January 29, 2009

Miracle on the Hudson

Scene One, fact. Less than two weeks ago, Flight 1549 took off from La Guardia airport in New York and was hit by a large flock of geese within two minutes of takeoff. With both engines disabled, Captain Sullenberger took over controls from co pilot Jeffrey Skiles and skillfully ditched the aircraft in the cold waters of the Hudson river. Marvelously, all passengers survived without major injury; it was a time of day when numerous boats and ferries were in the area and which rescued the passengers in minutes. The Airbus 320 has a fuel capacity of about 30,000 litres or 20 metric tonnes; at least some was found leaking into the Hudson river by investigators a day or two after the accident: the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’, as it is now euphemistically called.


Captain Sullenberger was immediately and unequivocally hailed as a hero in the US and abroad: with glowing public tributes from George Bush and Barack Obama and profiled as such by CNN, BBC, Time, Newsweek and every rag and media talking head in between. The mayor of New York declared that all the crew of Flight 1549 would receive the “Key to the City”, a unique honour. The Captains interview with a top talk show was cancelled as inappropriate since an NTSB investigation is in progress. Meanwhile, Capt. Sullenberger sleeps well at home, and very justifiably so. He is indeed a hero.


Almost two weeks after the incident, nobody has publicly raised many questions about why co Pilot Jeffrey Skiles was at the controls at such a critical time. There is no mass hysteria that up to 20 tonnes of aviation fuel could potentially have leaked into the waters almost within New York, and an unknown quantity has indeed done so. No recriminations. It is all calm after the storm for “Sully” Sullenberger.



Scene Two, imagined. Captain ‘Patsy’ Patel is on the bridge but the Chief Officer is manoeuvring the M.V. “Doomed Indian” as it leaves the breakwater of New York harbour. The engines suddenly fail. Captain Patel takes over immediately and skillfully uses the ships momentum and helm to avoid the numerous craft in the vicinity. In the process, the ship hits the breakwater and one small gas oil tank of 20 tonnes capacity is ruptured on board. An unknown quantity of oil leaks slowly into New York harbour. Professional mariners say, immediately, that Capt. Patel showed great skill and courage under pressure and almost certainly avoided a major accident. Everybody on board is unhurt. Everything is done by the crew to minimise the oil leakage.


Captain Patel and a few other crewmembers are immediately detained and the ship arrested. Almost immediately, the world descends on the ship to harass the crew to a point when it feels like rape. The Managers want records, photocopies, reports and testimonies from the traumatised crew. P&I, Class and charterers want all this in a different format. The Coast Guard demands documents, testimonies, drills, maintenance records and procedures to be demonstrated. Flag State inspectors are expected for a full inspection. Meanwhile, the US approved oil spill contingency plan is in full swing, involving all the crew.


Never mind that the remaining crew is running ragged, doing a dozen critical things at the same time. Never mind that all the outsiders (because that is what you are if you are antagonistic to the crew) just want to finish the paperwork, cover their liabilities (used instead of a more impolite term), control the spill and go home. Never mind the sheer inhumanity of not providing any moral, physical or psychological support to the crew. Never mind the fatigue they are under or the helplessness they feel at this onslaught on their basic human rights. Mariners, especially third world ones, are fair game. They can be treated as convicts before they even become accused criminals.


Never mind that, as far as Patsy Patel and his crew are concerned, they are living on a different planet than Sully Sullenberger and his crew.


“Patsy” Patel will probably sleep in prison. He may not go home for years. No Presidents or President elects will salute him, not even his own in India. Nobody will want to listen to what he has to say unless he is being interrogated. And the only profiles you will see of him will probably include photographs that look more like mug shots. He will probably be handcuffed and simply taken away. Out of sight. Out of mind.


What about the others? Well, most of the seablind population will ignore them. Their own colleagues will usually feed them homilies for the next few years. We will tell those that rot in jails or detention that they are heroes. Some of us can protest their treatment even while others stop paying their wages claiming frustration of contract. Some will tell Patsy’s colleagues that they are this industry’s real strength and part of a family. Most will switch to damage containment mode and hope that mariners will continue to buy their lies once again, because they always have. The IMO will bring out an updated version of its ‘Fair treatment’ guidelines. The UN will ratify new conventions. Legal experts, diplomats, captains of industry and other miscellaneous experts will dine on cocktails and the carcasses of persecuted sailors.


