December 31, 2009

Future Shock

An entertaining Chief Officer I sailed with long ago (the same one who put up a checklist in his cabin for going to the loo, starting with opening the door and ending with spraying air freshener) had a theory about international trade.  After a couple of months of carrying steel products into Thailand from elsewhere and then carrying other identical steel products out of Thailand to the same elsewhere, he said that merchant shipping would become superfluous as soon as people realised what was being produced next door.

I was reminded of that statement as I read conflicting reports recently: reports that made me wonder if shipping experts really had any clue of what was going on in their own backyards. All their studies bore on the dry cargo and tanker oversupply situation that is supposed to either hit freight rates badly or not affect them much in the next couple of years, depending on which expert one listens to. As many ships are on order as there are afloat now in the dry cargo market, one says. En masse cancellations are likely, says another. But orders made to greenfield shipyards don't count, says a third, pointing out that those shipyards themselves may now never be built because capital has dried up. Only twenty percent of the order book will actually be delivered, another analyst says with suspiciously remarkable accuracy, considering that nobody seems to have any remotely accurate system that would give numbers of how many vessels will finally be spewed out through the pipeline.

Whatever the experts say, it is clear to anybody that there are simply too many ships around today for the cargo on offer, and that this mismatch between demand and supply will not vanish next Monday. This is because when freight rate graphs were hitting the roof, many owners extrapolated those graphs to infinity, got excited access to the easy credit sloshing around the system and bought or ordered ships greedily like there was no tomorrow. Unfortunately, tomorrow is now here.

To compound the usual myopia, everybody forgot that it is not easy to get rid of assets when markets crash, especially large assets like ships. They even forgot that shipowning is a long term commitment and that shipping has always been a cyclical industry. The chickens have come home to roost now. To make matters worse, the last couple of months have seen fuel prices rising, more than doubling since last December. This has hit shipowners even as they struggle to dodge the sword of Damocles- tonnage in the pipeline over the next two years- hanging over their heads.

Notwithstanding the spike in rates from the second half of October that have relieved those that look for green shoots with magnifying glasses, it seems to me that things are obviously going to get worse before they get better. There may be periodic glimmers of hope, like temporary or calculated Chinese demand (again) spiking rates for a while before they drift down, or the hope that trade will improve with better than expected figures now coming out of the US economy. Freight or hire rates in different sectors may be out of sync for awhile, like what has happened with tanker rates recently as compared to bulk carrier ones. Let’s ignore box ships for now; they have been particular casualties in this mayhem. One of the same experts predicts that container companies are going to lose 20 billion US dollars this year. The fact that a record 11.7 percent of the box ship fleet is presently idle and that the containership segment will grow just 6 percent in 2009, the lowest growth rate in the last decade, speaks for itself. The same analysts expect the idle fleet size to peak by February 2010 before easing, though what will happen to the 1.8 million TEU scheduled for 2010 delivery is anybody’s guess; one can be quite sure that deliveries will be deferred wherever possible). 

But here's the thing: Whether things get better or worse in the short term, we in the maritime industry have so far been used to the surety that the long term will surely be to our advantage. That may well be true this time around too; at least all the experts seem to think so. However, I suggest that the industry could do well to factor in a couple of particular caveats into their plans this time.

The first one is actually more a paradigm shift than a caution: With the Chinese economy rivalling the US one, (some voices are already saying that it is globally the more important one of the two) there will be, inevitably, a shift in the kind of tonnage required in the future, Chinese (and even Indian or Brazilian) demand being of a different nature than that from the US. The requirement of more raw material carriage, for example.

It would be simpler if this was merely a matter of shipowners adjusting the kind of ships they buy and operate, which is what they have always done as they react to demand and supply. However, it may require greater nimbleness this time around, because I have a sneaking suspicion that US consumption will remain slow even after their economy recovers. I suspect that we have already seen the heydays of American consumerist prodigality: there will be much that the US just cannot afford now, and some scales may have well fallen off some eyes. If this happens, it will inevitably put pressure on Chinese exports, with a result that overall trade between the two behemoths may well remain sluggish. Of course, other developing countries, including India, may well pick up the slack. Regardless, shipowners will have to react to these developments with much greater agility; they may even have to predict the developments better to take full advantage of the opportunities; paradigm shifts demand this.

The second caveat is that the industry will have to factor in, much sooner than they think, one new heading under costs into their business plans. Let’s call this heading ‘Environmental Costs’; included will be many new headings of expenses including expenses related to shifting to cleaner and greener fuels and new ballast water treatment requirements.  The costs involved in both are likely to be worryingly steep. All of us know about the high costs for cleaner fuel, of course, but those who think that ballast water treatment will not be all that expensive need to think again. As an example, US laws in the pipeline will require what the American Waterways Association, a trade body, calls “extremely expensive ballast water treatment systems” to be installed on board.

Of course, there will be, probably justifiably, no let up in pressure on the maritime industries to do more to protect the environment. ‘Environmental Costs’ will keep on rising as new regulations we cannot even envisage now are enacted across the world; Shipping will not be left alone much longer, confusion after Copenhagen notwithstanding. Unfortunately, going greener costs money and impacts shipowner profitability.  If bottomlines are squeezed beyond a point, freight rates will be pressurised northwards. Is the global consumer prepared to pay more for just about everything yet?



December 28, 2009

Kafka's people

 'The persistence of  Memory' by Salvador Dali

Surreal, that's what this is.

Don't laugh, but the Philippines Department of Labour and Employment reportedly announced last week that an antipiracy course would now be part of the requirements for all Filipino seafarers. DOLE Secretary Marianito Roque told reporters that the training would be provided to about 260,000 Filipino seafarers. Roque went on to claim that this would also help the department to “increase the level of qualification of the capacity of a seafarer.” and that individual companies are to pay for the training.

Hmm.  Did he really say more than a quarter of a million Filipino seafarers? Mind boggling, the implications of that figure. Sounds like a multimillion dollar business opportunity for somebody, running antipiracy courses. Multiply 260,000 by even 150 dollars as course fee and you get around four million dollars. Hell, that is the ransom payout for a couple of ships. And what, pray, will the course content consist of? Let me guess: a module on 'how to recognise a rocket propelled grenade launcher while crapping in your pants', perhaps? Another module on how to plead for your life in basic Somali? Or how to fill up an ‘ideal hostage’ checklist? Something like that, I presume.

