December 30, 2010

Dead to rights

Dr. Mohammad Haneef is said to be ‘delighted’ this week after having been awarded a ‘substantial sum’ –reports suggest a million Australian dollars- as damages for wrongful arrest by the Australian government in July 2007. The Indian born doctor was detained at Brisbane airport for suspicion of terror related activities; two of his second cousins were involved in the Glasgow airport terrorist attack at the time, and a Sim card he had left behind in the UK- later used in the attack- added to the suspicion. He was detained for all of about three weeks in Australia, during which time the media in India went into a pathological tizzy, obsessed with the usual need to beat their drum the shrillest in support of a slight, imagined or otherwise, against an Indian abroad. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh joined in the circus, saying at the time that he had problems sleeping, presumably at the injustices Haneef was being subjected to, or maybe because the Congress wanted the Muslim vote somewhere or the other in the by-elections then in progress in India.

But all that is water under the bridge. A million dollars or so worth of justice has been served. Seems fair. The Lloyds Open Form for wrongful detention- you screw up, you pay, right?

I wonder if Capt. Jasprit Singh or Chief Officer Chetan of the Hebei Spirit have even got an apology from the Koreans, leave alone a million smackeroos. What about Capt Glen Aroza who spent a year and a half detained in Taiwan on a false charge? If three weeks of a landlubber’s life is worth a million, shouldn’t seventy-two weeks- give or take- of a sailor’s life be worth an apology, at least?

What about Captain Mangouras of the ‘Prestige’? His fight for justice- after the 2002 incident that should have had at least three countries hang their heads in abject shame while declaring him a hero- had no takers in the European Court of Human Rights recently. They refused to even admit that the 3 million Euro bail set at the time, after the almost seventy-year-old Greek Captain had spent three months in captivity, was excessive.

The industry- that conferred awards on Chawla and Mangouras almost in protest, and which expressed its usual concerns and went home- would have us believe that it could do nothing in any of these cases. We were told that shipping is off the radar screens of the public and the politicians. That we have to live with repeated assaults on seafarer rights in this uncaring world.

However, this notion is only partially correct; the reality is that the industry does not do anything that would cause me to think that it actually cares for the rights of its mariners itself, and so can hardly complain at outside insensibility. It does not put its money where its mouth is. Or, more accurately, its mouth is disconnected from its wallet where a seaman’s rights are concerned. Platitudes it is full of, of course. Those are free.

Case in point. A few weeks ago- much to the relief of many shipowners who think that Filipinos are unduly litigious- the Philippines’ Supreme Court overturned a ruling that a Bosun was entitled to USD 60,000 in compensation for the “severe mental disorder” he had claimed to have suffered as a result of a “hostile working environment” (abusive senior officers on board, he claimed) that had left him depressed and unfit for duty. Industry bodies representing shipowners implied, somewhat snidely, that this was a welcome ruling. Never mind whether the Bosun had a case or not, it was the principle of the thing that was objectionable. Seafarers demanding rights? Heavens, what next!

Wherever possible, many shipowners will use any excuse, legal or otherwise, not to pay seamen their dues. We all know that. Wages, medical compensation or anything else included. They will use jurisdictional excuses and falsehoods. They will use time to wear down the individual seafarer. Hell, there are enough owners out there who will gyp a mariner of his earned wages, given half a chance. The effective legal recourse a seafarer has in such cases is usually zero.

The other canard is, of course, that most ’normal’ well known shipmanning outfits operate with integrity. I disagree. Most will try to get away with whatever they can - there are few exceptions. I have experience of a couple of these so called management companies, complete with substandard ships, incompetent or dishonest Superintendents and commercial managers, running an organisation that is overwhelmingly geared to cover itself when things go wrong instead of either solving the problem or supporting the floating staff when they are right. Or even, in the context of this piece, doing what is legally correct. A seafarer suing for his rights- when the owners are hidden or in one country, the management in another, the ship registered in a third and the mariner a national of a fourth, is an exercise in futility. They know it. They count on it.

