March 07, 2015

A one month break

After many years, I am taking a break from this column because I am overwhelmed by a death in the family. This is temporary. I expect- and hope- that I will be back in April.

Transporting terror by sea

There’s none so blind as those who will not see, which is why writing this column is often frustrating. I feel saddened, not vindicated, when predictions I have made- sometimes years ago-come true. So it was with piracy on the African coasts and its links with terrorist outfits. So it was with my warnings over the years that Islamist terror would spread southward to Northern Africa and beyond. And so it has been, over the last year or so,  with my warnings that jihadists would inevitably use the Mediterranean refugee crisis to infiltrate into Western Europe.

Only now, after the Islamic State has explicitly expressed its intent to use Libyan boat people as a means to flood Europe with its brand of terrorists, is the shipping industry waking up to the threat. But it is probably too late; shipping, to borrow from Connery in a movie, is already between a rock and a hard case.

The hard case, of course, is the IS. Alarm bells have- belatedly, as usual- started ringing in the industry after a Ro-Ro ship found two western stowaways in Italy who were bound for Turkey and then to Syria to join the IS. This was not the first such incident; French and Italian ports have been used before by wannabe fighters wanting to go to Syria from Europe, especially after the aerial route has been strangled. Obviously, people are particularly alarmed at the reverse possibility; that returning IS fighters and other assorted jihadists will try to enter Europe as stowaways on commercial ships. This has added another dimension to the direct threat that the IS has made- exporting terror to Europe through the failed State of Libya. 

The rock is the refugee crisis, and that is is bad enough on its own. Six hundred commercial ships were called to rescue or assist the boat people- numbering around 200,000- in 2014. Merchant ship involvement has increased after the Italian navy stopped its Mare Nostrum sea patrols that were meant to assist the boat people; authorities said the operation was too expensive and was probably encouraging the migrants.  Last July, in an example that is hardly isolated, the Torm Lotte- a tanker with a crew of 20- picked up nearly 600 refugees, mainly Yemenis, Syrians, Libyans and Ethiopians. The small crew had a tough time controlling them, trying to prevent fights breaking out between the refugees and their smugglers, who had also been rescued. 

Shipmasters know how easy it would be for armed terrorists to board their ships this way.

Some shipmanagers and operators say that, given the IS threat, merchant ships should not be called in to rescue refugees in the Mediterranean any longer. This is a knee jerk reaction that goes against legality and one of the oldest traditions of the sea, and I hope Masters will ignore such directives if they are issued. The UN Refugee Agency’s view- that the safety of seafarers should be given equal priority to that of the refugees- is one I agree with, although it begs a stupid question: how do you ensure your crew’s safety when you pick up a few hundred people from a boat- even if they are all unarmed- when meaningful identity checks are impossible?

The industry response to this security threat has been along expected lines. The protection of commerce and ships is what worries people; the threat to crews is, as usual, largely ignored. This is reinforced by the fact that it is P&I clubs, not shipowners or managers, that have issued warnings about IS linked stowaways. Let me remind shipowners that should this game escalate, their ships are likely to be regularly searched  for stowaways by authorities at many ports around the world; those delays will come with significant costs. And that their calculators will threaten to burn big holes in their pockets should, for example, a tanker be taken over by a group of armed terrorists and used as a weapon for spectacular destruction.

By the way, I am now rolling my eyes after reading a news item saying that the IMO has invited the UNHCR to participate in a UN interagency meeting in London next month. One media report had a IMO spokesman saying, “We welcome the opportunity to engage with the IMO and other stakeholders on this complex emergent issue.”

Emergent? What can be predicted a year earlier by a solitary columnist of average intelligence and with zero organisational resources is emergent? What should have been- and probably was, for much longer- glaringly obvious to a UN organisation is emergent?

I will not insult the reader’s intelligence by giving reasons why the industry and its organisations like to pretend they did not see things coming. We see this time and again; suffice it to say that corruption goes beyond bribery, that everybody has their own agendas and that there is little will to solve the problem.

But I will offer a piece of advice to the gentle spokesman from the IMO, and that is this. Loosen your necktie, sir. It is restricting the flow of blood to your brain. 


February 26, 2015

Of insects and reptiles

In India, the scandal connected with the recruitment of seamen and the placement of cadets for training on ships is worsening by the day. That this widespread depravity is institutionalised by now is an open secret. What is slightly lesser known, however, is the creative ways that are routinely used by degenerate ‘shipmanagement’ executives, in criminal collusion with touts spread across the country- to bleed, financially, aspiring seafarers to death. The whole shebang is not just a ‘placement’ scandal any longer; it often is simple human trafficking.

For some agencies, the placement of cadets and ratings is not just a part of a business model that derives its major revenues from management fees; it is the entire business model instead. There are many ways by which this is done. One way: tie up with a shady ‘shipowner’ in the Middle East or elsewhere who has an ageing, rotting hulk that is arrested or close to abandonment in some godforsaken port. Send first time cadets and ratings on this so called ship- often not much bigger than a dhow- that will never sail again, and will sink if she attempts to do so. Send the owner his cut of the few hundred thousand rupees each youngster has paid to you. Provide little food or water to the crew, and ignore everything else due to them. Pay them no wages. Then, after a couple of months, sack them to make way for fresh blood that has paid the next round of ‘placement fees’ from. Repeat endlessly.

In what is perhaps an extreme example, a cadet who had been roped in this way told me once that, with no money even to make a phone call home, he was reduced to swimming to other ships at anchor and begging their crews for food. Moreover, he claimed that he had gone to this ship- in a Middle Eastern country- through a recognised (by the Indian Directorate General of Shipping) company!

