Mar 21 - 27, 2011

Unsafe loading and unloading of fertiliser and wheat at once at the congested marginal wharf at Port Qasim is resulting in the cross-contamination of edible and non-edible commodities. It is feared that if not stopped immediately this cross-contamination may result in termination of wheat export orders.

Understandably, contamination if taking place as a result of mixture of wheat particles in fertiliser is not harmful. On the contrary, if the process is reversed, then obviously wheat turns out to be lethal for human consumption.

The government has lifted a ban over wheat exports recently after three-years and subsequently tons of wheat are being transported from Punjab and Sindh to seaports for shipment ahead to various foreign countries, which are welcoming Pakistani wheat because of its quality and price-competitiveness. Around two million tons of wheat exports are to take place during this season. Since, Port Qasim Authority (PQA) is using marginal wharf for handling wheat and fertiliser shipments simultaneously, how long the quality attribute of exporting wheat would be sustainable is anybody's guess, a trade analyst told this scribe. "Foreigners are quality conscious and what we are talking about is food; they are obsessively conscious about its quality."

More than a thousand vessels are docked at Port Qasim during a year, carrying cargoes of over 25.6 million tons approximately. The yearly numbers of arrivals and departures of ships have been in excess of 1,000 mark during last five years, according to an official estimate.

Private cargo handling companies undertake cargo, bulk, and break bulk handling operations at the marginal wharf that has four berths of 200-meter each. Total length of all berths at the marginal wharf comes to around 800 meters. PQA claims this particular area can accommodate 55,000 deadweight tonnage vessels. It is worthwhile to note that marginal wharf was designed in a way to handle seven million tons per annum, a rough 27 per cent of total load handled at Port Qasim in a year.

Pakistan needs to import fertiliser to meet the needs of agriculture sector. Trading Corporation of Pakistan (TCP) signed an agreement for the importation of 250,000 to 300,000 tons of urea to meet local demands in mainly Rabi season-harvesting continues along Mar-April. Ships carrying fertiliser are being unloaded and at the same time, vessels being loaded with wheat are moored at the marginal wharf. The handling operations at the wharf are not modern to the extent of preventing contamination of wheat by urea. They are not containerised shipments and both wheat and fertiliser are packed in sacks normally. Wheat pouring out of bags and urea lying unattended are perceptibly visible a daily scene at the marginal wharf. Traditional ways of handling general and bulk cargoes are in practice at the wharf. Fork lifters, cranes, hoppers, and evacuators are used to handle cargoes. Fork lifters and cranes pulling up and down sacks of fertiliser and wheat give rise to the pollutions. After all, they are not dedicated to deal with a specific commodity.

As handling of both the commodities is taken place at the same time or at least at the same place, it is very difficult to stave off cross-contamination. The unhygienic treatment of food is a sheer violation of the environment protection laws in Pakistan. Besides, this may lead to a considerable economic loss in case importers cancel wheat consignments. Revenue from exports is much needed for the cash-strapped economy of Pakistan that is under a strict loan programme of International Monetary Fund (IMF) owing to the balance of payment crisis. Rise in exports can alone reduce the trade deficit and navigate the economy out of the rough water.

The question arises why PQA is using marginal wharf in the presence of other terminal handling dry bulk cargo. According to the sources, cargo-handling companies have made a cartel with the patronage of the top officials of PQA to keep a hold over the port operations. The marginal wharf is the stronghold of the cartel, which frustrates any attempt that is made to shift handling operations from the wharf to the newly established bulk cargo-handling terminal. The shift will augur well with the overall efficiency of the port because of the modern facilities deployed at the terminal to handle grain and fertiliser. The terminal, known as FAP (Fauji Akbar Portia Marine Terminals Limited) has capacity to handle dry bulk cargoes of 4.1 million metric tonnes per annum and is able to cater Panamax size vessel of up to 80,000 deadweight tonnage. Best of all, this terminal with automatic cargo handling and discharging services has enclosed conveying systems highly sensitive to environments. The computerised high capacity bulk ship unloader with a discharge rate of 700 to 1,000 metric tons per hour minimises the chances of cross contamination of cargoes or spillage. In addition, the terminal has dedicated steel silos that can store up to 80,000 metric tonnes of a single product. These silos are connected to bagging plant that can bag at the rate of 600 tonnes per hour.

It is interesting to note that TCP had selected FAP as a sole handler of 100,000 tons of imported fertiliser. However, it aborted the contract on the order of Sindh High Court. Basically, the qualification of FAP was challenged in the court by a private company on the base of the former's insufficient experience in cargo handling. A cargo handling company has to have a three-year experience as per the local shipping law. Since FAP has started its operation recently, legally it cannot handle fertiliser imports. The terminal operator having $135 million investment at stake is determined to file an appeal against the judgement. "What we should do," inquired a spokesperson. "Do we wait for another two year on the non-functional machineries on which we have invested a huge capital and with the savant-like operation and maintenance staffs shouldering decadal experiences on their backs, before we are considered at par with so-called cargo handling companies," sarcastically he asked. Stevedoring licences are issued to companies with mobile assets while FAP has fully automated facilities from berths up to the silos, he pointed out. It seems the terminal is being punished for its having modern facilities that challenge the status quo of the conventional players at the port.

Apart from discouraging private sector, the present state of affairs at the Port Qasim will bedevil future of food exports from Pakistan. Especially, cross-contamination issue should be resolved at the earliest. The delay in addressing this issue does not make sense. It is advisable that the ministry of port looks into the matter as early as possible before wheat exports from Pakistan come under the hardboiled scrutiny in an importing destination. (TS)