Sometimes seafarers persist, but it can take years. Ten years, in Deepak Divekar’s case. Last month, the former merchant navy officer was awarded compensation of Rs 1.56 crore by the Arbitral Tribunal of Justice against his former employer, a Kuwaiti shipping company and its Indian agents. The company had blacklisted him following allegations of drunken misbehaviour, unprofessionalism and causing communal disquiet while on board. Divekar says the real reason the company went after him was that he had objected, along with some others, to the Captain buying non-potable drinking water in the Caribbean. He says he fell sick and had to seek medical treatment on his own. Today, he says, of his ten year pursuit of justice, "In a decade, I have aged 25 years.”

Does the family of Akhona Geveza, the South African female cadet allegedly raped and thrown overboard a British ship, have a case against the senior officer named or the company for not providing a safe working place? I bet they do, especially since there seems to have been a pattern of abuse in that programme. Another cadet said at the time that ’it was like being dropped in the middle of a game park’. (Of course, litigation is quicker and easier in the US. A jury has just awarded 25 million dollars to a Maersk seaman who claimed he was raped by the South Korean police on shore leave in 2008. However, nobody in his right mind would claim this sort of recourse for a seaman is universal)

Do the three or four thousand seafarers held hostage by pirates since 2008 have any legal recourse against shipowners? Unlikely, but they should. Their ships were obviously not safe, a condition for employment, I would have thought. Declaring ’war zone’ and paying double wages, as some are now doing, should not abrogate this responsibility. But this is an industry where at least some of the hostages in Somalia must be wondering whether they would even be paid any wages at all while in captivity, or whether their families would see any compensation money if they were killed. Such is the level of confidence in owners and managers. Such is the dismal state of seafarer rights and their enforcement. We all know many horror tales that reinforce this opinion.

What about those seafarer hostages that have been traumatised so much during captivity that they- clinically suffering from stress- are unfit to sail, and probably never will? Don’t they deserve to be compensated?

But perhaps, when I expect mariners to be given their due, I ask for too much; perhaps I am naive. Clearly, Somali pirates have rights: 85% of those we catch and release without persecution- because they have those accursed rights- return to hijack ships. Even Ajmal Kasab, the terrorist in Mumbai who massacred on camera, has rights, judging by the progress–or lack thereof- of his case in court. Shipowners have rights (and thanks to some sly practices, many have more than a few lefts, too). Even animals have rights these days.

However, seafarers don’t get rights. They get the Year of the Seafarer instead. Get money for nothing and your clichés for free.

Which reminds me. Happy New Year. All these clichés, like my wife’s clothes, will now be last year’s.


December 23, 2010

Chicken Licken mathematics

Like ants and scandals, numbers continue to crawl out of the woodwork in the last few weeks. And, like discreetly plunging necklines, what they accidentally reveal is riveting.

The ‘BIMCO/ISF 2010 ‘Update on the Worldwide Demand Supply of and Demand for Seafarers’ says that there is no shortage of ratings today. That is right; we do not need any more ratings right now: the supply and demand situation is balanced at about 747,000. The study, done in partnership with Dalian University in China says that there is a ‘notable improvement’ in the supply of officers and ratings since 2005, when the last report was published. The increase in numbers is said to be due to fresh seafarer meat coming in from China, India, the Philippines and also from ‘several OECD countries’.

The same study also says that 637,000 officers are required in the global merchant fleet today, but only 624,000 are available. The industry needs another 13,000 officers- just two percent more than it has at present.

Let me get this straight. There are about 1.4 million seafarers in the world today. This number- or whatever it actually is, because other reports quote anywhere between one and one point five million- is more or less ‘balanced’- we certainly don’t need a massive infusion of ratings. And, a two percent shortfall in officer numbers is hardly huge- look at the manpower figures for other industries and you will understand what I am talking about. Hell, some IT companies may even have that many –permanent employees, I may pointedly add- sitting on the bench or being trained.