Here's what I think.  One, how soon will India ape this Filipino absurdity? (Our stalwarts must be cursing that the Philippines beat them to it). Two, everybody seems to have given up on actually fighting Somali piracy and winning. Three, everybody and his mother in law in maritime education will want a piece of this new lucrative business opportunity. Four, shipowners may try to use the 'trained antipiracy crew on our ships' claptrap as a marketing tool with prospective charterers or to reduce piracy insurance premia. Five, the seafarer will continue to get jacked and hijacked. Six, this training will be used as an excuse not to take other steps that may actually be effective. Seven, any dimwit will tell you that this will go the ISPS way so why is this nonsense even being pursued at all? Eight, an Indian manager will say, soon enough, that Filipino's make better crew because they are anti piracy trained: I think that is approximately when I will throw up.

As for “increase the level of qualification of the capacity of a seafarer,” I have seen hundreds of Filipino seafarers reporting to me with joining papers and photocopies of course certificates as thick as dictionaries and qualifications that look impressive as hell on paper. Few live up to what the dictionary suggests. I expect this antipiracy hokum to be even worse, because it is more unreal.

My wife will say that I am jealous because everybody else is making money, and maybe she will be right. I really need to get with the program, I think, which is why I now propose some new courses that we in India should start asap. We are the global leaders in conducting futile courses; how dare somebody else vie for that hallowed spot?

So, with much thought and without much further ado, I propose that the following courses be rolled out immediately in India. (I have thoughts on many others that I will divulge to interested parties on payment of a small fee):

Garbage Management Course: This approved course will teach seafarers how to pick up, segregate and collect garbage for disposal as per the rules. Included will be modules on shallow breathing techniques while carrying putrefying stuff, computer based training on stencilling 200 litre drums with approved labels and practicals on new brooms sweeping clean. Not included will be training on the disposal of management, regulatory or other official garbage of any kind; that will make the duration of the course too long.

An anti criminalisation course: This one will train seafarers in one of the most critical aspects of their profession, and I am therefore surprised nobody has thought of it so far. From making seafarers aware of the latest rules that are supposed to guarantee them fair treatment, the course will move (quickly, before anybody asks too many questions) to other modules like ‘Keeping a stiff upper lip while being blamed for nothing and everything’, “Keeping mum under pressure”, ‘Approved daily routines in gaol’, ‘Checklists for Alcatraz’, ‘Involuntarily extending contracts’, ‘ Appreciating local cuisine behind bars’, a long module on ‘What not to expect from employers after being arrested’ and  a very short one on ‘What to expect from the Government of India when ditto’. Others may include operational and Company specific training on ‘Reporting from the slammer” and ‘Proven CYA techniques’. This course will be approved by the Administration. Anybody asking ‘What administration?’ will be thrown into jail at once.

Finally, to complete my Kafkaesque soliloquy and business plan, I am seriously contemplating patenting and rolling out a postgraduate management course for the shore based maritime industry. This two year full time course will target international and national regulators, industry body representatives, shipowners and miscellaneous shipmanagement, insurance and such personnel. Incidentally, I plan to collaborate with a premier management institute in India to ensure excellent content, infrastructure, delivery and hype. Details will be announced later, but the working title for the degree that will be awarded on satisfactory completion of the programme, mainly because I like the acronym this makes, is ‘MBA (Shipping Hypocrisy In Toto)’.

A midterm internship is compulsory, and will require that each student demonstrate that he or she has shafted a mariner at least once.


December 17, 2009

On not boiling the frog

A stray remark on email by a batchmate a few weeks ago took me back to the time, long ago, when I broke the news to the folks at home that I had been selected for pre sea training and I was ready to roll. "Dufferin? Or Duffer, in?!", my sister asked gleefully, while both my parents were more than a little dismayed that their son who was doing well academically seemed to be throwing it all away.

Today, a few decades later, there does not seem any point in examining if that decision was indeed 'disastrous', as the friend of mine indicated in that troublesome email (anything that makes me think is troublesome).  No point, really, which is precisely why I pondered the question over a shot or two of tequila and a lot of lime.

All those years ago, there was no doubt in my mind that seafaring was the career for me, and a long term one at that. So much so that I chose not to go to the US, where my father was posted for a while, and continued my apprenticeship instead.  Years later, I was chuffed to have done well at the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers exams- that I appeared at before I sat for my Masters. I toyed idly with moving ashore at the time; I even throttled myself in a necktie and went for an interview or two. In the end, I turned down an offer that, in retrospect, would have had me,  twenty years or so later today, probably a mover or shaker (or both) in the industry, had I wanted to embrace the rat race with both sleeves of my navy blue blazer.  (Okay, okay, maybe not a M&S, but a stirrer, at least.)

 Was it a wise decision or a foolish one? Probably both. In my defence, I have to say that what tipped the balance for me then was that the money at sea was good, the life even better and I was not ready for the nine to five managementspeak grind then. Or even now.

Soon thereafter, I decided that I would sail only three months at a time and six months or so a year: just enough for income tax purposes. This was in the late eighties, when three month contracts were impossible to come by, but I got lucky, and remained lucky for the next nine years, segueing briefly to do a Cargo Superintendent's job for the same employers who were in Singapore. Later, just after the luck ran out, and just when I was contemplating the future came an offer from a US software company with no connection to shipping. I stayed there for two years.

Looking back, I can see that my working life has been unplanned and eclectic; I have done more or less what took my fancy at every stage of my life. Would I have made more money sticking to just one thing, a well planned career path? Absolutely. Would I have enjoyed my life more that way? Absolutely not.  Even today, as I do a jumble of things that keep it interesting and put some bread on the table and tequila in the bar, I like to keep things interesting. Boredom, or tedium, is death.

This, concisely, is the wonderful and unobvious advantage of seafaring; it gives an average middle class bloke like me the ability to- more or less- live life on his own terms. One can work when one wants and for how long with no huge future employability handicaps. One can even change careers for a while and return after a year or three without any major eyebrow raising from prospective employers. One can even take a year off to contemplate one's navel. The flexibility a sailor has in his life is unbelievable, really, and one that most other professions would envy, if they only knew about it.  (We should package this advantage and sell it to potential recruits).

Most people do not have this flexibility. They join jobs they don't like and get stuck there, buying into the game that says that one must be King Rat asap; however,  I , for one, never wanted to be any kind of rat at all. Living with ennui, so many- including in shipping, at sea or afloat- reconcile themselves to their circumstances and fate.  Their working life seems to follow the 'Boiling the Frog' premise: the surety that , if a frog is thrown into boiling water it will jump out immediately, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated to be a boil, it will happily agree to be cooked to death.  So, we train ourselves to immerse ourselves in tedium that slowly boils our souls. Many of us are caught in the rut and forget that money is just a means to an end, not the end itself.

I escaped that trap, sort of. And therefore, all said and done, I don't think my decision to go to sea was disastrous; of course, my working life  could, like most decisions,  be tweaked and much bettered by hindsight. And, although it is impossible that my batchmate's circumstances- or dreams- have been identical to mine, I hope he took some advantage, as I did, of the flexibility that was his for the taking.  There is no real need, in most cases, for us sailors to be the frog in the cauldron; our profession gives us the freedom to be neither a boiled frog nor a treadmill rat.