The mariners have forgotten the Erika and the Prestige and hundreds of lesser crimes against them; they will forget the Hebei Spirit and the Doomed Indian, too.


They will continue to agree to sail to France and Spain and Korea, the EU, Canada and the US and dozens of other countries which have legislated draconian laws against their own basic human rights, or the many countries that flaunt ratified conventions in defiance of international law.


The seamen are the fall guys. Let this macabre joke be on them, too.


Maybe sailors will say, at some stage, that enough is enough. Maybe something will snap sometime, and discontent and anger will give way to rage. Maybe when they are repeatedly assaulted, one of them will finally refuse the violation politely. “Not tonight, I have a headache”.


Meanwhile, let’s clean out their cages, at least. Because for these guys, there is no miracle awaiting them on the Hudson, or anywhere else.
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January 24, 2009

Voices of the damned.

Humour me while I tell you some short stories, one or two of which you probably know already.


Jiang Lichung is Chinese. He was a crewmember on a Taiwanese fishing trawler, the Qingfenghua 168, which was about 220 miles from Somalia in April 2007 when about a dozen heavily armed pirates took over the vessel. Jiang, his cousin, and nine other crew were taken hostage. They were beaten three or four times daily by the pirates as they negotiated ransom with the owner of the trawler; Jiang calls the beatings ‘torture’. A month or so later, when the owner refused to pay the 300,000 dollars demanded, the pirates took another Chinese crewmember on deck, lashed him to a post, and executed him. The other crew heard six gunshots and later saw blood all over the deck.

Jiang and the rest of the crew were held hostage for another five and a half months, suffering daily beatings, before a ransom was paid and they were released. In all, Jiang spent almost seven months in captivity, and is today a traumatised man who refuses to have anything to do with the sea.


Fast forward to a few months later. Last week, Ibrahim Etman, an Egyptian crewmember on the cargo ship ‘Blue Star’ seized off Somalia on New Year’s day 2009, told his daughter on the phone that the crew were being ‘mistreated’ by the hijackers because the owners have refused to pay ransom and have ceased negotiating with the pirates.


Also, last week, the VLCC Sirius Star was released after a 3 million dollar ransom was paid. Five or six pirates out of the whole gaggle drowned as they were fleeing the scene, when their boat capsized in rough weather. One drowned pirate’s body was washed ashore with $153,000 in cash stuffed into his pockets.


The tragedy is not that Jiang was beaten or that Ibrahim probably has been. The real tragedy is not even that a crewmember was shot dead by the pirates, or that the crew of the Blue Star is at similar risk right now. The tragedy (or it is irony?) is not even that Jiang’s story was unknown for months, and came out in the China Daily this week only because China is using Somalia as a justification for expanding its naval presence in the Indian Ocean, and is using Jiang’s torture to mould public opinion towards that end.


The real tragedy is this: Barely a few days after the pirate boat capsize as I write this, newspapers from the US to Europe and from Hong Kong to Timbuktu are full of the story of the drowned pirates and their blood money. Jiang and Ibrahim’s stories are not even mentioned except in one Chinese and one Egyptian newspaper; in fact, it requires a fair amount of patience to find their stories on the mother of all search engines, Google.


Don’t believe me? Consider this, then: Thirty two seafarers have been either killed or are missing and presumed dead after pirate attacks worldwide in 2008, the most in recent history. How many of their stories have you read? Barring one, I have not even heard their names. Dead or tortured mariners are not really newsworthy. Dead pirates are.


As for the executed Chinese crewmember, his name was Chen Tao. His blood should make us see red.








Captain Apostolos Mongouras is another seafarer who continues to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Master of the Prestige had salt rubbed into his wounds again as the European Court of Human Rights threw out his case against Spain last week. Mongouras had alleged that the 3 million Euro bail set by Spanish courts in the wake of the 2002 disaster (and after he had spent three months in a Spanish jail) was too high. The court disagreed. Seafarer’s organisations in Europe have cried foul, saying the decision is politically motivated. Organisations like the ITF have issued strong statements. You know, the usual stuff.