However, it looks like the shipping industry’s loud conspiracy of alarmist doomsday scenarios based on fudged officer shortfall numbers has been successful in the last couple of years. The ‘supply side’- youngsters lured by these sly Cassandras – seems to have much improved. Not that the prophecies have become any less shrill today: we continue to hear of misrepresented numbers of officers that will be required once ‘shipping recovers’. These projections are nothing new- the last few years before the bust saw similar numbers bandied about by many. Like the stock market indices peaks that were extrapolated by ‘experts’ to infinity and were equally dishonest, the officer shortfall alarm has just one objective: get more people into the workforce and so reduce wages. Mariners are largely contractual workers. Oversupply costs us nothing.

Meanwhile, to accomplish this, we must run around like headless Chicken Lickens, screaming that the sky is falling and the only thing that will stop catastrophe is the intake of a zillion new seafarers before next Monday. We must continue the controlled, cynical and hysterical farce- what is called the ‘tamasha’ in India.

Meanwhile, the country graduates about 4500 new Ratings annually from government approved institutes (and Ganesha only knows how many from others), many of whom struggle to find jobs and many of whom pay touts to join substandard ships owned by third-rate shipping companies. Our cadets fare no better- our Chicken Lickens have no training berths for them. A group of cadets from one of the largest government training setups in Mumbai has written an open letter bemoaning their fate. (It is not just in India that mariners are angry- the seafarers of a global shipping giant - along with Nautilus in the UK- recently had a public and well publicised email spat with the owners in a ‘let them eat cake’ incident).

Meanwhile, all- without exception- all the half dozen or so thirty something old Masters I have met in the last month want to quit sailing immediately. Many have already finalised alternatives. Without getting into the reasons why they are quitting- none of which will be news to anybody out here- I made a back of the envelope calculation to determine how long they have actually worked at sea:

Average time these Masters have been at sea: 14 years= 168 months.
Time off ships for three certificates of competency: 28 months
Remaining time available 168-28= 140 months (11.6 years)
Time between contracts/unpaid leave= 58 months (average 5 months a year for 11.6 years)
So, time spent working on ships= 82 months (140-58) or 6.8 years
Assuming 6 months contract, 82 months translates into 13.6 contracts.
And, 6.8 years out of the total 14 is 48.5%

That’s how long the industry actually has these sailors for, from the time they joined as cadets right up to the time they quit. Less than 14 contracts. In a couple of cases where longer unpaid leaves were taken, considerably less than that, even. And, if one considers that the present lot want to quit sailing in seven or ten years maximum..... Well, you can redo those numbers and halve the outcomes.

What I am trying to get at- admittedly in a convoluted manner- is that attrition of officers has to be seen in this context- that the effective value of an officer to the industry is less than half of the total time he spends at sea. Experienced officers are not falling from trees, but we continue to look at fresh entrants as a panacea while doing nothing to address the critical issue of attrition.

I invite the Chicken Lickens in India to look around them to see what other industries are doing to retain performers. Even with consumer durables under pressure, Samsung India and LG paid a 200% bonus (of monthly salary) to employees last year- and plan to do so again this year. Haier will pay 130 percent. Hyundai will pay more than a month’s salary. Companies across the board are gifting holidays abroad and in India (some are even flying back overseas employees so that they can spend time with family), laptops, mobile phones et al in a bid to retain workers- amidst a downturn they think is ending, same as we in shipping do. They are not doing this out of love, by the way. They are doing this to retain good people that they feel will contribute to their businesses.

Maybe I shouldn’t embarrass the Chicken Lickens by asking what they are doing.