December 10, 2009

Smells like Team Spirit

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." George Bernard Shaw

I will be the first to proclaim that a ship cannot function effectively- even safely- unless each crewmember is part of an effective team; anybody who claims otherwise is delusional or neurotic.  The requirement that the Master, officers and crew gel as a unit increases with every passing day. Ships and their gear get  more complex, MIS systems and regulations more elaborate and complements increasingly threadbare: if everybody doesn’t hang together they will probably hang separately.

There is, also, no satisfaction greater than the one a Master gets when the ship runs like a well oiled machine, with every crewmember anticipating the next operation and performing it almost before he is ordered to do so. This is especially gratifying when one is calling a port a day and when everybody is stretched to their mental and physical limits all the time.

I will also confess that the term “Team Spirit”, especially when uttered by a management type with an evangelical gleam in his eye, often grates in my ears like the sound of a broken piece of chalk on a cracked blackboard. This is because that term is used too often to straitjacket somebody into conformity or to imply that a person that rocks the boat is undesirable. At sea and in shipmanagement, the message sent out is that such a crewmember is not kosher.

I beg to differ. For one, the world of seafaring has traditionally-even typically- been one for iconoclasts; hell, even the choice of profession indicates a nonconformist mindset. Then, the nature of contractual employment furthers an attitude, in both the sailor as well as the shipowner, that there is no real long term team beyond the one on the present ship. Much as managers would like to ensure a sense of belonging with the company and essentially gain permanent employees on contractual wages, everybody knows that a sailor not being recalled for the next contract will usually not even merit a phone call to him.  What team, then, besides the shipboard one?

There are other, more practical, reasons for my objection to the misuse of the term that is perverted ashore as much as it is afloat and across industries too: suggesting that conformity is good kills initiative, out of the box thinking and promotes a desire not to stand out and instead continue to be part of the herd. This is actually detrimental to the quick and intuitive thinking required in the innumerable operations performed at sea today. At a time when an escalating number of significant tasks are being performed by individual crewmembers with little or no supervision, this can be counterproductive: how often do we see officers and crew scared to take the initiative simply because they are unduly concerned about what their seniors will think of them?

Unfortunately, many managers think of an individualistic personality as one that is not really desirable. He is not a team player, they say. What they actually mean is that they do not like such a person because he will probably be a no nonsense type, not too docile and therefore not easily exploitable. He has to be handled with more care than others are: he can be a ‘troublemaker’ (another one of those words that imply everything and mean nothing.)

Managers should realise, instead, that although what they fear may have some basis to it on a stray occasion, such a seaman is generally more likely to be efficient, professional and a leader. Critically, he is also more likely to have professional pride. I say critically because any seafarer, whether an officer or a rating, works best when he works for his professional pride.  A lower level of performance is enough for him to retain his job, but the chances are higher that this kind of personality- not a team player by any conventional account- will perform far beyond average because he is proud of his professionalism. The team player will usually conform to mediocrity instead, like most people.

I like nonconformists for another reason: they are more colourful and make for shipmates that are more interesting.  They have different points of view, both in work related stuff and otherwise, and are not hesitant to put their views forward. As a Master, I relished the idea of us finding better ways of doing the same things: a poor team player has usually helped me make better judgements; a good team player has usually just agreed with me.

That is because a bad team player, as the term is understood today, is not a yes man, thank God. Yes men give me ulcers.


Poor Ratings

Those were the days of old ships with union purchases, preventer guys, hatch boards and manual non powered steering: labour intensive rack and pinion stuff. Ropework and splicing were weekly affairs. Crew complements were around 55 then, when I was a cadet: there were so many people on board that we had, sometimes, three galleys: one each for officers, deck and engine crew.

We learnt almost all our seamanship from the old salts in Scindias, the company I was apprenticed to: Sukhanis, Cassabs, Serangs and Seamen/Helmsmen. Many were Gujaratis; most did not speak much English but were, I now realise, excellent seamen. I particularly remember one Ramesh Tandel, and one Mukhtar, both of whom taught me a lot, and did so unselfishly. Later, I completed my sea time, moved on and forget all these seamen who had imparted skills to me that must have been learnt by their ancestors thousands of years ago, before the era of Lothal not far from their homes.

We officers failed those seamen, because we clambered on to higher things on their shoulders and forgot about them. The industry failed these seamen, because it did not take enough pride in their heritage and support them; some would have made excellent officers. Even worse, all of us fail their descendents even today, as we fail the thousands of new entrants who train as Ratings in our many training institutes across the country.

There are two main reasons for this. One, we are fixated on officer shortages, for some reason, and ignore the ratings market. And two, we have taken for granted that Indian ratings will never be able to compete with Filipinos: the reasons given are many, but the main ones, as we all know, are to do with the English language, work attitudes and the fact that the Filipino seaman is willing to be exploited more in comparison to the Indian one, whether it be in terms of living conditions or duration of contracts.  

Pardon my French, but the second reason is pure hogwash. I have sailed with many, many Filipinos right through my professional life, and, like any other nationality, there are, amongst them, good workers and bad workers, troublemakers and excellent professionals. They may have longer contracts but many sit through them placidly and with low initiative, the same as many Indians do.  As for salaries, coastal ships and dhows from India to the Middle East are replete with Indian ratings earning a fraction of what a Filipino earns on an ocean going merchant ship. The canard that Indian ratings have priced themselves out of the market must be killed once and for all.  As for the exploitation thing, are we seriously saying that unless Indian seamen are willing to be exploited there is no future for them? Because if we are, I say let us shut down our shops and go home: at least I do not need to make a living sucking other seafarers’ blood.

The fact is that we have done precious little for any seafarers, whether officers or ratings. However, officers have slowly carved a place out for themselves in the global market, and body shopping agencies flourished as soon as this was seen to be happening. This did not really occur on quite the same scale in the case of ratings, for many reasons.

Familiarity with English is another matter altogether, and I agree that largely the Filipino is much more familiar with basic English, including basic marine vocabulary, than is the Indian seaman. However, I submit that this is an issue that can be fixed quite easily, by simply increasing the weightage of the language at the Pre Sea selection level and adding an English language examination at the end of the Pre Sea course conducted by the Board of Examinations for Seafarers Trust. Let there be a minimum standard of English for freshers (actually, there is one but the system is very imperfectly followed for commercial reasons by institutes).

After admission to the course, the onus of ensuring a decent standard of English in our trainees should fall on both the training institute and the BES. This is hardly difficult; after all, we are a country producing a zillion call centre ready employees a year complete with accents to order. Surely we can ensure basic English skills in our seafarers?