More than six years have passed after the initial travesty of justice; six years after the real culprits in the case: three European governments, one classification society and the usual assortment of owners, managers and their lackeys, got away with murder of the environment. Six years after a brave Master was forced away from safety and into bad weather on a disintegrating ship against all tenets of international law and civilised behaviour. Six years after Captain Mongouras was lauded by anybody with any knowledge of shipping for courage and for making the right decisions under immense pressure, including righting a ship in terrible weather and slithering across a damaged deck to attach the vessel to a salvage tug in a raging storm. He was the last man to be lifted off the ship. He was nominated for the ‘Shipmaster of the Year” award by the Nautical Institute.


He was also treated like a criminal by Spain. Politics and the need to find a scapegoat (and deflect attention away from a Government’s atrocious behaviour) got him jailed. Eventually, even his bail amount was politically influenced, even decided. "Given that I chose to remain on board, putting my own life at risk and saved the lives of my crew, I find it extraordinary that I should be treated this way," was amongst the few things he had to say at the time. After nearly three months in jail, bail for Mongouras was set at a ridiculous 3 million Euros precisely because an individual would not be able to afford that amount, one that is not normally covered by insurance. That the insurance club involved paid up is heartwarming, but the Spaniards wanted Mongouras to stay in jail.


Now, more than six years later, this Master is not to be granted any satisfaction of seeing even a small measure of justice being done to him. His human rights continue to be violated, this time by the European Court of Human Rights, for reasons we can all accurately guess. He will see the rest of the industry go on using the same words against their ruling, though. The words will imply condemnation, outrage and disappointment. The industry will not do anything else, or anything substantial anyway, because doing so has commercial repercussions. No rocking the boat in shipping, times are bad, don’t you know?


We usually refer to these stories as ‘The Erika case’ or ‘The Prestige case’ and presume that everybody knows what they are all about. I disagree with the nomenclature, because it ignores the real tragedy behind these affairs, which is the utterly abominable way seafarers are reprehensively bullied by so many. The terminology also ignores the invertebrate response of the rest of the industry towards issues of mariner justice, and the culpable response of many of its constituents whenever accidents occur at sea. The real criminals are usually sitting on dry land even as a case is being made against a courageous and innocent seafarer; this is certainly true in ‘The Prestige Case’


It occurs to me that, judging from the industry’s demonstrated gutlessness and inability to protect innocent seafarers from malevolent justice, the only ‘case’ I can think of that describes the continuing state of affairs has the word ‘basket’ attached to it.

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(footnote: The International Maritime Bureau says 32 seafarers have been killed worldwide in piracy attacks in 2008. This is the highest ever number since the IMB started keeping records in 1992).





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January 16, 2009

What Indian maritime fraternity?

Notwithstanding the clich├ęs spewed out regularly by interested parties, it is with deep ruefulness that I allege that the ‘maritime community’ does not exist. It died before it was even born, for it is a maritime community sans the mariner.


The ostensible reasons for the lack of cohesion in the supposed fraternity are well known. A fragmented industry, globally dispersed, ridden with conflicts of interest and staffed by generations of contractual employees must have particular problems keeping the flock together. Contentious issues are difficult to address because the ‘community’ is international but agendas are commercial, national or regional. Additionally and at the national level, unions are often politicised, industry bodies are narrow in outlook and scope and powerful interests often dominate regulatory systems. We all know this; consequently, many of us consider the possibility of a cohesive national industry community with an international mindset inconceivable. And so we don’t even try.


I submit that such a posture is overstated and defeatist. I am convinced that attempts to form maritime constituencies are not made seriously enough or are made by the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Myopic stalwarts of the industry do not see the commercial advantages of cohesiveness when it comes to involving mariners in their narrow definition of ‘community’. For, let’s face it, a ‘maritime community’ without mariners is like chicken curry without the chicken: meaningless. I am equally convinced that some are even wary of promoting organised national seafarer bodies, for obvious reasons. Keeping seafarers scattered and disenfranchised, or in any event uninvolved in their own future and that of the industry, is convenient for some.


There seems to be no hesitation in associations being formed when it comes to other common commercial pursuits in the maritime industries. National and international shipmanagement, ownership, insurance, P&I and Class associations exist, however inept some may be. Many are well represented by a cross section of constituents from their narrow fraternities. Such groups represent their cause in larger industry fora; they are part of a wider maritime community, such as it is. Not so the seafarer.


