India's transhipment hub takes wings

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Created by nature, visited by international travellers and administered by successive colonial powers through centuries, the Port of Kochi (erstwhile Cochin) has a very long and chequered history of growth and evolution.

From being the Queen of the Arabian Sea to becoming the maritime gateway of India, it has been years of evolution for the port, the origin of which goes back to 1341 AD. During that year, a catastrophe struck the famous Muziris (modern day Kodungalloor) port in the form of a great flood, which silted up the harbour, making it impossible for vessels to berth. This marked the beginning of the story of the Kochi Port.

Prior to that, a small river flowed by Cochin with an opening into the sea. The waves of the flood that silted up Muziris, amplified the opening in Cochin and converted the harbour into one of the finest and safest ports in India. According to historians, the name Cochin must have been derived from the word Kocchazhi, which roughly translates as ‘small harbour,' to distinguishing it from Cranganore/Muziris/Kodungalloor, which was situated 22 miles north and was once a busy maritime hub.

Trade through Cochin started to flourish when Vasco da Gama discovered the potential of export of the spices of Kerala. The advent of the colonial traders from Portugal, Holland and England saw the Port of Cochin gaining in status.

In its second stage of growth, the port came under the sway of Sir Robert Bristow, the harbour engineer specially deputed to Cochin.

He was the architect of the present modern port, which was developed during 1920-1940. Sir Robert was responsible for the daring engineering feat of cutting across the rock-like barrier of sand and silt at the mouth of the harbour to open up the present port located on Willingdon Island (reclaimed from the backwaters using dredged-up soil).

An approach channel, 450-foot-wide and 31.2-mile-long was also cut connecting the port with the open sea. By 1930-31, the port was formally thrown open to vessels with up to 30 ft. draft.

Cochin was declared a major port on August 1, 1936 by the government of India and during 1939, the Mattancherry wharf was commissioned. The harbour administration was taken over by the government of India and Sir Robert was appointed as the first administrative officer of the port.

The administration of the port was vested in the hands of a Port Trust Board on February 29, 1964 under the Major Port Trusts Act, 1963.

Cochin Port today is indeed the ‘Queen of the Arabian Sea' as prophesied by the then Diwan of Cochin Sir R. K. Shanmugham Chetty, who coined that expression more than 50 years ago.

From a mere roadstead until the beginning of this century, the Port of Cochin has undergone dramatic changes and now stands as a modern port with all equipment and facilities to match the challenges of the new century.

With its strategic location on the crossroads of the East-West maritime highway, the port is a natural gateway to the vast industrial and agricultural produce markets of south-west India. With the commissioning of the various projects under implementation, the Port of Cochin is bound to grow and transform itself into the transhipment hub of India.

The hinterland of Kochi Port includes the whole of Kerala and parts of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. A study carried out on the traffic flow in the hinterland of the port indicates that about 97 per cent of the total volume of traffic is accounted for by the State of Kerala.

The hinterland of the port has further spread over to different areas with the growth of containerisation in the country and establishment of Inland Container Depots at different load centres in India. Kochi, with its proximity to the international sea route, can attract a large number of container lines offering immense sailing opportunities.

An indication of the coming growth of Kochi is evident in the progress the port has made over the recent decades.

When containerisation commenced at Kochi in 1974-75, the port handled a total of just 1,544 TUEs of cargo from 24 vessels.

By 1979-80, container movement went past the 10,000 TEU mark and by 1991-92, container throughput touched 52,144 TEUs from 253 vessels. During the last financial year, container throughput at Kochi grew to nearly three lakh TEUs. A total number of 389 container vessels were serviced at the port during the period.

The total cargo throughput too has seen such dramatic changes over the decades starting in 1936-37. In the first year of its operations, the port handled a total of 7.52 lakh tonnes of cargo. Cargo throughput went past the one million-tonne-mark in 1943-44.

The port achieved the two-million-tonne mark in cargo throughput during 1960-61. During 1977-78, the port went past the five-million-tonne mark in cargo throughput. The growth has continued for Kochi. During the current financial year Kochi Port handled a total of 1,47,30,807 tonnes of cargo between April 2010 and January 2011.

K.A. Martin

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