industries Ltd," this executive claimed.

The office of the Commissioner of Customs maintained this department has not heard any complaints from port users on delay in clearing containers.