Securing India’s Supply Chain: ECIL Takes the Lead

Dr. Vijay Sakhuja

Containerised cargo system has emerged as the most convenient and cost effective mode of transporting large volumes of goods. It has reduced handling time by minimising break-bulk operations thereby permitting the shipping infrastructure to keep up with increasing volumes of goods to be transported. But it has its own problems that seem to take a back seat particularly with the international maritime shipping system who believe in the philosophy of maximising profits and in most cases at the cost of security.

One of the biggest challenges facing security agencies is how to manage the Container security. The obvious questions before them are (a) What is inside the container? (b) How trustworthy are the consignor, consignee and the shipping company? (c) Did the shipment originate in or move through a high-risk county? (d) Are the trading parties involved in or having access to shipments suspected of being involved in terrorist activities? (e) What was the transit route of the consignment and which ports did the ship call at before arrival at the destination? These are some of the basic questions that the security agencies/custom authorities have to deal with before the consignment is allowed to land at a port.

Electronics Corporation of India Ltd (ECIL) decision to manufacture technology-based scanning and security systems in collaboration with OSI Systems Inc is indeed a welcome development. According to GP Srivastava, Chairman & Managing Director of ECIL, OSI will transfer the technology to manufacture electronic cargo inspection systems such as x-ray, gamma ray, thermal neutron and pulsed fast neutron. These technologies will support the custom officials at the ports and airports to electronically inspect the containerised cargoes thereby minimising the congestion in ports and also help in generating more revenue from undeclared goods, as these systems are equipped with latest technologies to scan even the products inside the containers. The radiation safety of operators as well as cargo is ensured by ECIL as per the guidelines of Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). These gamma inspection systems have the flexibility of maneuvering in hilly terrain and offer high throughput for faster inspection of light cargo containers and vehicles.

The neutron-based technology from OSI is the only material-specific detection technology currently available, for detecting explosives and drugs. These systems are tailor-made to suit for use at the airports, seaports, military establishments and other vital areas and vital points. Chairman, President and CEO of OSI Systems, Deepak Chopra said that following the 9/11 threat, the US has made it mandatory for containers cargo entering US ports, to be electronically inspected.

According to a recent report, the worldwide container traffic is projected to grow from 87.1 million TEUs in 2003 to 94.4 million in 2004 and to 104 million this year. By 2010, it is expected to hit 400-460 million TEUs and 510-610 million in 2015. Asia will remains the dominant player in the global shipping industry, with its container trade projected to grow at an annual average rate of seven percent between 2000 and 2007. Asia's shipping trade is expected to grow sharply led by China and India.

Although, Asia's shipping trade will be led by the growing economic power of China and India, both must enhance security of the container traffic. China has formally joined the CSI (Container Security Initiative). The two sides have agreed to initiate joint efforts to target and pre-screen cargo containers shipped from the ports of Shanghai and Shenzhen to US ports and also deploy small teams of officers from the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) who would jointly screen any containers identified as a potential terrorist risk.

India is yet to take any initiative with regard to CSI. Not so long ago, bomb disposal squads of the Indian Army and the National Security Guards diffused live rocket shells from the scrap consignment that arrived at the Bhushan Steel Company from Iran. This US $ 25,000 consignment loaded in shipping containers left Bander Abbas in Iran on board M V Kuo Long. The containers were bound for the Inland Container Depot (ICD), Tughlakabad, near Delhi via Mundra port in Gujarat.

The security agencies recovered more than fifty shells/bombs in the consignment. Unfortunately, the procedures followed for inspection of containers at the ICD Tughlakabad were lax. It is true that it is humanly impossible to physically check each container for its contents but what is more worrisome is that the ICD at Tughlakabad has emerged as the weakest link in the container transportation chain in the country. Nearly 3000 tons of scrap loaded in some two hundred containers arrives daily at the ICD. Similar is the story of a large number of seaports and ICDs in the country.

Container security is technology intensive. It needs detection/scanning systems that would look for contraband, drugs, weapons, human cargo and even weapons of mass destruction. There is thus a need to install equipment to scan containers to examine hidden compartments and look at the contents without unloading the container. Examining all containers violates an age-old axiom in the security field that if "you have to look at everything, you will see nothing." But for a safe system of commerce, a comprehensive and credible approach to security is essential.

It is true that Indian container trade is growing both in volume and value. The government has already identified 15 such places for deployment of scanning equipment. Under the Indo-US High Technology Cooperation, US is likely to transfer sensor and radar equipment for use by India's defence forces. The government is also keen to enhance high technology cooperation enabling Indian companies and government agencies to reach out to more American high-tech products. Finally, this collaborative initiative between ECIL and OSI gains greater significance in the light of the fact that no Indian seaport is as yet CSI compliant. Given the growing export potential of India, it is important that all seaports and airports in India go for scanning security systems.

Author Note
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is a maritime security analyst and Research Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.