August 07, 2009


Once upon a time, up until about thirty years ago, more people from Europe went out to sea to make their fortunes. Then things changed: economic prosperity at home resulted in higher salaries ashore; this, coupled with the unique disadvantages of seafaring nullified the advantages of a seagoing career in potential seafarer’s eyes. The industry sought alternatives, and found, amongst others, Philippines and India as cheaper and more willing sources of manpower.

India is facing, today, what Europe faced then, which is a slow erosion of seafaring as a preferred option. Listen, for a moment, then, to the sound of history repeating itself, and ask yourself if this is inevitable or inconsequential. Ask yourself, too, if this is desirable, or if we need to address this issue seriously or just plod along hoping for the best, expecting the worst, and not doing much about it all either way.

I believe we in India are at the cusp of a major trend change. For one, there is a difference between these two parallels I have drawn above. Europe, particularly the UK, dominates shipping in other ways even today, decades after its seafarers stopped coming out to sea in large numbers. They have forced a monopoly in shipping as in some other industries; along with the US and some other powerful countries, the centre of gravity of shipping regulation, insurance, consultancy, research, freight indices, reinsurance, classification and a plethora of other specialised services is still in the West. We could argue if the US is more powerful than Europe here, but, in any case, Asia is not where the biggest decisions and regulations are made. The roll call of big maritime corporations may include Japanese and Taiwanese ship owners, but the influence of a relatively smaller European company on international regulation is larger. Indian influence is almost nonexistent compared to even some other Asian countries, anyway.

Which means that if India loses even the six percent or so market share she has of the global seafarer market today, she can kiss the industry goodbye eventually, because shipping expertise will die out in a generation or so. The EU survived this sort of thing by keeping Asians and others away from employment in the shoreside industry in Europe and promoting former East European nationalities there: we in India will not have similar options. Expatriates will not come in unless Mumbai is a magnet the way London or New York are.

We have other inherent disadvantages when we compare ourselves with China, arguably our biggest future threat when it comes to manning market share in maritime expertise: our governments have so far been largely disinterested in our industry, especially in the promotion of seafaring as a career. Additionally, although we in India seem to have accepted that we will have to source people now from non English speaking and semi urban or rural backgrounds, we have no drawn no large scale plans of either recruiting them or improving their language (and sometimes even mathematical) skills once employed. The Chinese can mandate “Fifty thousand English speaking mariners required by 2012” and deliver. We will be slower even if we get our act together, because we will be looking at the private sector to largely fund and manage this kind of exercise: one that has so far not shown much vision when it comes to manning issues. Indian governments, too, continue to be shortsighted on this score year after year.

The Philippines, another huge competitor, has supported private and public initiatives much better, which is why a third of the global seafaring community comes from that country today, and why Filipinos still want to go out to sea. I can easily foresee, a few years down the road, a time when China and the Philippines will, between them, decimate the Indian manning market share. Besides, we will not be able to claim professional, language or other superiority if we continue to recruit people with lower academic scores and language skills compared to earlier, and especially if we do not train them properly to overcome these deficiencies.

So we need to fix the problem. We need to forecast domestic and international requirements reasonably accurately and not just play the hackneyed ‘supply and demand’ record. We need to aggressively source new recruits, perhaps starting some formal identification of these at Class/Grade 10 level. We need to explain to them the advantages and disadvantages of seafaring realistically. We need to train them appropriately, including additional training in language or other skills if required, probably as part of the Pre Sea training. We need to push the government to extend tax advantages to domestic seafarers, or there will come a time when we will see no Indians on Indian ships.

Existing national and international ship owing and management organisations must be involved in this and other industry/government initiatives; right now they seem to be mere public relations orientated bodies. In addition, as often said in earlier columns (just one, ‘Carpe Diem’ last September), we need, desperately, an independent national seafarers body for feedback and input to government and industry. Not a Union; we know how that works, but a body that can facilitate this process by giving input into young seafarer expectations from the industry.

What is frustrating is that all these thoughts are nothing new. These measures, and probably better ones, have been put forward by some of us often. Frustratingly, nothing happens. Therefore, this, too, is the sound of history repeating itself.

What is equally frustrating is that nobody who can implement a workable alternative seems to be interested in doing so. Not in industry and not in government, both of whom appear to work in the ‘I am all right, Jack” mode with no thought to the responsibilities they have chosen to take upon themselves, and which are critical for the long term survival of the industry.

You know, I am sometimes irritated by the media hype that seems to surround Mr. Narayanamurthy of Infosys. However, one of his comments in an interview not that long ago resonates, when he said, “In India, we mistake articulation for accomplishment”.

You haven’t seen anything yet, Mr. Narayanamurthy. Peep into the maritime world; our leaders are postmasters at ‘MAFA’.