India is one of those lucky countries where geography has bestowed on it a generous warm water coast line. History is replete with wars being fought and alliances made to secure access to the seas. Nations which have a seafaring tradition prospered both in terms of trade and in expanding their spheres of influence. India is perhaps unique that not only does it have a nearly 10,000 km sea washed shoreline but also an ocean named after it.
The earliest evidence of India’s maritime heritage can be found in theLothal harbour city dating to nearly 3000 BC. Lothal was situated on the ancient course of the Sabarmati River and was linked via various channels and inlets to the Arabian Sea via Kutch when it was still part of the Arabian Sea. Archeologists have found evidence of a dock and partitions for berthing of ships, this away from the main current of the river to avoid silting of the port. This confirms the belief that ancient Indians had a fair understanding of hydrography and theocean tides. Ships from Lothal traded as far as China, both coasts of Africa and to the Mediterranean. Homer the Greek historian mentions a flourishing trade with India of ivory, indigo and silk in the 8th and 9thcenturies . Indian shipping and trade of course flourished under the Mauryan empire and continued to grow exponentially under Ashoka and the Mughal emperor Akbar. Spices from southern India became the most sought after products after silk and ivory and world intrepid traders made a bee line for India and it accounted for nearly 30 to 40 % of world trade.
India’s maritime growth and fortunes started declining gradually from 1650- 1700 onwards as the colonisers made their slow entry onto the Indian land mass. By the time the industrial revolution was in full flow the colonial powers had all but killed the Indian ship building industry partly by design and mainly due Indian apathy to imbibe modern tools ,metals and techniques of making more versatile, bigger and hardy seafaring ships.
Today after 60 years of independence we are still way behind modern sea faring nations in our expertise and infrastructure to support the needs of our maritime interests. We need to build a true blue water capability if we are to defend our vast coastline and island territories. With quadrupling of trade expected in the next 50 years we need to build superior and efficient trading ships not only to take our goods to the far corners but also to bring in commodities and raw materials to feed our resurgent industry and large population. ‘Make in India’ can only succeed if we have the wherewithal to send it abroad in an efficient cost effective manner. Huge cargo handling ports and terminals are needed to manage our burgeoning maritime fleet.
It is about time we gave primacy to our maritime legacy and rejuvenate it in keeping with our national interests and just needs. The Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean including the Bay of Bengal must be completely dominated by our Naval assets so that our trade can ply the oceans unhindered and with ease. For this we need to have a vision since creation of naval assets is a costly and long term endeavor. But this is inescapable as we embark confidently to rebuild an India of our shared dreams.
Lt Gen Sudhir Sharma,PVSM, AVSM, YSM, VSM,(Retd) is the Chairman of MitKat Advisory Services, India’s leading premium risk consultancy. He hails from the Brigade of Guards.