This indurate rejection of mariners from the wider maritime community is worse in India than in many other countries. I further submit that this wanton exclusion of Indian mariners from all walks of maritime life not directly associated with their jobs is a reason for discontent in the profession, with the resultant fallout that such discontent inevitably induces. We need to examine this dissatisfaction closely while we ponder questions of seafarer shortages, to which, thus far, we have proposed the same hackneyed solutions.


It is quite possible that there is no big conspiracy here; that the missing mariners from the fraternity are absent because of the reasons already mentioned. It is also quite possible that many mariners themselves are not really interested in being part of a fraternity; that the cycle of contract/leave/contract is a comforting known devil to them, and alterations to this routine are not welcome. Maybe some are just lethargic.

I do not really think so. I think that at least some Indian officers would welcome the camaraderie and challenge involved in participating in a wider maritime community. Some are clearly interested; some are clearly bored with their present professional lives. Some have much more to offer the industry, which seems to be incapable of devising a mechanism in which they could do so.


The advantages of a true Indian maritime constituency, with representation from a wide cross section of marine representatives, are so obvious that they do not need to be stated. The greatest rewards such a constituency will offer is a focused and broad based approach to the many challenges and opportunities out there, and the progress that can be made when people see the big picture and pull together in one common direction. However, by pretending that this maritime fraternity exists, as we now do, we ignore our shortcomings to our own peril. In the absence of such a fraternity, the Indian maritime industry, including components that cater to foreign flag ownership, continue to be fractured instead of just fragmented. If we do not change this, we will be forced to be content with picking on the carcass, like vultures, after the lions have had their fill. We will never be major global players in the industry, just participants in the low end parts of it. Our divisions, or at least our lack of cohesiveness, will continue to weaken us.


But what if we get it right? Imagine. An industry that carries the vast majority of goods worldwide. A developing country with one of the fastest growing economies and a huge potential workforce. A major maritime powerhouse, not just in shipmanning or body shopping, but also across a wider, more lucrative spectrum. Miles ahead of China and the Philippines in quality, and constantly widening the gap. Imagine the transformation in the Indian maritime industry if we get it right.


The problem really is that there is a vacuum of leadership in Indian shipping. There is a crying need for a visionary leader who can inspire others with an executable and transformatory plan. When I look around, all I see are functionaries out there, not visionaries. Transformations do not occur with functionaries. Functionaries just soldier on.


We have many soldiers; what we really need are a few generals.
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January 09, 2009

Metronomic behaviour and tiresome platitudes.




As the world of shipping continues to lurch from one crisis to another in its inimitable style, I cannot help but wonder what the next crisis, the next flavour of the month, will be. Will it still be the Hebei Spirit? Piracy? Economic doom and gloom? Or, will it be something new?


I do know, however, that whatever it is, the many Macbeths spread across the maritime world will continue to prevail in their usual hand wringing fashion. The shipping industry will continue to address almost every issue with an eventually useless mix of narrow opportunistic self interest and academically propelled immobility, or, when it comes to seamen’s problems, with a dash of raging and calculated blustering impotence thrown in. In any event, the story of much needed improvements to merchant shipping is likely to continue to be, in the Bard’s words, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.


The drama is, as usual, inanely played and all too predictable. Deteriorating standards, obsolescence or the demonstrated inability of industry players to manage those results in an accident, or a series of incidents. After commercial shipping reaches this breaking stress, statutory bodies gleefully enter the fray. The possibility of new regulations makes them look demonstratably pertinent. Shipping typically reacts to new regulation similarly, keeping itself busy with amending manuals and procedures, adding a layer or two of additional control to the alleged management of ships, and, of course, imploring additional funding from ship owners for all this brouhaha. Grandiose declarations of intent are made. Seafarers are pulled out of the woodwork and inadequately trained in haste. Since Rome was not built in a day, all this takes a while, by which time we are ready for the next crisis. If there is no clear and present danger, we fiddle while the city threatens to burn. The wheel has now come full circle.