Talking to a class of GP Ratings the other day, I found that there are children of pan shop owners in the batch. Also those of farmers and fishermen, small tailors and shopkeepers, army jawans and government clerks and everything in between.  It is worthwhile keeping these profiles in mind while we ponder exactly what kind of English teaching may be required. We in India have a habit of teaching Shakespeare when all we require is Chetan Bhagat.   

From figures given out by BES, India produces more than 4600 GP Ratings annually from 34 DGS approved institutes.  The Board says the main concern is the employment of trainees that pass out, and is trying to compile data from industry inputs. Although the BES effort is laudable, the fact that we do not have these figures easily available is in itself indicative of the neglected state of our ratings; I bet the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) has these figures a mouse click away. I bet China has a more focused manpower plan when it comes to its growing fleet. 

It is another national shame that many of our ratings who want to get ahead will go abroad to get their certificates of competency. There is something pathetic about us allowing this to happen; the fact that, English language skills or not, our seamen are forced to go abroad and spend a fortune there instead of appearing cheaply at home is appalling in itself. A comprehensive solution is urgently required.

In any case, there is no point in training seafarers if we cannot provide them decent jobs. The government and the industry are really doing nothing about this, barring one or two exceptions. Inertia, lethargy, callousness- call it what you will, but unless the administration and the industry can persuade Indian and foreign shipping to employ Indian ratings in greater numbers, we should feel morally bound to reduce the capacity of Maritime Training Institutes, not increase it. As things stand today, Indian ratings are hostage to a foreign language, unsupported by everybody that matters and more or less standing and falling on their own. It is time we changed that. Maritime training is a business, sure, but it doesn’t have to be only business.

Changing things is hardly impossible. Get the best people you can and train them properly (including in English language skills. Perhaps institutes should be asked to arrange extra language classes during the Pre Sea training course for those that require them). Provide them jobs at the end of the training. Make policies that encourage personal growth, competency certification in India included.  Let these ratings go out to sea and make a name for themselves and India, as we officers started doing not all that long ago.

Just do this much, and you will have a sustainable model. Do not do even this, and you will produce many more Mukhtars: excellent seamen with no future, all of them staring into the abyss.

November 26, 2009

Blockade, Arm and Stockade

Since he was Asian, the reported killing of the North Korean Captain of the ‘Theresa VIII’ during that ship’s hijack last week received a small fraction of the media coverage that the US crewed ship ‘Maersk Alabama’ did as she was attacked for the second time this year; the first attempt in April saw the international media going to town after Capt. Phelps dramatic rescue by US Navy snipers. The Maersk Alabama escaped this time because a security team on board fired on the pirates in self defence, killing some of them.

The New York Times quoted Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, Commander of the US Central Command after the attack: “Due to the Maersk Alabama following maritime industry’s best practices such as embarking security teams, the ship was able to prevent being successfully attacked by pirates.”

Excuse me; did he just say that the deployment of security teams was a maritime industry best practice? Somebody tell our brethren in Mumbai and their global clients quick, please. Seems like most of them are conveniently and blissfully unaware of this best practice.

Almost concurrently with the Alabama attack, the United States State Department advised Greek shipowners (who control 20 percent of global deadweight tonnage) that they should arm their crews to protect against pirate attacks. Also, the Spanish government (even as they paid a reported 3.5 million US dollars for the release of the fishing vessel Alakrana and her crew) confirmed that a) all Spanish fishing boats in the Indian Ocean would henceforth have private security guards armed with military equipment, including high velocity rifles, aboard and b) Spain was pushing for a blockade of ‘pirate ports’ in Somalia.

The Spanish initiative makes sense to me, although I will add one more essential element to it later. Since the most powerful countries in the world cannot together patrol the 68 million square kilometers of the Indian Ocean, simple logic dictates that pirates will have to be contained at one of two places they are sure to be found: either in the area where they leave their homes to hunt for ships in the open sea or at the target vessel itself. We should do both.

The Somali coastline, at 3000km, is not all that long to patrol; I remember, in 2002, when I was on a regular run (for four months) between Dar es Salaam, Mombasa, Yemen and Sudan, that coalition ships and aircraft used to patrol the Somali coast and the Gulf of Aden daily. Their purpose seemed to me the same as it is today: as a counterweight to terrorist and pirate activity. I agree that 2002 is not 2009 when piracy has grown tremendously (though ships were still being attacked regularly and taken in 2002, most such activity stopped within a hundred miles of the coast), but my point is that the Somali coastline has not grown any larger and should be as easy to patrol. Moreover, the coalition now seems to have a much more supportive government in Mogadishu that is fighting Al Qaeda linked Islamists and has often said that it will welcome help; indeed, it sometimes looks to me as if they are asking for it. Moreover, we are not talking about a blockade of the entire country; just relatively small portions of the coastline that have traditionally been pirate recruitment, infrastructure and support havens.

I also do not believe that, in a clan centred society like Somalia, pirates will be able to move up and down the coast and establish alternate havens quickly in the event of a partial blockade. Blockades can shift or be repositioned more quickly than the pirates can create new oases of support.

A partial blockade will be a good option to the alternative: a UN or NATO land based armed engagement in Somalia. Frankly, the US does not have the stomach for it at this time, though they have often expressed huge concern over the resurgence of Al Qaeda terrorist training camps in the country: a fact that should worry India too.

Such a blockade will be imperfect, which is why ships in the kill zone must have additional sufficient protection. Armed protection, at that: although crews have used everything from tomatoes to home made Molotov cocktails to deter pirates, a viable deterrent must involve small or medium firepower. Given the oft quoted reasons for not arming crews, the only alternative then left is the deployment of protective, sufficiently armed and professional security teams.

Frankly, I am puzzled why this has not become the norm after years of the piracy menace. One reason is, I suspect, that the industry is looking at this problem in its usual compartmentalised way. A shipowner may be unwilling to bear the additional cost for security teams if he can pass on sufficient risk to the charterer by an appropriate clause in the charter party; some standard charter parties have been amended to allow for this spreading of risk. Insurance companies hedge their risk similarly in specialised markets. I suspect that, in the end, it is just a dollars and cents scenario for all these people; a 'how much does this cost me?' exercise. As for the crews at risk, the question being asked in shipping and insurance boardrooms across the world must be: ‘How do we limit liability and payouts if a crewmember is killed?’ It is hardly the first time that this callous pricing of a seafarers life is done, but the practice of putting human life below that of a decimal point difference on a balance sheet bottomline is abhorrent every time.