Nobody can predict the future and perhaps nobody should even try, least of all people with dodgy agendas. Projecting thousands of officers short assuming a perpetual shipping boom from now on in is an old ploy.
Shipping may recover from the downturn slowly or quickly- the tonnage overhang will get absorbed eventually, I guess. Many western countries may well produce, with their backs to the economic wall, more seafarers that find the career preferable to no jobs at home. If that happens, many Western owners will prefer them to Indians (unless that much maligned fairness cream so popular in India actually works).

Whatever happens, the bottom line is that any shortfall in required future seafarer numbers will not be due to reasons that our Chicken Lickens regurgitate, but for the widespread lack of preference for seafaring. In any case, if they honestly feel that the sky is falling, they should do something useful about it- and with integrity, for once, instead of shouting untruths and bloated numbers from rooftops.


December 16, 2010

Chaos Theory

The phone rang a couple of years ago at six in the evening. “Captain, this is Chaotic Shipmanagement,” a voice told me. “We are sorry that we have had to prepone...”

“Is that an actual word, prepone?” I wanted to know.

“We apologise,” the voice went on, ignoring the sailor as usual, “but you will have to join tomorrow instead of next week since we have royally screwed up as usual. Therefore, we have booked your flight from home to Mumbai so early tomorrow morning it is actually tonight. Your flight out of India is in the afternoon, after your medicals that you can go do directly after landing in Mumbai, and other formalities, ticketing and videoconferencing with the Superintendent that have to be done before 1PM his time so he can have a martini with his lunch.”

“What?? No way. Please find somebody else, since I am too old to rock and roll and too young to die after being run ragged like this.”

“Please oblige us this time, Captain, because the owners, they...” I tuned out the rest of the spiel, almost decided that I would not join. It had happened too often.

But a sailor and a dog never learn.

In Mumbai next day, I dumped my gear at the office and went for my medicals in that well known hole in the wall place where I was sampled, x-rayed, blood, HIV tested and subjected to other unmentionable things within minutes. I also found out, once again, what a high speed strip dancer’s life must be like, only my performance was in three different rooms seemingly simultaneously (I had to appear all elegantly dressed between the rooms to boot). Non-seamen should really try this sometime. Excellent for blood circulation and raising one’s heart rate appropriately, though it can be argued that the same effect can be had more easily by munching on potato chips while watching a Monica Bellucci movie.

Next, return to Alcatraz- the office-for videoconferencing. The Mumbai honcho of Chaotic came in and sat down off camera as a technician got everything ready. The honcho wasn’t part of the movie, but he combed his hair anyway.

I took out a small scribbling pad I always carry in my top shirt pocket just in case the Superintendent has something useful to say.

“No, no!” the honcho told me, holding out what looked like a full ream of A4 size photocopying paper, alarmed that I wasn’t taking the proceedings seriously enough. “Take this.” I politely declined, and wondered to myself if I could have a rum and coke instead to get me going.

The Superintendent appeared on the big screen. “Captain, I have here the signing off Master’s handover notes that I want to read to you point by point....”

“Can’t you email them to the office instead?” I asked him, “I can read them on the flight instead of wasting your time now.” And mine too, I muttered under my breath.

“Great!” the greatly relieved man said, with the look of somebody who has saved fifteen minutes of time that seemed to be hitherto running out. “I will leave you in the able hands of Chaotic Mumbai then. The ship is arriving in Aden in three days.”

End of conference and round two to me. Or so I thought, until I found out that Chaotic had booked me on a round the world trip to Aden, where I would arrive concurrently with the ship. (Mumbai-Delhi-Singapore-Sana’a-Aden, with twelve hour halts for allegedly connecting flights everywhere including at Delhi). Very nice of Chaotic. Join the navy and see the world.

There should be a law against this.

There should also be a law against useless pre-joining briefing of Masters, done mostly to tick those nice boxes in some checklist. Frankly, those briefings are an ordeal, like those dodgy company seminars that mariners are uniquely inflicted with. I would rather go through a TSA body cavity search at a major US airport. Twice.