Of course, issues related to seafarer safety, working conditions or welfare are not addressed at all, or are promised to be addressed later. They are left simmering, on a back burner so far back that not even industry gas reaches there. I daresay that if more than a hundred commercial airliners had been attacked and over forty of them hijacked in a calendar year, as merchant ships have been, somebody or the other would have, long before now, ‘brought democracy’ to Somalia. At the end of the worst year for piracy off the Horn of Africa, our mariners still continue to be attacked in that region on an almost daily basis. Our ISPS code has proved to be a sick joke; even worse, the shipping industry has done close to nothing to contract this ongoing and potentially fatal threat facing its seagoing employees. It hopes that the UN Security Council will solve their problem sometime in the future. If that is not certified proof of industry incompetence and disregard for seafarer safety, I do not know what is.

However, perhaps it is not that. Perhaps an industry without which world trade would collapse is incapable of persuading the citizens of the same world that seafarers deserve to be protected after years of these attacks. Protected immediately, by the way, not in the hazy and convenient future. That commercial interests do not do this indicates continuing callousness towards the mariner, something worse than incompetence. My list of accused here includes everybody from the UN, IMO and industry bodies right down to thickened Owners and Managers. Individual seafarers too, who continue to agree to sail in these waters, though they are the most powerless of the lot.


Our mariners are being incarcerated unjustly, sometimes for years, while we continue to protest their treatment against all internationally accepted norms of civilised behaviour, and while we continue to bring forth high sounding guidelines to address the mockery of justice our colleagues face around the world. That nobody takes those guidelines or strident protests seriously seems to indicate to the hopeful amongst us that we need new regulations. May I remind all of us that regulations for some seafarer issues, notably fatigue, already exist? Need I remind anybody that these are neglected by the industry willingly and culpably? What makes us think regulations against criminalisation will work when the fatigue issue, first mooted almost twenty years ago, initially mothballed and eventually duly legislated, continues to be ignored? New regulations will do nothing when the flesh is weak, however willing the spirit may be. The Hebei Spirit incident is hardly the exception; it is more the rule now.


The only thing the Rezzak incident demonstrated to me was what I already knew; that the nexus between some owners, Class, Flag States and regulatory bodies is thicker than water, and may be even thicker than the blood of the twenty five missing Indians on board. We have forgotten that tragedy which is less than a year old; attention spans are weak in these days of instant gratification and instant Karma, so we may please be excused.


The absence of shore leaves, progressive living and working conditions and such essentials are considered luxuries for mariners. We resolve and urge countries to give us our rights, and we plead with them for years. An airline pilot without ‘shore leave’ would have called his union and paralysed flights in rogue countries within the day. Of course, living and working conditions at sea are beyond the pale of penny pinching managers and owners, even as they sit on years of almost obscene profits. Some of them have taken a leaf out of the other high flying MBA’s in the derivates market and decimated these profits by speculation in freight futures. As we know too well, the maritime industry, especially the ship management part of it, has not managed recessions very well. As the financial crisis bites harder now, one cannot dig up much confidence that the same system will do much better this time.


It is indeed a wretched state of affairs when a mariner can trust only those on board when things go wrong. The rest of the sorry industry participants, from the IMO down to the lowest clerk in the ship manager’s office, are, put simply, not on his side. Exceptions obviously exist, but regrettably, the system made up of regulatory agencies, management, ownership, Flag and Port States, Class and Insurance, certifying and seafarer bodies, national and international unions and the wider maritime world, continues to fail the seafarer still. Pathetic is the word that springs to mind.


Meanwhile, we in India do not seem unduly disquieted when a criminalised Master says he ‘doesn’t want to see a ship again’. We do not seem particularly rattled that we do not attract new talent, and that officers we have spent time and money on to educate and train leave us after a few years. We think the Indian recruitment industry will go on growing forever even as seafarers and potential new entrants vote with their feet on their way out. We delude ourselves that we will increase market share of Indian seafarers with platitudes alone. But of course, it will not. I suspect we have come as far as our “management by lurching from crisis to crisis” style could drag us. To grow from here is not so simple; we need to do, urgently, what we know is required to be done. We know what that is; we are not stupid, just lethargically unconcerned about the decline which awaits us. It is not too late, but it is late enough.


For my money, though, the Chinese will beat us here too: they are focused, they think long term and their autocratic system means that policies are made and implemented much faster than they are in our bumbling style of Indian politics and bureaucracy. Not to speak of an industry which will not speak in one pragmatic voice on critical issues with integrity. So, as I look ahead in the new year, I see some writing on the wall, and it is in Chinese.