As for the third element I promised to add, here it is: In my opinion, we must, along with placing security teams on board and a blockade of pirate haven ports, find watertight means of bringing captured pirates to justice. This is all up in the air now. Some are dumped to be prosecuted in Kenya; high profile (read Western) target hijacks result in any captured pirates being taken to those countries for trial. Some have been dumped on Yemen in the past. The coalition does not seem to be able to get its arms around jurisdictional and other such legal issues. These are thorny, we are told.

So make new international regulations that take away the thorns, good people! Find a way of keeping captured pirates in a stockade! For, if the international community cannot find a mechanism to prosecute armed marauders caught while boarding merchant ships and sometimes killing crews, often assaulting them and invariably holding them hostage for months, then it should, instead, call itself the coalition of the absurd.

I would also like the Indian Government to do more. Actually, scratch that; considering that they have done precious little, I would like them to do much more. For one, it is the Indian Ocean after all, and India has strategic geopolitical interests there. Two, we are particular victims of terrorism, and there are links between piracy and terrorism, including Al Qaeda and Pakistani links. Three, a large part of our trade, now at risk due to piracy, is through this region. And four, Indian ships and seafarers may be at particular risk, given the US warning last month that they could be targeted. With Indians working on both Indian and foreign vessels, pressure needs to be increased on foreign flags and owners as well as Indian shipowners to take the essential steps to protect Indian nationals. Security teams on any ships with any Indians on board, is what I would like to see.

Unfortunately, besides the usual expressions of concern and politicians’ vacuous promises, the Indian Government is beatifically silent on this threat. As usually happens when it comes to mariner security or welfare issues, it is sleepwalking through this one too. The Americans are protecting their citizens; it is time India did the same.



November 18, 2009

Flogging the dead horse.

There is, by now, a certain weary and blasé inevitability to the reporting of pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. Even the headlines look tired (In how many ways can one report a ship hijack anyway? And how often can one quote the same exhausted statistics?) I have a mental picture of editors across the world moaning about the fact that their readership is fatigued by piracy, and that it is time that more stuff on Megan Fox’s wardrobe, or the lack thereof, be on display instead. Enough of boring cargo ships and unknown dumb hostage sailors already!

That said, there is periodically a spark of life in the dying horse. “Pirates seize arms laden cargo ship!!” one story said recently. (The pirates on board, talking to VOA in this media savvy age, deny this. Given the links between piracy and terrorism, I would have preferred ‘Bin Laden and arms laden ship!’ instead). ‘Two ships attacked one thousand miles from Somali coastline for first time”, screams another headline. (Wait awhile, my friend, future attacks may be in the Gulf of Kutch). And so on.

In the last few weeks such headlines seem to have freshened a bit, largely because the weather has not and has, in fact, turned quite pirate friendly. However, there are other factors, too. Pirates have threatened violence with hostage crews and demanded release of pirates in Europe. NATO has warned India that our crews and shipping may be particularly targeted, given that Pakistanis have been found in control amongst a few pirate crews. A high ranking official in Europe has said the UK is not examining pirate links to terrorists adequately. Spain is contemplating calling for a blockade of Somali pirate ports: a long overdue move, in my view. All headline making stuff. However, two years ago all this would have stirred up a small storm in maritime, security and political circles. Today, it is a storm in a tea cup.

Worse, the media’s lethargy in keeping up with contemporary events on land in Somalia while simultaneously and metronomously droning on about 18 years of Somali civil war, fragile UN backed governments and the usual fillers does us another disservice. It ignores the fact that Somalia threatens, once again, to become a major terrorist training ground, with security experts expecting Afghani and Pakistani based terrorists to move to the Horn of Africa in larger numbers. With 1.5 million people driven from their homes, Somalia is well on the way to becoming another powder keg with the fuse lit and sizzling. (Maybe not so coincidentally, that arms laden ship is UAE flagged and reportedly carrying medium range missiles in contravention of the UN embargo on Somalia, reports say. The pirates deny this too.)

While we choose to ignore the issue, we could do well to remember an old tenet of terrorism: gradual escalation. There will come a time when terrorist pirates, whether in Somalia or copycats elsewhere, will kill crews or turn captured ships into weapons of cataclysmic destruction. Maybe that will finally get the world's attention.

The numbing regularity of the hijacks and attacks has the air of kismet about it. Like it has happened in the case of terrorist attacks in Kashmir (or elsewhere) earlier, the world expects ships to be attacked in the Indian Ocean today. Coalition forces do not have to repeat, any longer, that they cannot guarantee seafarer safety: we have bought that argument already. We have accepted what seems to be inevitable.

Meanwhile, Lloyds List tells me that pirate hijack success rates have risen to fifty percent post monsoon. Half the ships being attacked are now captured.

This fatigue means that we are no longer, as an industry or a society, looking at the problem with anything else except stupor; we are certainly not looking at solutions. The problem is perceived as insurmountable and so everybody is working around it without finding a way out of it. Used to attacks, much like a soldier with war fatigue, the maritime world does not expect any improvement anytime soon. We look to the usual suspects in the West for solutions; they will not solve the problem, because they are as war fatigued elsewhere and looking for ways out of present quagmires in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq; they certainly don't want to add another region to this hoary list. Moreover, many of the hijacked crews are Asian, and therefore do not matter all that much.
Piracy, therefore, is fait accompli, and will remain so. No maritime unions are screaming for justice, no shipowners are threatening a boycott, no countries are threatening a blockade of Somalia, no governments are finding solutions, no seafarers are refusing to sail.

Let’s face it, the West has no stomach for fighting the war in Somalia. The Indian government, in its time honoured tradition, does not care two hoots for the fate of seafarers, hostage or not, although the manure will hit the fan should Indians start getting killed regularly by terrorists amongst the pirates, as they probably and chillingly will. (I can see Arnab Goswami going to town with his patented self righteous look then, at least until the ratings drop).

Therefore, the pirates, criminals and terrorists will continue to thrive, both on land and at sea. Shipowners and managers will continue to bemoan rising insurance costs in ‘these tough times’ while doing nothing. Security consultants will continue to laugh all the way to the bank while their employees jump off ships at the first sign of trouble. Bankers and others as far apart as the UAE and London will continue to celebrate rising pirate money flows. Governments will dither. The IMO will pass resolutions until we all pass out.

And seafarers will continue to remain exposed: unarmed, uncared and unsung at the front lines of this new war zone, they will remain the innocents of the apocalypse. Like most innocents, they will bleed and die. Just give them some time.


November 12, 2009

Heart of the matter

I watch the kids’ frenzied dancing; pent up release, no doubt, after three months of a controlled and disciplined existence. Their Pre Sea training is complete today; their farewell speeches were simultaneously hopeful and nostalgic and could not really mask the excited anticipation of going out to sea for the first time: a feeling we jaded old timers have long forgotten.

