The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Rethink on privatisation of port services

New Delhi, Feb. 15: The government is likely to reverse its decision to go in for blanket privatisation of port services in view of the grave security implications of such a move.

Sources said the heightened threat perception has forced a rethink on the issue. An internal note of the shipping ministry is also reported to have criticised the earlier decision to privatise the pilot and tug services to bring ships into ports.

It is reliably learnt that the note had questioned the port authorities on the security implications of hiring private tugs to tow ships for berthing. The note further pointed out that this could increase the danger of infiltration, terrorist strikes and espionage at ports.

According to sources, it was decided at a recent meeting in the shipping ministry to take a fresh look at the issue. Senior officials admit that there is an increased emphasis worldwide on security both at the airports and sea ports. Security at Indira Gandhi airport in the capital, for instance, is being taken away from the Delhi police and handed over to specially trained personnel of the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF).

Intelligence agencies have also highlighted the danger of terrorist strikes from the sea. While the Navy has tightened its vigil in the outer cordon, private companies handling pilotage and operating tug services at ports could emerge as the chink in the armour.

The pilot boards a merchant ship just before it enters the port in order to guide it in the shallow waters amid relatively heavy traffic. In ports such as Calcutta and Kandla, a fairly long distance has to be traversed before the ship is docked.

The tugs are required to pull or push the ship in order to keep it steady as it moves at a “dead slow” speed in the port area which makes it unstable. The final docking of the ship is also a delicate task as it has to be put alongside the jetty and this is handled by the dockmaster.

“All these activities are carried out in sensitive areas and, if they are handled by personnel of private companies, it could pose a security risk,” a senior official told The Telegraph.

On the other hand, if these activities are handled by regular port staff there is an additional advantage in obtaining useful information about various vessels that are coming into the country.

The recent case of the North Korean ship that was carrying missile parts for Pakistan and had docked at Kandla en route to Karachi clearly shows the need for maintaining a tight vigil.

The ship had mis-declared its cargo and was nabbed while offloading a sugar consignment at Kandla. The incident had serious international ramifications as it exposed the Pakistani-Korean nuclear nexus.

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