Shippers and ocean carriers in the trades to and from the Indian subcontinent are bracing for difficult times as congestion cripples operations at some of the busiest container ports in the region.
While the situation at India’s Port of Nhava Sheva (Jawaharlal Nehru), which has been confronted with serious yard congestion and rail delays in recent months, is gradually returning to normal traffic levels, severe terminal congestion at Sri Lanka’s Port of Colombo and Bangladesh’s Chittagong is wreaking havoc on normal cargo flow and vessel sailing schedules.
“All mainline and feeder vessels calling at Colombo are experiencing delays due to increased berthing times. The congestion is particularly affecting transshipment cargo from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan as it is largely routed through Colombo,” a shipping line agent reported from Colombo.
Persistent delays recently forced Zim Integrated Shipping Services to suspend calling Colombo on its independently-operated Asia-Mediterranean-Europe Service until further notice, in a bid to maintain its fixed-day berthing window at Nehru.
"Colombo Port has bitten off more than it can chew. More services at the port are creating a mess. We have written to the Sri Lankan Port Authority to clear the backlog. They are creating more space for idling containers,” a senior Shipping Corp. of India official said.
According to local shipping circles, the situation is aggravated by a chronic shortage of handling equipment, and recent problems in “inter-terminal trucking” after the authority appointed a new private contractor for such operations, leading to legal disputes and work-to-rule slowdowns.
“In a nutshell, feeder vessels are being delayed in berthing, and containers are then getting delayed in transfer between feeders and connecting mother vessels,” a leading feeder operator said.
Colombo’s box traffic for the January-May period rose 27 percent to 1.68 million 20-foot equivalent units from 1.32 million TEUs on a year-on-year basis.
To alleviate congestion problems, SLPA is developing a 22-acre logistics park around the port area and expanding terminal capacity with the proposed South Harbor and Hambantota port projects.
The congestion at Chittagong, Bangladesh’s main gateway port, is mounting so rapidly that shippers are in a quandary over contractual commitments.
“The congestion is so severe that not a single vessel has been able to maintain its originally planned schedule in recent weeks. Ocean carriers are also experiencing severe space and equipment shortages adding to the already extreme situation,” said freight forwarder Milgram & Company.
A representative of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association said cargo handling at the port is being delayed by an average of 10-11 days compared with 2-3 days a couple of months ago.
The operational disruptions and delays, which have been attributed to increased labor union activities and an acute shortage of containers, prompted carriers to impose congestion surcharges on all export and import cargo handled at Chittagong. Hapag-Lloyd on Friday said it plans to raise Chittagong surcharges from the current $100 per TEU to $200 per TEU, effective Aug. 16, citing increased feeder costs.
Slowly but steadily, containers are piling up at smaller Indian ports too, such as Tuticorin, Chennai and Kolkata, amid surging cargo volume and inadequate infrastructure. Container volume at major Indian ports for the April-June quarter increased 17 percent in the April-June quarter to 1.9 million TEUs from 1.6 million TEUs in the year-ago period.