Until a day or two ago, we complained that many were of low academic calibre, unable to understand even school level mathematics and physics. We said that most were not committed and many were lazy. The instructors got angry when students could not answer, in weekly tests, stuff that they had repeatedly taught them. We told ourselves that they would be in for a rude shock when they stepped on board their first ships.

We should have, instead, asked this question much more frequently: Did the faculty do their best for them? Did they teach with heart?

To exhaust the faculty’s other excuses, the syllabus mandated was incomplete, ill conceived and generally not fit enough for purpose. Commercial constraints and unavailability of appropriately experienced personnel meant that the institute had to teach some subjects with second best faculty. The institute’s administrative systems were not strong enough, resulting in delays in dissemination of course material. Some infrastructure and power problems meant that they could not use computer based training to the extent desirable. There was an outbreak of flu. There were too many changes with visiting faculty in one important subject.

Pardon my French, but all these excuses are bull. Of course, they make a difference, in the end, to quality of education; I am not denying that. Of course infrastructure or other such issues can jar continuity of teaching, be major irritants and generally make the process of training more difficult and less palatable; I am not denying that either. Nevertheless, these reasons ignore the fact that faculty must, periodically, introspect and determine how committed they are and how much of themselves they put into what they teach. If they are not committed enough, all these other reasons are chaff; worse, these red herrings will ensure that the quality of education will stagnate and not improve in the future, for they are good excuses.

“Are we putting our hearts into the training?” is a good question for any educational institution to ask; it may even be the most important one. The query forces the trainers to accept responsibility for training. It weeds out educators that phone their lectures in. It discourages the acceptance of lacklustre commitment and semi retired mindsets of some permanent faculty or the unprepared ramblings of some visiting faculty. It forces the organisation to find solutions to its other problems that degrade training. It satisfies the immediate customer, the student, who can very well tell an average faculty from a dedicated one. Moreover, the question implies a critical ongoing drive towards excellence. It demands a response.

That same query, in the end, will differentiate an exceptional Maritime Education and Training institute from an average one. The answer to this question will give you the winning edge.

I want to ask the question of the institution as I have a celebratory drink with everybody after the formal passing out, but I postpone my inquiry. Some questions are better asked stone cold sober.

A couple of lakhs does not seem like a lot of money to many of us. Two hundred thousand rupees will probably not even buy you a cheap car barring the Nano. At less than a month’s wages, it certainly is not a lot of money for many at sea and in many jobs ashore these days.

However, to an aspiring Cadet whose parents have taken a loan in an attempt to guarantee his future, two hundred thousand is far from peanuts. And, if he has signed up for a foreign Certificate of Competency, this is probably a fraction of what he will finally spend before he gets his Second Mates certificate. He will save some money out of his stipend at sea, but it will not be enough; more loans are in the offing.

There is this cash crunch with many trainees. There is supposed to be an officer crunch too, with the industry reeling out statistics of projected shortfalls of officers over the next few years. If these are indeed genuine numbers (I reserve judgement), owners and managers should be looking to sponsor cadets in far greater numbers than they are doing at present. This patronage can come along with a legally binding surety that the cadet will work for them for a certain period after his Certificate of Competency. Instead, we have at least one major shipping company announcing that it cannot guarantee placement of its own trainees after their graduation.

In the mid seventies, when even a lakh meant something, my parents spent ten thousand rupees or so on eleven months of my training. My examinations were all in India, and like many, I too managed those with no further financial demands on my folks. However, I had to sign a three year bond with Scindia’s, agreeing that I would work there for a couple of years after my apprenticeship. I left anyway as soon as I got my Second Mates. It wasn’t the money; somehow, I knew that an Indian ship culture was not for me.

Companies who fear that this scenario will repeat itself with present day Cadets may do well to remember this: out of about twenty Cadets in Scindia’s, just two of us left, and I believe the other person did so because his family was migrating to Australia. The owners were therefore ahead of the game. These statistics favour the shipowner even today.

Investing for the future does not mean buying office space when real estate prices are low. People are the differentiating factor, not infrastructure. I dare the industry to boldly go where they have never gone before, and spend some time thinking about their future human needs, both at sea and ashore.


November 05, 2009

Turning Turtle

Olive Ridley Turtle, Orissa beach (courtesy Kalinga Times)

We protest loudly enough at the unfair criminalisation of mariners and the acidic nature of PSC inspections; it is only fair that we should applaud authorities equally loudly when they get it right.

In the first prosecution under the Nonindigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act, the US recently sentenced Capt. Panageotis Lekkas of the ‘Theotokos’ to ten months: six months in jail followed by four months of community confinement. His crime? Failing to inform the US Coast Guard of a broken rudder and illegal discharge of oily waste. Lekkas will also pay a $4000 fine, be deported immediately after release and is banned from calling the US for three years thereafter. Twenty ships of the Greek ship manager Polembros Shipping have been similarly banned from calling at any US ports for the next three years. Polembros has also agreed to pay a $2.7 million dollar fine and another USD 100,000 community service payment to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. The fate of the Chief Engineer and the Chief Officer will probably be similar; both have pleaded guilty to violating environmental laws and making false statements to the USCG.

Sometime early last year, the Theotokos crew discovered a two foot long crack in the rudder on the 1984 built ship and reported it verbally to the Owners. Not only was ballast water from the Afterpeak tank leaking out of this crack, oil from a fuel tank was found leaking into the Afterpeak as well, with obvious implications. Stupidly but not unusually, Lekkas ordered that the Afterpeak, and therefore indirectly the oil from the leaking fuel tank, be pumped overboard at sea. He didn’t stop there, though. He had the Chief Officer obstruct the sounding pipe to the Afterpeak so that water would show on the sounding line and not oil in case of an inspection.

Meanwhile, Chief Engineer Stamou was doing his bit for the cause. The Oily Water Separator had stopped working sometime ago; after reporting it to the Superintendent on the phone, the Chief pumped the bilges directly overboard without (obviously) recording anything in the Oil Record Book. Again, stupid but not unusual.

They were caught by the Coast Guard in New Orleans in October last year. Everybody, including Palembros, pleaded guilty to mostly everything; easy to do once you are caught with your pants down.

The Theotokos story played itself out over the last two years. Meanwhile, just this year, in iron ore related casualties off the coast of India, both the Asian Forest and the Black Rose went down. The Asian Forest sank off Mangalore in July and had leaked oil twice, the last time in September. Officials pooh poohed the quantity of the oil that leaked out, but the fact remains that the ship was carrying almost 400 tonnes of bunkers when she sank. Even with plugged leaks, as authorities claim, she still poses a pollution risk.