But this is not the worst that happens. Indians (and other mainly Asian nationalities) suffer much worse, especially when, after being trafficked to a strange country, they find, eventually, that the ship they were supposed to join does not exist. They are held captive, threatened, beaten and made to work as unpaid labourers. Their passports are taken away and their families are extorted for more money, or for ‘dues’ still owed to the traffickers. These are not isolated incidents, by the way. And they are increasing.

The best that a youngster can hope for, after paying a few hundred thousand rupees for a job or an on-board training berth is that he (thank God most seafarers are men, can you imagine what will be done to the women unfortunate enough to be trafficked?) will be sent on a ship that actually exists, dilapidated junk that it probably will be. The best that he can hope for is that he will somehow get some seatime and experience, survive long enough to earn some money or appear at his competency exams.

The industry in general and the Indian authorities in particular are ignoring this travesty completely.  Under these circumstances, the bizarre- Kafkaesque, actually- heralding of the Maritime Labour Convention as something that protects seafarer rights (this is a myth, as David Hammond of Human Rights at Sea pointed out in London earlier this month) by the usual suspects, including the IMO, is as absurd as it is cynical.

All that shipping seems to care about, when it comes to seamen, is that accidents caused by human error are increasing. Shipping does not wonder why. It is happily blinkered as it tom-tom’s catchphrases like ‘The Human Element’ instead. Perhaps the term is cleverly thought out, though, since it makes seamen like me feel like cockroaches under the microscope. It does not care enough to wonder why the cockroach- angry, unmotivated and oppressed- is not performing as well as it should.  

Shipping seems to be too dumb or too comfortably numb to ponder the possibility that its own reptilian behaviour could have something to do with the insect’s poor performance or motivation. 


February 20, 2015

An email from Capt Sidhu...

I am publishing this email that I received from Capt BS Sidhu with his permission, in its entirety (except the salutation) and without my comments- which would mainly consist of a stream of profanity anyway. Because this sort of thing that all Indian seamen have to put up with is not the exception; it is the rule.

I have been an avid reader of your blog for the past couple of years and it has given me great pleasure to absorb the accurate (warts and all) state of affairs of the Indian shipping and manning etc etc. I think we are past redemption and there is no way we can get back to our commanding heights of professionalism of the 70s and the 80s. We will wallow in the back waters while China, Phillipines and the E. Europeans steal a march on us.

I hope u find the following narrative interesting which I underwent.........


You have been 40 years at sea. You are at the peak with all your experience and hopefully will fade away from sailing the seven seas gracefully. However, the powers that be have plenty of spanners to throw in your supposedly benign works.

Your GMDSS certificate is due to expire.

But, hey, the Powers that be in the Ministry of Communications, in their wisdom, have other plans to shaft you nice and proper. You can only renew the said Cert. within 3 months of expiry - your joining the ship be damned. And also, forget your new browsers, no Chrome, no Safari, no Opera - it is the good old Internet Explorer they want for you to browse the site! Back to the steam age. So, I reluctantly put away the iPad, iPhone and iPad the Mac. The old Windows laptop was given away to the maid's college going girl, so you are at a dead end. A quick trip to the mall and you are a proud owner of a low end basic laptop after forking out Rs. 24000/-. Now you can freely access the Wireless Ministry and DG Shipping sites on the IE as per their norms.

After carefully downloading the GMDSS Renewal Form and instructions, you are off to find a Gazetted Officer. The good ole Notary Public just doesn't seem to cut it with the Wireless folks for attesting all the various photocopies. So at the Local Estate Office you find a beady eyed  lawyer who will get it done for Rs. 1000/-. You are in a tearing hurry and agree for some dicey Gazetted Official's stamp to endorse your documents. Next day, you discover, that the Application Form too has to be endorsed. Again back to the avaricious lawyer who suddenly ups the ante for the solitary page to Rs. 1500/-. What the heck, you pay him off and finally you are in a position to send the documents by Regd. A.D. and hope for the best.

Your joining the ship is creeping up fast on you. So your company man in Delhi gets into the act with his buddy at the Wireless Ministry to push things. They promise 20 days instead of the customary one or two months. You are delirious with joy when the coveted Renewal Cert. Arrives after about 27 days.

Now on to the DG Shipping site. You are overwhelmed with the 20 odd documents you must photo copy and carry the originals to the MMD for verification. Painfully, you go step by step and collect all the requisite documents along with your latest snaps as per their stringent rules.

Then the agonising MMD Noida Rules - documents are only to be submitted between 1000 & 1200 hours. Outstation candidates be damned. Against all odd you make the Office at 1145 and hastily fill up the form handed to you by a mournful clerk. (Of course it is not available online - so you have to be harassed all the way) Then you run across the road to the designated bank to deposit a princely sum of Rs. 3000/- for your STCW endorsement. All done, you are up in heaven because your forms are accepted though the clock has struck 12. (Shades of Cinderella) You are informed to collect your STCW Endorsement the next day between 1600 & 1700 hours. Outstation candidates be damned again. You trudge out of the depressing building and seek out a hotel to avoid another trip to Delhi.

You come back the next at 1500 hoping to get an early delivery of the Cert. No joy. Rules are Rules you see, you poor sailing denizen of the Seven Seas. Finally, you are calked at 1645 hours and grab your hallowed Cert. Then, the express run to catch your train back home. You make it with 4 minutes to spare.

You wonder on the ride back .... Was this ever in your mind during your heydays. Is this what you deserve after 40 years? You are about 18000/- chips out of pocket. (forget the laptop) All this hullabaloo for a piece of paper which can easily be processed over the Net. What the hell was INDOS about if you still have to send and carry reams of paper at every Govt. Stop???
God bless the Indian Maritime Sector.

Best Regards

Capt. B. S. Sidhu