Much water has passed under the Venduruthy Bridge between the launches of Rani Padmini, the first ship manufactured by the Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL), in 1981, and Vikrant, India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, on Monday.
Between the launches of these two vessels, the global shipbuilding industry has gone through several cycles of boom and bust. Over these years, shipbuilding technology has evolved from what was needed to power a single-hull tanker to what is needed to run a technology-intensive mini-city, the size of two football fields, in the seas.
Through the evolution of the shipyard, Kochi’s stature as a hub of maritime business has grown beyond expectations.
While the strategic location of the city on the global maritime map has contributed its bit, Kochi can now bask in the light of the shipyard’s latest achievement. The achievement was fraught with many challenges, which the employees of the yard overcame with courage and dedication.
The main factors behind the CSL achieving its current stellar status came with the adoption of the right product mix, catering to international clientele and its entry into the Defence sector.
The shipyard, which has 1,300 people on its rolls and 2,500 contract workers, has exported vessels to clients in countries such as the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Norway and Abu Dhabi.
The shipyard’s versatility is reflected in its capacity to switch from offshore supply vessels to aircraft carrier with consummate ease. At present it is building 20 ships for the Indian Coast Guard, three offshore support ships for international clients and a buoy tender vessel for the department of lighthouses and lightships.
Union Defence Minister A.K. Antony on Monday said the shipyard had made great contributions to Indian commercial shipbuilding. But the achievements did not come without pain, said Thampan Thomas, veteran trade union leader. His association with the shipyard dates back to 1964 when a combine of leaders, cutting across political differences, fought many a battle to get the Union government to agree to set up a shipbuilding facility here.
The mass public action for getting the shipyard culminated in the launch of a paper ship before which the symbolic ship was taken in a massive procession along Kochi’s thoroughfares, recalled Mr. Thomas, who later became the leader of the independent Cochin Shipyard Employees’ Union.
He said he was part of the procession led by stalwarts such as A. K. Gopalan, Mathai Manjooran and N. Sreekantan Nair, which went to Giri Nagar, where the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was attending the AICC session.
A former employee of the shipyard and a former trade union leader Vijayanathan Pillai said the shipyard, first headed by N. Krishnan, vice-admiral, had its share of teething troubles. It was the arrival of E. Sreedharan, who now heads Kochi’s metro rail project, that helped the shipyard turn around.
Rani Padmini was launched under his leadership. But he had a bitter time at the shipyard as some vested interests wanted him out.
Mr. Pillai also recalled the role played by Defence Minister A.K. Antony, who was instrumental in the government deciding to turn the more than Rs.100 crore of the shipyard’s losses into preferential shares in the early 1990s.
A mass people’s action, “Save Our Shipyard”, in 1989 resulted in the government deciding to turn the shipyard’s losses into shares even though privatisation was the mantra of the times. The shipyard’s working improved dramatically over the coming years, culminating in profits as shipbuilding activities jumped from Rs.478 crore in 2006-07 to Rs.1,268 crore in 2012-13.
Net profits have gone up from Rs.58 crore during 2006-07 to Rs.185 crore during 2012-13.
The shipyard’s consistent performance resulted in the Union government conferring it with the status of Category I Mini Ratna company in July 2008.
The CSL has delivered 90 ships over the last 30 years and is now equipped to build ships of up to 1,10,000 DWT and repair ships up to 1,25,000 DWT.
The shipyard also boasts of having built two of India’s largest Aframax tankers of 95,000 DWT each.