By Manjeet Kripalani I jumped at the chance when S. Thiagarajan, a south Indian investor and adviser to the private Gujarati port of Mundra, suggested I visit the facility with him. Although there has been much talk about modernizing and privatizing India's ports, I had seen precious few of the old ones, let alone the new ones. Thiagarajan was chartering a small plane for the day to take a potential investor from Kuwait to see the operation.
Another reason for my visit: Gujarat is also an important outpost in India's attempts to police its tense border with Pakistan. If what I saw was any indication, India's defenses are porous. If terrorists are filtering into India from Pakistan, as the Indian government says, it's not just the fault of the Pakistani government. Corruption and government apathy on the Indian side have a lot to do with it, too.
I joined Thiagarajan at Bombay's airport on a sunny Saturday in early May. My companions on the chartered six-seater Cessna were Abdullah Almurad, the Kuwaiti Ambassador to India; his consul general, Saud F. Al-Daweesh; and a professor of geopolitics from Manipal in south India, Madhavdas Nalapat.
LANDSCAPE OF RUBBLE. Kuwaiti investment in the port would appear to make a lot of sense. Kuwait's ports are among the oldest maritime establishments in Asia, and that nation's investors could provide Mundra with sound strategic advice, especially since Mundra is the closest Indian port to the Persian Gulf, which is just a day's sailing time away. We flew to the Indian Air Force base in the town of Bhuj, where we began the hourlong drive to the port on the northern reaches of the nation's west coast.
Bhuj, which was at the epicenter of a devastating earthquake in January, 2001, has long been famous for handicrafts that attract people from around the world. Since the earthquake, relief supplies have poured into the airport. But on this day, it was quiet, hot, and empty. We were received by officers of the $800 million Adani Group, which is promoting the new port, and set off in two SUVs for Mundra.
The Kutch region, in which Bhuj is located, is clearly starting to recover from the earthquake. The roads, for example, have all been rebuilt and surfaced with bitumen. But the desert countryside, once dotted with small cottages, remains a graveyard of debris. As for the neighborhoods of Bhuj, they look as if the circus has come to town -- a sea of tents donated by European nations a year ago for temporary shelter. People are still living under canvas, which is their only protection from the searing summer heat, desert dust storms, and cold winter rain. The hand of the Indian government is nowhere to be seen, so the people are rebuilding and helping themselves.
TOO BUSY TO HATE. By land or sea, Kutch is close to the Pakistan border. Yet, while the population is 50% Hindu and 50% Muslim, it has seen none of the violence that plagues other areas in the north. The people remain too shattered by the earthquake and its aftermath to find the energy for fighting each other. Nor do they want to. Mosques and temples stand side-by-side, unrazed.
Kutch also has its new port bringing in business. Mundra is a 4-year-old all-weather facility that is built across 5,300 acres. A large part of it still being constructed, but it already has a fully functioning customs unit and coast guard office.
It's an ambitious project: The new port's 35-mile railway line should be connected in nine months time to the national highway system -- a link that will enable it to serve India's land-locked northern states. Most important, it can take large, deep-draft ships -- up to 900 feet -- a distinct advantage over all the other ports in Western India, especially the government-run Kandla port. Kandla is about 40 miles away from Mundra, which does business at half the cost. The reason is that Kandla is highly inefficient, ridden with union problems and daily work stoppages.
OPEN DOOR. Mundra has another port, too -- another government-run facility close to the private port we came to visit. Three ports within 50 miles, but only one that really works.
Curious, I ask if I can see the old port of Mundra. What a shock. A ride through more than six miles of desert and dust storms brings us to an old and picturesque walled town founded centuries ago by a Persian merchant. The government port is at the edge of the town -- a vast area, but completely unmanned. The customs office is empty, as is the naval headquarters.
A single security guard mans the gate. After we honk at length, he saunters out and lets us in. No questions asked. At the wharf, there are two shabby looking dhows -- one from Saudi Arabia, the other from Malaysia. They could easily be unregistered, and our matter-of-fact guide tells us that this is where infiltrators enter India. Apart from the guard, there is nobody to stop them.
ON THE RADAR? Turns out there are 130 such rotting and unmanned government-owned ports along Gujarat's long coastline -- sanctuaries for smugglers, bootleggers, counterfeiters, and other assorted gangsters. Where is the government oversight -- especially when allegations abound that local officials routinely accept bribes to let crooks and knaves enter India through ports just like this one?
I return to Bombay, thoughtful. Then, three days after my return, I see a small news item. The police have raided the Gujarati ports of Kandla, old Mundra, and old Jamnagar looking for ships or dhows carrying explosives. They have found nothing, the report says. The corruption machine no doubt warned all the usual suspects to make themselves scarce. However, an intelligence agent also tells me that such ports are now on the radar of India's security establishment. Perhaps they will be better patrolled from now on.
Nonetheless, as war clouds gather over India, these ports offer a lesson in how the rhetoric of conflict frequently obscures reality. India would do well to man its borders more carefully -- as it would to rein in the country's corruption. There's no substitute for tight security and honest leaders. Kripalani is Bombay Bureau Chief for BusinessWeek