SAGAR, Sagarmala and seaports: How ‘Triple S’ growth triangle promises to rewrite India’s maritime history

India’s expanding focus in the Indo-Pacific region augurs well to set the country maritime-ready both internally as well as externally

RP Pradhan and Suraj Gupta and Mani Bhushan December 07, 2021 16:34:49 IST
SAGAR, Sagarmala and seaports: How ‘Triple S’ growth triangle promises to rewrite India’s maritime history

Representational image. PTI

SAGAR, Sagarmala and seaports represent a maritime ‘Triple S’ growth triangle prospect for India. The Indo-Pacific region is the most contested geopolitical theatre today. Moving away from the language of conflict and contestation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi redefined SAGAR (Hindi word for ocean) as “Security And Growth for All”.

Modi based his SAGAR vision on India’s five value-based foreign policy objectives: “India’s goal is to seek a climate of trust and transparency; respect for international maritime rules and norms by all countries; sensitivity to each other’s interests; peaceful resolution of maritime issues; and increase in maritime cooperation among littorals.”

While SAGAR is seeking a climate of cooperation and inclusive growth among littorals, Sagarmala is India’s latest and most ambitious maritime modernisation programme India has experienced so far. Seaports are gateways to the world. They facilitate wealth and influence transportation and international linkage. Given India’s maritime profile, SAGAR, Sagarmala and the seaports of India can well be a maritime ‘Triple S’ growth triangle too.

Countries that have consolidated on their ‘Triple S’ corridor have become economically prosperous and politically influential.

India’s journey in the ‘Triple S’ corridor has been quite bumpy. Capturing India’s prospect and challenges being the fundamental motive, this article takes a structural and functional approach to simplify India’s maritime sector growth trajectory and challenges.

India’s Emerging Seaport Movement

29 October, 2017, marked a new chapter in Indian maritime history. India launched its first ever ‘goodwill wheat shipment’ from Kandla port to Afghanistan via Chabahar Port in Iran. India has been developing Chabahar Port since 2016 in five phases. On the completion of the first phase, India celebrated the occasion with ‘goodwill wheat shipment to Afghanistan’ which bypassed Pakistan. Chabahar Port opens up India’s unhindered connectivity prospect to Central Asia via Afghanistan.

SAGAR Sagarmala and seaports How Triple S growth triangle promises to rewrite Indias maritime history

Inda's seaport distribution and emerging maritime trade route. Image courtesy: Worldportsource.com

On the previous day, India’s maritime sector made big news exporting a consignment of 185 Ashok Leyland Truck-Chassis from Chennai Port bound for Mongla Port in Bangladesh. Trucks were being transported earlier by road covering a distance of 1,500 kilometres taking around 20-25 days with costs such as diesel, drivers and ancillary challenges like traffic, road congestion, accidents and pollution. The newer maritime mode now reduced transportation costs and took only five days to reach Bangladesh.

Wheat shipment from Kandla Port to Chabahar and coastal transport from east coast of India to Bangladesh are now India’s big-picture maritime infrastructure diplomacy in the Persian Gulf and Bay of Bengal.

 SAGAR to Sagarmala: India’s Maritime Awakening

Apart from SAGAR and its foreign policy connotations, internally India has also embarked on its most ambitious maritime modernisation programme called Sagarmala (Ocean Chains) — India’s most laudable modern maritime modernisation programme ever. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government had conceptualised Sagarmala in 2003. However, the realisation and mission mode work beginning from 2015, it is now a grand Sagarmal 2015-2035 vision.

In a timeline of twenty years and projected cost of over Rs 4 to 8 lakh crore, Sagarmala promises to revamp and modernise India’s maritime infrastructure, build port-led maritime economy and coastal connectivity which also could generate over 10 million direct and indirect new jobs. As per work progress projection data, the project cost of Sagarmala  is approximately around $82.7billion (Rs 601,483 crore). Since the entire project is in phases of timeline and in partnership with provincial coastal governments and private players on PPP mode, exact project cost data widely varies.

Sagarmala is based on a four pillars growth model. First, modernise seaports infrastructure and add six new ports to enhance Indian seaports’ cumulative carrying capacity. Second, improve port connectivity through rail corridors, freight-friendly expressways, inland waterways and inland ports. Third, create 14 coastal economic zones or CEZs and a special economic zone at Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) in Mumbai with manufacturing clusters to enable port-led industrialisation. Finally, skill and training based coastal community development.

 India’s wheat diplomacy and Karachi Port

Though Chabahar and India’s larger infrastructure stakes in Iran are under great geopolitical stress today, India’s wheat diplomacy via Chabahar Port is an interesting case study in recent times with immense geopolitical connotations. Soon after India’s wheat consignment to Afghanistan via Chabahar Port, Pakistan’s media became concerned about the business prospect's of Karachi Port, that country’s largest port.

