Prospects for an expansion of Chittagong port look thin with a third of the port's land being leased out to public and private sectors.
The authorities of the port, which handles more than 90 percent of the country's foreign trade worth about $60 billion at present, have leased out some 500 acres of its land for different terms over the years.
The remaining 1,200 acres house the terminals, jetties, container yards, sheds, warehouses and other infrastructures, leaving a little room for the port's expansion.
“We've been asking the port authorities to cancel the lease and expand the port area and its capacity for future use,” said Mahbubul Alam, senior vice-president of the Chittagong Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Some of the land has been leased for up to 99 years, he added.
According to the Chittagong Port Authority (CPA), the land is leased out to state-run oil companies Padma, Meghna and Jamuna, and Triple Super Phosphate, a government-owned fertiliser factory.
The port authorities could build a new terminal on the 264-acre khas land behind Majher Char (Middle Island).
But such a scope looks dim as the authority leased the entire area located on the left bank of the Karnaphuli river to Bashundhara Group in 2006 for 30 years.
Also coming in the way of the expansion is a plan for setting up a 1,300MW coal-based power plant near the port. A port document shows the power plant will require 1,717 acres of land, 404 acres of which are the port's land.
“Leasing out of the land is a wrong decision,” said Sultan Mahmud, a former chief engineer of Chittagong port.
Established ports around the world usually reserve land, keeping in mind the need for future expansion.
Mahmud said the consultancy firm Mott MacDonald in 1998 forecast a surge in traffic in Chittagong port and suggested that the authorities expand the port on the downstream of Karnaphuli Fertiliser Company (Kafco) along the Patenga beach.
“The construction of the coal-based power plant will block the most prospective piece of land to build a terminal to meet the future demand," he said.
The need for expansion of the port has come to the fore as construction of a deep-sea port remains a dream. It accentuated further in the wake of the talks for increased connectivity with India, Nepal and Bhutan.
The issue of the expansion of port facilities and infrastructure also comes to light as foreign trade through the port has been increasing.
In fiscal year 2010-11, cargo handling through the port rose to 4.5 core tonnes from 3.71 crore tonnes the previous year. Container handling shot up to 14 lakh TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) in 2010-11 from 12 lakh tonnes the year before.
“It will take years to construct the planned deep-sea port. So there is no alternative to Chittagong port as the share of Mongla port in handling overseas cargoes and containers has declined over the years,” said Sultan, former chief engineer of the port.
Analysts and businesspeople say the issue of an expansion of the port should get an immediate attention.
“The port needs to be expanded up to Sadarghat to reap the benefits of the growing export-import business,” said the vice-president of Chittagong Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
“Making a deep-sea port is also needed for a handling of bulk cargo,” he noted.
Economist Hossain Zillur Rahman, also former adviser to a caretaker government, is disheartened at knowing that much of the port's land has been leased out.
As the power plant will run on imported coal, it will increase traffic congestion in the port, he said.
"It is a security threat [for the port]. This is alarming," Zillur said.
Rear Admiral Nizamuddin Ahmed, chairman of CPA, is still optimistic about the port's expansion, however.
“We've already planned to expand the port at Laldia, for which a feasibility study has been done,” said Ahmed. “We'll appoint a consultant to do the job after getting the approval of the shipping ministry."