The two recent dislocations of the Bascule Bridge of Kolkata Port had disrupted road traffic for more than eight hours on Circular Garden Reach Road. The reliability of the bridge was widely questioned. CGR Road and Garden Reach Road are the critical links between North/Central Kolkata and other states and the south-western part of the city.

A part of Kidderpore Dock, Netaji Subhas Dock, Garden Reach jetties and a large number of industries are located across the Bridge. Kolkata Port comprises the Kolkata Dock System (KDS) and Haldia Dock Complex (HDC). Kolkata Dock System consists of Netaji Subhas Dock (NSD), Kidderpore Dock-I and Dock-II (KPD) apart from the Budge Budge jetties and Garden Reach jetties. In 1892 a Swing Bridge was installed connecting the two flanks of Garden Reach Road.

The flanks cut across the navigational path of vessels accessing the newly constructed KP DockI. This bridge, after a major overhaul in the 1920s, became practically defunct since the1980s. This had inconvenienced those visiting the South Eastern Railway headquarters and NS Dock and residents of Garden Reach Road, Dumayune Avenue, Brace Bridge Road, etc. The approach to the newly constructed KP Dock-II in 1902 had cut across the CGR Road, necessitating the installation of Swing Bridge No. 2. A huge increase is called for the replacement of the Swing Bridge by the present Bascule Bridge in 1969. Traffic, especially the heavyduty trucks, had to be routed over the Bascule Bridge after the closure of Swing Bridge No. 1.

The structure was under pressure with the increase in the volume of traffic. The bridge is nearly 50 years old, and is vulnerable to frequent breakdowns. KoPT is now considering extensive renovation of the Bascule Bridge at a cost of about Rs 25 crore. The Kolkata Port management is in touch with the Austrian company that built the bridge. For some time now, opening of this bridge has been restricted to around midnight and only for the movement of barges. Introduction of sophisticated cargo-handling technology, innovations in the shipping industry, the switchover from rail to road, and digitisation have progressively reduced the workload of the port.

Corresponding changes in infrastructure were imperative.. KoPT neither conducted nor did it prepare an action plan to identify the infrastructure and assets not required for port operations and dispose of the same in order to provide compact services. This would have ensured efficiency and economy. In 2014-15, total “throughput” of the Kolkata Dock System was said to be 15.28 million tonnes. This included cargo trans-shipped into barges at midstream and open sea anchorage, handled at IWTA terminals in KoPT, Inland Vessel Wharves and “tare weight” of containers.

Liquid bulk and container traffic accounted for 72 per cent of total traffic and this was handled at five berths and seven jetties earmarked for such traffic. In 2014-15 only about 3 million tonnes of dry cargo in bulk were loaded/ unloaded at 22 conventional berths. Unwieldy and excess infrastructure is exposed when compared with other ports. Incidentally, Kolkata Port provides the most expensive service in the country although the Government of India reimburses the costs related to river maintenance and marine operations.

The high port cost is a deterrent for routing traffic through this port. Kolkata Port is chronically in the red and is unable to meet statutory obligations and improve the quality of service.

The present berthing facilities at Kolkata Dock System comprises seven oil jetties at Budge Budge and one berth at NS Dock for liquid bulk traffic, 22 conventional general cargo berths, four earmarked for container traffic and one passenger cum-general cargo handling berth in KP Dock and NS Dock. This is in addition to midstream and open sea anchorages for work relating to vessels and four Garden Reach jetties handling barges of IWTA.

The port boasts the luxury of excess berthing facilities to cater to the volume of cargo passing through when compared with other ports. The depth of the navigational channel and acute rive bends coupled with the length of the “lock entrances” of the docks constructed in 1892 and 1927 respectively are determined by the size of the vessel that enters Kolkata Docks. The progressive increase in the size of vessels in international trade since the 1950s hindered the entry of ships. Such natural constraints are irreversible.

Kolkata Dock System did not keep pace with the changes that have taken place in international trade to provide economic and efficient service. No dramatic change in terms of traffic is envisaged. Any increase in the inconsequential container traffic will not be a burden on the capacity of berths. For years together condemned vessels/ craft are being stabled at idle berths of KP Docks, taking credit for higher berth occupancy, while the scrap value of condemned vessels and craft continues to erode. The annual report on the port’s performance indicates the percentage of individual berth occupancy during the year.

It, however, does not specify the number of cargo vessels serviced or the extent of occupancy by stabled non-performing vessels at those berths. Non-effective vessels and craft currently berthed at KP Dock-I can be stabled at DockII awaiting disposal. There is no guarantee that a stopgap arrangement, as envisaged, will be a long-term solution to the problems of the Bascule Bridge. The ultimate expenditure on extensive renovation of the bridge and the time-frame are uncertain. Complete replacement will not only be prolonged but will involve a huge expenditure which KoPT can hardly afford.

The other alternative is a dispassionate and unbiased assessment of KP Dock-II and the bridge, both of which have outlived their utility.

In the context of KoPT’s acute financial crisis, the continuance of KP DockII calls for reflection, with the focus on comprehensive and fundamental reforms to transform the port system in terms of its scope, scale, structure, efficiency, economy, et al. KP Dock-II was totally closed for some time in the 1990s without any hassle. After some time, the decision was reversed for reasons unknown. Decades back, Mumbai Port closed down Victoria and Princes Docks with 14 and 8 berths respectively for cargo ship following a change in the cargo volume and movement of vessels. Thereafter, other activities in these two docks were also stopped. In 2014, Mumbai Port had handled 23.10 million tonnes of dry cargo in 26 berths, against 3 million tonnes in 30 berths of the Kolkata Dock System.

The riverine London Port, facing problems that are similar to those of Kolkata Port, had curtailed various activities and had affected “asset-stripping”. In the net, idle assets were gainfully utilised. Kolkata Port is the most expensive port in the country. It is a perpetual ly deficit port. Shortage of funds prevented modernisation of its facilities.

An increase in productivity with the existing resources and creating more productive assets is necessary, systemic weakness notwithstanding. Leasing out of unused transit sheds along with the adjacent open area of KP Dock-II to cargo handling agencies will increase the port’s revenue substantially. Further, closure of KP Dock-II and non-replacement of the Bascule Bridge will result in the saving of huge expenditure incurred towards water supply, electricity, manpower, maintenance, CISF (the white elephant), etc.

UNCTAD’s formula to determine the berth requirement for handling different categories of cargo is internationally recognized and adopted. A study of berth requirement to deal with the present and the future is imperative to bail out Kolkata Port from its chronic financial crisis and to provide efficient and economical service. In case of reservations regarding the closure of Kidderpore Dock-II, the services of the Indian Maritime Institute may be sought before taking a final decision on continuance of Dock-II.

There is need for extensive renovation or replacement of the Bascule Bridge. This will entail a huge expenditure, which the cash-strapped Kolkata Port Trust can ill afford.

(The writer is retired Director, Planning, Kolkata Port, and MD, Indian Ports Association, New Delhi)