The Black Rose, on the other hand, sank off Paradip on September 9. A month later, after finding that insurance and other documents related to the ship were fraudulent and that Paradip port would probably have to foot the cleanup bill, port authorities were still ‘preparing’ to appoint an agency to pump out almost a thousand tonnes of bunkers off the ship. "We are at present examining several tenders submitted for the purpose," one official said. As officials examined tenders and contemplated their navels, fishermen and others reported seeing thousands of dead fish at sea after the incident. Thousands more were reportedly washed ashore in Paradip. Greenpeace and others warned of ‘a devastating impact’ on the Gahirmata Marine Sanctuary just 30 miles away, home of the endangered Olive Ridley Turtles and at the Bitharkanika National Park, India’s second largest mangrove ecosystem.

Salvage work at the site finally started on Oct 23, a month and a half after the accident and after a US salvage company was appointed. As if this delay was not criminal enough, work was suspended for a while almost immediately because of paperwork and bureaucratic delays at the Paradip Port Trust and because Customs refused to permit the transportation of the salvaged oil by road. Only in India.

And, as is usual in indifferent India, this story is nowhere in the collective psyche of a nation used to littering, drinking milk made out of detergent and urea and throwing its industrial and household garbage out in the street. Par for the course.

The Black Rose incident highlights to me, once again, how ill prepared we are for development. At a time when infrastructure is the latest buzzword and port projects seem to be announced on a weekly basis, we have essentially no coherent environmental policy or disaster management infrastructure in place. We have many things to learn. For one, there is no evidence of India having access to, leave alone using, the GM bacteria and other advanced technology used elsewhere to fight oil spills. Secondly, as the Paradip incident demonstrates, we seem to have no domestic setup in place; we need companies from abroad to come and clean up our coast. As when other disasters strike, we have no plan, no training, no equipment, no allocations, no personnel, no will and, therefore, no clue. Thirdly, even though Jairam Ramesh’s Ministry of Environment and Forests is making appropriate noises and feeding titillating sound bytes to the media regularly, precious little timely progress is made after any incident, when babudom indulges in its favourite sport: buck passing.

I believe that the pathetic (and apathetic) response of our government, its regulators, the shipping industry in particular and civil society at large, coupled with the almost fated corruption in our public and private systems, will collectively ensure that our coastline will be environmentally decimated by blinkered development within a lifetime.

To continue with the spotlight on Orissa, there are ten more ports being planned in the next decade along its 487 km coastline. Ironically, on the same day that the Black Rose salvage finally commenced, the Orissa government signed a MoU with the Aditya Birla Group for the setting up of a Rs 1500 crore port at Chudamani. This, despite a Public Interest Litigation that raises serious concerns about the impact of this development on the Olive Ridley Turtle in particular and the broader marine environment in general.

Other questions are being raised about single hulled tankers being dumped to trade on Indian coastlines and radioactive ships being sent to be broken up at Alang. I am confident that these interrogations will remain unanswered; the historical evidence is not encouraging here at all. (Can you imagine the Black Rose or Platinum II incident playing out similarly elsewhere, barring in a few underdeveloped African countries? I can’t)

Therefore, for a change, I applaud the US for doing the right thing even as I hold the Indian response, preparedness and will to protect its environment in contempt. It is not enough, any longer, to cry (as we do at International Climate Change conventions) that the West must pay for cleaning up the environment proportionally to its contribution to the destruction of nature. It is not enough, any longer, for India to ape the turtle and stay within its shell, smug and blinkered on the path of extinction. Our policies, preparedness and infrastructure to protect our coastline must radically change. Critically, so must our will. We are not Somalia. The maritime industry, in particular, must stand up and be counted. We must stick our necks out; that is a precondition to any turtle making progress.

Of course, we have another option. We could always, and along with our oceans and seas, turn turtle and die.


October 31, 2009

The seven-year itch.

I subscribe to a group on the internet, one that I visit once a fortnight or so. Most of its members are merchant naval officers from India. Many are very senior and experienced, both at sea and ashore.

A youngster joined the group recently with some questions: he had an offer in hand to join an Indian company for his initial apprenticeship and sought informed advice on, amongst other things, what he could do ashore after about seven year's experience at sea. He obviously wanted to quit sailing after around that time and enquired about his career prospects at that stage, either in shipping or in another industry that had potential. He asked which other industries would be relevant, given his assumed experience.

The reactions, with a few notable exceptions, crystallised for me the main reason why we fail to attract the young to a career at sea today: this is because many of us are almost delusionally out of touch with reality.

The youngster (who remained polite throughout in the thread, to his credit) was ridiculed and the sorry state of the industry was put firmly at the doorstep of his (and such) attitudes. He was advised to, alternately, take the apprenticeship offer immediately and stay away from shipping because, by implication, people like him would not be able to cut it. He was mocked for signing up with a moniker that was not his real name. Many replies were sarcastic and others were condescending. Exasperated terms like 'spoon feeding' and 'here we go again' were used. Except for a small handful of members who tried to bring some reality into the proceedings and one or two who even offered to meet the guy to help him out with his questions, other senior Masters and Chief Engineers on the forum seemed to be on the usual nostalgic ego trips, alternately bemoaning the fate of the industry and the commitment of the young today.

Almost nobody answered his questions in a systematic or mature manner. Nobody listed the pros and cons of his suggested course of action or gave him advice on later career alternatives, which is what he had requested. The youngster wanted information; instead, he got derision. In his place, I would have gone away with the impression that the merchant navy was staffed by unhelpful and cantankerous fuddy duddies. I would have carried this impression to my friends. Maybe I would have abandoned any plans of joining shipping at all.

Times have changed, gentlemen. The prospective new recruit is looking far beyond what we looked at when we were his age. He is examining options and determining exit strategies. He wants to make some money and quit for greener and otherwise more satisfying pastures before he is thirty, or as soon as possible thereafter. He has a lot more information at his fingertips, much of which is inaccurate or otherwise lopsided because it does not come from sailors like us: however, by giving him the reception we did, we blew our chances of correcting the imbalance. We did not give him what he was looking for: an informed opinion. He will go elsewhere and get uninformed opinions instead: we know how distorted those are likely to be.

The problem is bigger than the feelings, or the fate, of just one prospect. The posture that this industry is doing a favour to any new entrant remains a universal one in Indian shipping circles and is a huge reason why we cannot attract suitable talent anymore. This same attitude was faced by us when we came out to sea as sparkling new Cadets many moons ago; the sparkle has gone long ago, but the attitude remains like fading memory. Unfortunately, the world has moved on since those times that look, as usual, rosy in retrospect.

