A case of a maritime presence adrift
Mains Paper 2: International
Prelims level: International Maritime Organization
Mains level: Effect of policies and politics of developed and developing
countries on India's interests
- The International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations agency
tasked with regulating shipping, had mandated that merchant ships should not
burn fuel with sulphur content greater than 0.5% beginning January 1.
- Before the ban, fuel had a comfortable sulphur content limit of 3.5%,
which was applicable to most parts of the world.
- Despite the industry gradually gearing up to introduce the new fuel,
many industry professionals feared that the new very-low-sulphur fuel would
be incompatible with the engines and other vessel equipment.
- Past mandates on sulphur limits in American waters had led to many
- There have been instances of ships having been stranded after fine
particles separated out from the fuel, damaging equipment and clogging up
- The global sulphur cap is only one of the many environment-related
regulations that have been shaking up the shipping industry;
- The industry is generally risk-averse and slow to accept changes. For
instance, efforts are ongoing to reduce nitrogen oxides (NOx) and
- The IMO has announced an ambitious project to decarbonise shipping in
order to reduce carbon emissions.
- These regulations are triggering massive technological, operational and
structural changes; they come at a price which will have to be borne to a
large extent by developing countries such as India.
- The IMO currently lists India as among the 10 states with the “largest
interest in international seaborne trade”.
- But India’s participation in the IMO to advance its national interests
has been desultory and woefully inadequate.
- Shipping, which accounts for over 90% by volume and about 80% by value
of global trade, is a highly regulated industry with a range of legislation
promulgated by the IMO.
- The IMO currently has 174 member states and three associate members;
there are also scores of non-governmental and inter-governmental
- The IMO’s policies or conventions have a serious impact on every aspect
of shipping including the cost of maritime trade.
- The sulphur cap, for instance, will reduce emissions and reduce the
health impact on coastal populations but ship operational costs are going up
since the new fuel product is more expensive.
- As refineries including those in India struggle to meet the demand,
freight costs have started moving up, with a cascading effect on retail
Structure of IMO:
- The IMO, like any other UN agency, is primarily a secretariat, which
facilitates decision-making processes on all maritime matters through
meetings of member states.
- The binding instruments are brought in through the conventions — to
which member states sign on to for compliance — as well as amendments to the
same and related codes.
- Structurally, maritime matters are dealt by the committees of the IMO —
the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), Marine Environment Protection Committee
(MEPC), Technical Cooperation Committee, Legal Committee and the
Facilitation Committee. Each committee is designated a separate aspect of
shipping and supported by sub-committees. Working groups and correspondence
groups support the subcommittees.
- The subcommittees are the main working organs, where the proposals from
a member state are parsed before they are forwarded to one of the main
- The main committees, thereafter, with the nod of the Assembly, put the
approved proposal for enactment through the Convention, amendments, and
codes or circulars.
A feeble voice:
- To ensure that their maritime interests are protected, the European
countries move their proposals in unison and voting or support are given en
- China, Japan, Singapore, Korea and a few others represent their
interests through their permanent representative as well as ensuring that a
large delegation takes part and intervenes in the meetings.
- While these countries have fiercely protected their interests, India has
not. For example, its permanent representative post at London has remained
vacant for the last 25 years. Representation at meetings is often through a
skeletal delegation, approved by the Ministry. Participation in IMO meetings
is seen more as a junket. A review of IMO documents shows that the number of
submissions made by India in the recent past has been measly and not in
proportion to India’s stakes in global shipping.
- There have also been obstacles in pushing issues which are of importance
- A classic case was the promulgation of “High Risk Areas” when piracy was
at its peak and dominated media headlines.
- The IMO’s demarcation resulted in half the Arabian Sea and virtually the
entire south-west coast of India being seen as piracy-infested, despite the
presence of the Indian Navy and Coast Guard.
The “Enrica Lexie” shooting incident of 2012, off the coast of Kerala was a
direct fallout of the demarcation.
High Risk Area:
- The “High Risk Area” formulation led to a ballooning of insurance costs;
- It affected goods coming into or out of India.
- It took great efforts to revoke the promulgation and negate the
- The episode highlighted India’s apathy and inadequate representation at
- There was also great difficulty in introducing the indigenously designed
NavIC (NAVigation with Indian Constellation) in the worldwide maritime
- So far, India’s presence and participation in the IMO has been at the
- India should now make its presence felt so that its national interests
are served. It is time India regained its status as a major maritime power.