An acute shortage of marine containers since October 2020 due to a global equipment imbalance has severely affected Indian trade. However, it has also come as a blessing in disguise for it has led to an awakening — both in the government and in the trade — on the need for India to aggressively restart container manufacturing locally and be less dependent on China, which has a monopoly with over 90 per cent market share globally.
Local container manufacturing is also critical for the success of Centre’s AatmaNirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) programme.
Container manufacturing is not new to India. As containerisation started to flourish two decades ago, Indian companies manufactured them locally. However, the momentum fizzled out as Chinese companies gained dominance due to cheap labour, availability of abundant raw material and the ability to scale quickly — all of which were largely missing in India.
But action is now being taken — albeit a bit late — to revive local container manufacturing. Earlier this month, Container Corporation of India (Concor) placed orders for 1,000 containers each from Braithwaite & Company Ltd and Public Sector undertaking BHEL.
Concor, which earlier always sourced containers from China, discovered that locally made containers were cheaper by about 25 per cent. Each container costs about ₹2.5 lakh. It is looking to source more from within India.
There are reports that Gujarat government is exploring a plan to make Bhavnagar a hub for container manufacturing.
Bijoy Paulose, Managing Director of the Chennai-based VS&B Containers, said the company annually procures around 4,000 boxes, and all from China. India once had container manufacturers such as Balmer Lawrie (Chennai and Kochi); DCM Hyundai (Chennai); Nathaniel and Transfreight (Mumbai) and HIM Containers (Kolkata). However, these companies all shut down 10-20 years ago. Only DCM is doing local containers in Delhi, he added.
China has a monopoly and can quickly undercut the prices and squeeze the Indian initiative unless the government looks at serious intervention to prevent dumping. There is an annual demand for nearly 4,000 boxes in India. India now has raw materials such as Corten steel needed for the manufacture of these containers. However, 25 years ago even screws were imported, he added.
In the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, local production will benefit the domestic trade during any future disruption, said Sai Krishna, Assistant Vice President, ICRA Ltd, an investment information and credit rating agency. However, matching China on the costs will be a challenge for Indian container manufacturers, he added.
The government can help by providing exemptions for manufacturers on key inputs such as steel or steel scrap. The key to success will be to build scale, else on the cost front the initiative might not take off, he said.
According to Sunil Vaswani, Executive Director, Container Shipping Lines Association (India), the limited access to available containers is driving up the buying price of new containers since manufacturers charge a premium due to the high demand. A relaxation of 40.8 per cent import duty after 18 per cent GST on Corten steel and/or suspension of iron ore exports will help Indian container manufacturers. Favourable policy framework, cost/price competitiveness and quality will boost the business. This would not only help India become self-reliant in the sector but also give the world another option — which would help during the peak demand months of the year — for sourcing of containers, so far largely restricted to China.