Other industries visit campuses to identify and lock in to promising talent; we hang a shingle and wait for talent to walk in through the door. Other businesses spend time and money trying to recruit and retain their present and potential workforce; we retire with a gin and tonic and berate the young who ask questions. Other industry projects manpower requirements into the future; we work on supply and demand decisions made by the seat of our pants when they are on fire. Other sectors rate their chances of growth impossible without robust HRD departments; our HRD departments are a joke and a byproduct. As if excellence can be achieved by chance.

I say this: If this generation desires to have a shortish seven or ten year stint at sea and shift out, let us make it easier for them to do so. Let us modify our moribund gasping for air policies to better suit the requirements of present day talent. Let’s face it, if they want to leave in seven years they will do so anyway; if we do not offer them an attractive option we will lose them for good to other industry. Let us retain this talent within the industry at the end of their sailing lifespan with well thought out career paths; as things stand today, and with the kind of treatment and respect we give seafarers, they will leave in disgust and to escape, and we will be left with the dregs, not the best and the brightest.

As for old cantankerous and stagnant attitudes, it is not as if these really worked even thirty years ago: the abysmal growth of the Indian shipping industry during this time cannot be all blamed on unsupportive Government policies. Some of the blame lies at our doorsteps, too; we did not attract the right people and we did not retain them long enough.

We can't seem to attract the requisite people in the requisite numbers even today, and we certainly can't, in future, run our ships with people who are unemployable everywhere else. Not at a time when the engine control room and the navigating bridge are getting more complex by the day. Regrettably, I have no doubt that if we continue with present attitudes it will soon come to that.

Gentlemen, the world has changed. Deal with it.


October 25, 2009

Bleeding on the Styx

We do not build ports of optimum sizes at optimum places; we build them for political and commercial patronage, election gains and kickbacks. We extend this sickness into every aspect of maritime life. We do not train enough seafarers and we don't train them well enough because some of our institutions are riddled with what we Indians love to call 'vested interests'. We don't build road and rail connectivity to ports appropriately because the status quo suits the transport contractor who gives us nice Diwali presents. We plan to build a huge canal of the wrong depth and for the wrong reasons against sage advice.

We blame a former Shipping Minister for a lot of rotten behaviour that is still ongoing and hamstrings progress even today. In addition, our maritime security has been repeatedly compromised because some of the people in the institutions that are supposed to protect us allowed material and trained terrorists to land on our shores in exchange for thirty pieces of silver. I bet some still do. Astoundingly and along with the rest of the commercial world, the shipping industry does not seem bothered about the malaise of corruption that continues to rot our commercial and spiritual soul.

Amazingly, we continue to ignore the true cost of our pussyfooting around the 'c' word. That the economy hemorrhages by such behaviour is a given; that this bleeding gives rise to gross injustice and consequent frustration, despair and anger is dismissed; that the Naxalite violence now affecting almost a third of our 604 districts is a direct consequence of more than a half century of corruption and consequent frustration is discounted. This violence, or social unrest, depending on one's prism, can easily bring our economy (and our shipping infrastructure along with it) to a grinding halt pretty quickly. As I write this, the government is planning to send in 35,000 paramilitary forces over 11 'theatres of operation' across a vast swath of the country; they say this will be a two or three year operation. Nobody can tell me movement of goods, trade and shipping will not be adversely hit, particularly on the East Coast 'Red Corridor' (see map).

I would like to see the maritime fraternity doing less fraternising, for once, and take the lead in fighting corruption wherever it occurs within it. This is not a utopian pipe dream but a prerequisite for survival: the natives are already restless, and they are armed. We ostriches are running out of time.

What would really happen, I wonder, if industry bodies and associations representing shipowners and others issued a joint statement appealing to their members not to cough up speed money? What would really happen if individual shipowners in India advertised in the newspapers of their decision to stop paying up at almost every industry/government interface? What if, in addition, a part of this industry made the cause of fighting corruption public? What would really happen? It would be tough for the honest, at least initially, yes, but somehow I doubt that shipping would grind to a halt or be cripplingly targeted, especially if full media glare is actively solicited.

Not easy, sure. Requiring individual commitment, certainly. Assuming an industry wide integrity and homogeneity where none exists, yes. Tilting at windmills, perhaps. Critically required? Absolutely. Imagine, in my utopian delusion, what would happen if we actually made sufficient headway in cleaning up the industry and the government bodies associated with it. By showing the country the way to start ridding itself of arguably the biggest festering sore on its body, we will, like the Information Technology industry, acquire a progressive persona at one fell swoop. We will have contributed colossally to changing the face of India, and we would have leapfrogged our industry into greatly enhanced efficiency and profitability.

 A little math before I end. Since large numbers usually blind me to their impact on real people, a reminder: a billion is a thousand million. A trillion is a thousand billion. (Those, folks, are a lot of zeros after the one). Statistics, as Michelle Pfeiffer will undoubtedly tell you, should conceal more than they reveal. Pamela Anderson will probably disagree, but it doesn't matter. Indian vital statistics are staggering on both counts; besides being in your face, they often require to be reduced and put into perspective to be understood.

Consider this one: Although numbers as high as 1.7 trillion are bandied about by many others, the Economic Times says that wealth stashed away by Indians in offshore banks could be as much as US $1 or 1.5 trillion. That is 1.5 thousand thousand million. United States Dollars. All of this money is undeclared; much of it is cached, we can guess, by corrupt babus and politicians, although it belongs to you and me. More numbers: Indian Gross Domestic Product (the total market values of goods and services produced by workers and capital within a nation's borders) stood at $1.2 trillion last year. Then, the Reserve Bank of India pegs the Indian external debt at $227.7 billion as of June '09. India's internal public debt (including market borrowings, external debt and other liabilities like small savings and provident funds), on the other hand, is approximately three times this number, at roughly $600 billion. I have totalled up and rounded off both external and internal debt, for the sake of simplicity, to $830 billion.

Finally, widely available figures tell me that India's population stands (or staggers, depending on your point of view) at 1.15 billion. Therefore, unless I have botched up the calculations again, all this means is that a) Indian iffy money held in offshore banks was worth around a year’s total of all goods and services produced by the entire country in 2008; b) Indian money stashed abroad could pay off the entire Indian external and internal debt and the country would still be left with some loose change. c) Each Indian is indebted to the tune of (dividing 830 by 1.15) more than 720 dollars, or 30,000 rupees, give or take. Given that our per capita income is only about 37,000 rupees, this statistic (that an average Indian is in debt for up to ten months of his full wages) is almost the most astonishing of them all. Almost, but not quite.

Public indifference, the confederate of corruption, tops this list, the same as it tops so many other infamous ones in this great (and greatly plagued) nation. Time to change that?

At least I think so; some utopian dreams are worth blood and sweat, especially when the alternative is continued existence on the banks of the river Styx. Right between the Earth and the Underworld, or between Earth and Hell, depending on which mythology one follows: Greek or Christian.