December 26, 2008

Beggar’s Masquerade

and why the Prime Minister needs to get insomnia again.

With the imprisonment of the two Hebei Spirit officers, the burlesque act has almost come full circle. The caricature of justice in South Korea, accompanied by equally pathetic attempts across the world to have the two officers get justice, still has a final act to perform in the Korean Supreme Court. Meanwhile, we prove to the mariner, once again, that despite verbose guidelines of ‘fair treatments of seafarers’, the countries of the world hold him and his human rights in deep contempt. Worse, there is no escape, no respite and no effective support from the industry.

This overt disdain for the sailor is actually a remarkable achievement. One would have thought that, given that most international trade would grind to a halt if seamen disappeared, a bit of thoughtfulness towards their well being would be forthcoming. Far from it. This prosecution of accident victims, which is what the Hebei Two are, as
a criminal also has no parallel with any other international industry that I can think of. Even prisoners of war have rights, but it appears that seafarers have none. We are all fair game.

Remarkable, yes, but perhaps not surprising. One cannot expect respect from outsiders if, hypocritical lip service aside, one is treated shabbily by one’s colleagues in the industry. One cannot expect justice from the Koreans when one’s own Indian Government does not seem to care. Remember the Haneef case last year? An Indian doctor wrongly arrested in Australia is released within three weeks, partly because Prime Minister Manmohan Singh publicly said he ‘couldn’t sleep’ because of Dr. Haneef’s plight, besides making other statements in support of the innocent doctor. The PM’s insomnia seems to improve dramatically when innocent Indian seafarers are detained for a year, and then sentenced to jail. Perhaps mariners would do better if we marketed ourselves as vote banks instead.

Instead, even as Chetan’s wife Preetha says that the two are living in appalling conditions in prison, we have the Government of India asking South Korea to treat the two senior officers more humanely. What a nice, civilised, and useless thing to do.

The unions and industry bodies did make some representations to the government. These repeatedly failed, and will continue to fail in future for much the same reasons. Lobbying weaknesses, conflicts of interest and partisan agendas will ensure this. So will the fact that industry protests always start after an untoward event, while successful lobbying involves pressure to obtain a desired outcome before such an event even occurs. Put simply, we were reactive, not proactive. Another factor which will guarantee an effete result is the fact that, in the end, all elements of the industry consider their bottomlines before they look at anything else (quite revealing, the bottomline watching, if I may say so); any action against South Korean interests, in this case, will be weighed against possible punitive repercussions, and so no effective action will be taken. Will the industry, for a start, boycott all business dealing with South Korea? Will mariners refuse to sail to that country?

Most of all, all these impotent efforts will fail because the people who are most affected by the criminalisation issue, which is the seafarers, are nowhere to be seen in these so called ‘seafarer representation’ bodies. Although individual merchant naval groups have publicly protested, notably in Chennai, the fact is that unless there is concerted and decisive action in which a wide mass of seafarers are brought in to participate, all such protests are doomed to be ineffectual.

I am positive that many recruitment managers would have worked out the chances of their seafarers refusing to ply to South Korea. The consensus may well be that in the present economic climate, seafarers concerned about their jobs would fall into line easily once again. That the Hebei Spirit ruling is a travesty that must be fought for the future well being of the industry itself will be a sentiment brushed aside with impunity. The short term will prevail. Greed before integrity again.

Meanwhile, individual ex mariners, irate at the developments, propose a boycott and destruction of South Korean goods, besides other such knee jerk reactions. I disagree with these options, because they will be too little, too late. These kinds of options may have gained some traction in June, when the Hebei Two had a favourable court decision behind them. Today, the two have been found guilty and sentenced. South Korea, like any other country, will not want its courts to be seen to be buckling under commercial pressure. I also think a boycott will not pressurise them enough, and not quickly enough.

Despite my usual cynical pessimism, the solution to our innocent colleagues’ incarceration is actually not too complicated. All it needs is for one major body, (whether the government, FOSMA, MASSA, INSA or any of the unions) to make one decision. “Effective immediately, Indian seafarers will not sail on any ship destined for South Korea”. I believe that the Government of India is best placed to do this. I also believe that it is up to the rest of us in the industry to force that decision right now. Government pressure is the best and quickest option for Capt. Chawla and Chief Officer Chetan now. This includes Indian pressure at the IMO and other international industry bodies. Pressure needs to be applied now, before the Korean Supreme Court appeal even starts, not later. We all can burn Korean products later.

We claim we are a superpower in the making. Let us behave like one. We have been threatening to rattle sabers since the Erika incident ten years ago. It is a pitiable state of affairs when innocent Indians continue to be abandoned by shining India to suspect judicial systems, to say the least.

Regardless of the final outcome of this tragic sentencing of innocent mariners, it would be good to remember that this is not an isolated incident, that many other seafarers continue to be criminalised worldwide, and that this parody of justice will recur and probably sometime soon. We need a concerted and preplanned national response to this, else we will go through the same motions again, trying to helplessly reinvent the wheel while our colleagues are in prison. We need to fix the system, not firefight each travesty of justice.

We are all furious about the plight of Capt. Chawla and Chief Officer Chetan. Nevertheless, unless we translate this anger into meaningful long term protection of our seafarers against criminalisation, we will play out this beggar’s masquerade of wealth again tomorrow. Just the names of the innocent will change.