The writing says something we already know, and have known ever since the time our officers started conquering foreign flag ships a few decades ago.


It says that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. First as tragedy, then as farce.
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January 01, 2009

Validating tickets.

Don’t ask me where, but the last revalidation/upgradation course I sat through was no different from the rest I have attended. It was ill conceived, ill equipped, poorly structured, incoherent, unsystematic, largely irrelevant, badly disseminated and unprofessionally conducted by poorly motivated faculty. It left me more confused than upgraded. (Incidentally, I object to the term ‘upgradation’ here, which makes me feel like a public washroom under repair).






Modular courses, conducted for either certification or as part of company in house training, are equally dismal. I am convinced, overall, that the gap between industry demand and ill trained supply is steadily widening. The last time this happened, we got STCW95 imposed on us. I wonder if there is a tougher STCW2012 out there waiting to be mandated, soon after STCW2010. If so, it is prudent for us to consider a revamp of maritime education and training before that happens, else we will undoubtedly react with concomitant confusion and consequent botched implementation once again.


One systemic problem with maritime education and training (MET for the acronymically inclined) is that it is seen by too many as an incidental add on; one that is designed to hopefully make us better navigators and engineers and nothing more. The fact is, however, that MET has to be seen in a wider context beyond just activity leading to skilled behaviour. To me, therefore, the feeble minded management of MET is part of the larger malaise of the industry’s backward human resources management. More distressingly, it is a symptom of an industry which historically does not prepare for tomorrow, and is therefore found wanting whenever tomorrow inevitably arrives. Education and training has to be an integral part of any professional industry. In shipping, the hiring of a mariner, his or her retention and preparation for advancement in a maritime career on board or ashore have to be declared and desired outcomes of the entire exercise.


Take our system, in India, of training navigating officers. The Indira Gandhi Open University affiliated course has been proved a disaster, and so have many others run by private maritime Institutes. The thrust seems to be in selling a short sea time component while tying up with universities in India and abroad to offer fancy sounding degrees or diplomas. I would much rather the thrust be, at this stage, on making a navigating seafarer out a landlubber. Reducing the sea time component is hardly the best way to do that.


The usual Distance Learning Programmes require the cadet to do regular and extensive daily study at sea. Quite apart from the fact that cadets simply do not have the time on busy and short manned ships these days, putting pressure on a system aboard to have the trainee concentrating on bookish (and often redundant or inappropriate) knowledge whilst at sea is akin to making scrambled eggs for dinner when there is steak available at the table. The trainee can hit the books anytime. However, he can get practical training only when he is on board. The result of this warped system is senior officers and Masters writing off the DLP, and, worse, not finding the time to teach the cadet a million other small things that make a good seaman. I have seen this happen so often that I have my own (unprintable) acronym for the DLP programme.


I suggest that the DLP be drastically amended to include many more aspects of practical knowledge, keeping purely academic topics aside for shore study. I also suggest that sufficient time be mandated in the system for senior officers to be able to train in ship specific, current and useful stuff of their choosing.


This brings me to another issue. Mixed nationality crews, overworked or uninterested (in training) Masters and officers and the propensity of cadets to be used as cheap clerical labour in these days of shipboard administrative overload all do little towards a trainee’s professional advancement. This must be addressed today. There are no easy solutions to some of these problems, but we have to find some. I suspect these solutions will be found more within the specifics of each company rather than a generalised ‘one size fits all’ worldview. However, I know that if I were running a company, one parameter I would evaluate personnel and systems on would be the transference of knowledge from one generation to the next. That is only logical.


Delivery systems across the gamut of MET are often a bad joke in India, and they seem to get worse the higher one rises in rank at sea. The dilution of the quality of these courses is widespread. Some of the reasons why this happens have been mentioned already. Perhaps the only idea of attending and conducting a course is to receive, or issue, a certificate at the end of it. Institutes follow regulatory guidelines and are content with mediocrity. Mariners attend courses with a ‘when rape is inevitable’ outlook and are content with not getting their money’s worth. Meanwhile, the professional ability of each generation of seafarers is slowly going down the tube. This is a problem of attitude, not infrastructure or expertise. We can mandate everything else, but obdurate attitude has to be fixed from within.