SAGAR Sagarmala and seaports How Triple S growth triangle promises to rewrite Indias maritime history


Based on ship tracking intelligence data, this article empirically analyses impact of Chabahar Port on Karachi Port business cycle.

Pakistan’s wheat quality being one of the best in the world, Pakistan enjoys wheat export monopoly. Karachi Port is the critical gateway to Pakistan’s wheat export. However, given Pakistan’s volatile law and order situation, lorries carrying wheat from the country’s hinterland would invariably be stranded on their way to Karachi Port.

Based on ship tracking intelligence data, this article empirically analyses impact of Chabahar Port on Karachi Port business cycle. Thanks to India’s ‘Wheat Diplomacy’, as per Pakistan experts, several wheat mills including Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) region’s large wheat mills closed down. Chabahar Port offered an alternative to Pakistan’s wheat export monopoly.

Very interestingly, as per empirical evidence, cargo traffic to Karachi Port seems to have drastically reduced by around 23 percent by July 2019. Decline of cargo to Karachi Port is a high signal of Chabahar Port impact on Pakistan’s maritime export prospect.

Chabahar Port is roughly about 1,000 kilometres, 1,400 kilometres and 2,000 kilometres away from India’s Kandla, Mumbai and Mangalore ports — the three prominent west coast ports of India that overlook to Strait of Hormuz, Gulf of Aden as well as entire East Coast of African ports offering a triangle of future sea trade prospect for India.

 Indian ports vs Singapore Port: Matrix of underperformance

Singapore is a case of a spectacular port-led economic growth success story. Singapore is connected to 600 ports in the world spread over 120 countries. Singapore is currently the second largest port in the world in terms of TEU capacity, the largest transshipment hub, and the world leader in bunkering. The port employs around 107,000 employees and contributes around 7 percent to Singapore’s national GDP.

SAGAR Sagarmala and seaports How Triple S growth triangle promises to rewrite Indias maritime history

Given India’s focus on Sagarmala, benchmarking Indian seaports’ vessel traffic with that of Singapore Port is a critical necessity to understand the comparative performance. Data from marinetraffic.com

It is indeed a matter of critical question that a small island nation like Singapore with sheer hard work and vision, catapulted Singapore’s economic fortune as a financial hub and a great maritime nation.

Given India’s focus on Sagarmala, benchmarking Indian seaports’ vessel traffic with that of Singapore Port is a critical necessity to understand the comparative performance. All the functional seaports of India put together cumulatively handled 600,350 vessels in a period of 730 days or 822.39 vessels a day. Singapore Port, on the other hand, handled 224,8367 vessels during the data period and an average of 3,079 Vessels per day — nearly four time more vessels than all the 71 functional seaports of India vessel traffic put together.

Lessons for India

Chabahar and Singapore offer two diametrically opposite lessons to India’s ‘Triple S’ journey model. Geo-economics demands efficiency all across. Be it the agricultural lands of India, seaports or the universities — India’s biggest challenge has been its internal inefficiency rather than external challenges.

While small countries like Singapore and Hong Kong have achieved economic miracles optimising their infrastructure and port-led economy, China’s game-changing international infrastructure diplomacy in recent years has redefined the global development paradigm. While the sea corridors open up dynamic opportunities and competing challenges to the aspiring and rising powers, geopolitics as experienced today are going to be more and more geo-economic centric too.

Even the countries in the East Coast of Africa are experiencing big maritime churning. South Africa has initiated ‘Ocean Phakisa’ or ‘Operation Phakisa’ since 2014 to modernise the country’s coastal and maritime assets which may add over a million jobs by 2033.

As India prepares to rise up to a $5 trillion economy by 2024, it is these infrastructure and maritime variables that hold the key to India’s economic growth — a national base level carrying capacity is so critically needed. Along with India’s Golden Quadrilateral, North-South and East-West transport corridor, Sagarmala vision is India’s emerging hinterland maritime awakening towards capacity building, employment and long-term economic growth.

Back in 1943 while World War II was at its peak, British maritime strategist Halford John Mackinder imagined the rise of China and India as world balancing powers. Today, Richard Fontaine and Daniel Kliman, writing from an American perspective, imagine India as a global ‘Swing Power’.

In the larger maritime domain, India’s expanding focus in the Indo-Pacific region augurs well to set the country maritime-ready both internally as well externally so that India’s trade and market access as well as port-led economic growth can expand beyond a static and underperforming equilibrium to a dynamic and productive equilibrium possibility.

RP Pradhan is an associate professor at the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences at BITS Pilani KK Birla Goa Campus, Goa. Suraj Gupta is a final-year BE Electrical and Electronics Engineering candidate at BITS Pilani Goa Campus, and visiting researcher at INSEAD. Mani Bhushan is a final-year BE Electrical and Electronics Engineering candidate, BITS Pilani Goa Campus, and lead data analyst for BITS Goa TLC Maritime Project. Views expressed are personal.

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