Company sponsored training runs to similar patterns. Actually, I am surprised that more companies have not moved to web based internet training and evaluation modules or systems. In this era of elearning and videoconferencing, the mountain can, indeed, come to Muhammad. There is no reason for mariners to be flown across countries, or even beyond them, to train. Training (and evaluation) modules can be easily and professionally made and put up on websites for employees to log in and use. This can be a timed exercise; a built in evaluation system can be programmed to ensure quality and confirm understanding. Taking this a step further, an additional online forum would facilitate exchange of professional information between all elements of a company, seafarers and shore personnel alike. Many organisations, including some in India, are already geared to produce software; many already have generic software available. I see tremendous advantage in cost and quality in using this avenue for MET.


Videoconferencing can well be a decent substitute for many seminars, at least those that do not go beyond a series of lectures and ‘presentations’. This would control transportation and hotel costs at a time when these costs are likely to come under greater owner scrutiny. Company recruitment offices across the country could well become centers for such activity; even hiring a business centre for a day is considerably cheaper than flying. Additionally, the requirement of expensive training centers could well reduce. I see their future role mainly in conducting simulator based training, which may not be always possible online. However, by and large, location is well immaterial today. A software company I worked with was running an entire and complicated ongoing commercial end to end solution in the US while sitting in India; in comparison, ongoing software requirements for maritime training is peanuts.

Another advantage is that software can be easily modified, for example, when regulations change or improvements are made. Books, slides, and such paraphernalia are much harder to amend. Besides, doing so cuts down even more trees.


It is also high time that we in India looked at education and training as a means of preparing senior seafarers for jobs ashore. That we do not do so, at least in any structured way, is symptomatic of a chaotic system which does not still take into account that, more so today, many seafarers want to move ashore after a few years at sea. We do have some education on offer, but it does not inspire too much confidence. In the absence of such MET, we have the damaging practice of many seafarers enrolling for general management degrees and moving away from the maritime industries. Previously trained talent is thus lost. An MBA, marketable as it is, is a poor substitute for well constructed and disseminated professional training that would empower such a mariner to seek shore employment within the industry. Other industries train towards greater responsibilities. We only cater to existing ones, which is foolish.


The UK is already worried about the future of its shipping supremacy due to shortage of skilled personnel. Our aim in India should be to threaten the City of London when it comes to shipping commerce. All maritime activity is underpinned by direct shipping operations. It is pathetic that we have a well educated and English language skilled maritime workforce that we allow to either wither away, or move away elsewhere. Once again, there is no real reason for this except Indian maritime industry shortsightedness. Ship manning is at the lowest end of the food chain; it says a lot about the attitudes in our industry that we are content with residues. With proper training and education, we could be a powerhouse in the chartering and reinsurance markets, to name just two lucrative areas. We could be the centre of the world in broad maritime commercial activity.


Finally, India cannot expect to be called a serious player in the maritime industry unless it boasts of a robust ‘industry research’ element. Whether in naval architecture or hydrodynamics, global seafarer issues or tonnage projections, nautical research or safety related trends and databases, any serious maritime player must have a system of examining, testing and questioning facts and hypotheses. I do not see our industry involved here at all. I also do not see us pressurising government towards promoting such initiatives; maybe a Maritime University sanctioned after years of political flim flamming is all we hope for. If this is the best we can do, then we should be content to just supply labour to the global merchant fleet. We should be content to let our maritime potential go waste. We should be content to see the industry wither away because of poor education and training. Like Brando in ’On the waterfront’, the Indian maritime industry can then say, later, ‘I coulda been a contender’.


Professional education and training is a commodity in itself and not a sideshow. It structures appropriately, is funded sufficiently and seeks erudite and updated professionals to deliver it. It is not just a litany of regulations and slides parroted out by bored instructors to half asleep audiences. It seeks to enlighten and empower, not deaden and confuse. It is global, so it takes the best practices from education in other fields and embraces them. It is technologically perceptive and more; it sometimes even forecasts technology. It feeds, and is fed by professional research. It finds ways to motivate both trainers and trainees. It takes pride in keeping the industry it serves always updated and always improving. It takes pride in its own high standards.


That does not sound like the maritime education and training that I know of. In the one I am familiar with, the drive that goes into revalidation of a Certificate of Competency seems akin to the drive involved in validation of a parking ticket.


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