Chaotic used to love those conferences too, and could not understand why I refused to attend, especially after they had bent over backwards and got all their other seafarers to contribute 500 Rupees per head for dinner. I told them it was the principle of the thing, but they were not happy at all, and rewarded me with a few junk ships over the years. (To work on, not as presents).

I was caught for a seminar once, though, and flew to Chennai in peak summer to attend that critically important meeting. Or at least I thought it was important, because it had a theme and all, much like a hoity toity wedding in Delhi.

Chennai, as you know, is unbearably hot and sticky in summer. So there I was, bags dropped at a cheapish hotel they had booked me into after the flight even though I was paying, standing sweating in the lobby of another (much better) hotel after a long, dusty, hot and humid auto rickshaw ride. Soon, a Chaotic minor functionary (the same one who had called me at 6pm a year ago) with a frown on his face stepped up to me.

"Captain, you are not wearing a necktie!!”

How observant these people are, I thought. No wonder they are going places.
“Err, no, I am not,” I told him. “I fear I might asphyxiate while I am dehydrating.”

He ignored me as usual. “Here, take mine,” he said, whipping off his glaringly psychedelic tie and putting it around my neck, like a coy Hindu bride garlanding her husband-to-be at their wedding.

I hoped, as I walked into the conference room, that everybody had sunglasses on. That tie was a killer.

To add to my misery, they served us- can you imagine, in that land of delicious South Indian coffee- they served us some lukewarm and insipid instant. The only thing missing was the three-in-one sachet.

Never mind, I told myself, taking an aisle seat towards the back of the hall in case I had to make a quick getaway, beggars can’t be choosers. Most of the other seagoing officers seemed to settle down around me. One can always recognise sailors at these dos- they are the ones looking the most uncomfortable in their formal clothes and jackets and too tight collars. I bet they go home and jump straight into overalls just to feel comfortable once again. But I digress.

Soon a man I had never seen in my life got up on stage and told me that all of us were part of one big Chaotic family. Soon another man I had never seen in my life told us that we were his best assets, and that he would stand by me no matter what. All very heady stuff, although I much prefer such declarations to come from my wife.

Sitting comfortably for the first time in five hours since I had left home to take the flight to Chennai, sweat evaporating in the air-conditioning, collar button surreptitiously undone, amongst declared family and with compliments washing over me like gentle ripples on Marina beach, I felt really good. I had just leaned back and closed my eyes when something growled in the aisle in front of me.

Alarmed, I snapped my eyes open, just in time to see a Chief Engineer elbowing a Master next to him and whispering aggressively in his ear.

“Boss,” the Chief said. “Sleep if you must, but at least don’t snore!”


December 09, 2010

The Tom and Jerry Show comes to India

Things they don’t tell you at Harvard Seamanship School:

• After numerous pirate attacks off the Indian coastline, including one on the SCI tanker Guru Gobind Singh just 300 odd miles from Goa at the end of last month, the Indian Navy was sent out to chase a mother ship- the hijacked Polar- away from the Indian coast. Success was claimed- and reported- in Indian newspapers on Dec 1. The very next day, on Dec 2, a containership was attempted to be boarded just 150 miles northwest of Minicoy by men armed with RPGs and other weapons who zipped in on a skiff off a mother vessel. Thankfully, they gave up after evasive manoeuvres by the target.

• On Dec 3, two days after the attack on the container ship and apparently unrelated to it, the Indian navy’s ‘Rajput’ detained a dhow with 19 persons on board- 15 Pakistanis and 4 Iranians. Nobody had any documents on them.

• On December 5, the Bangladeshi ‘Jahan Moni’ was hijacked after an hourlong pursuit near Lakshadweep islands just off the Indian coast. These are the same islands on which a number of Somali pirates were detained in the middle of the year, but only after they had made it ashore.

• The coast of Oman has seen increased incidents attacks and hijacks for months. And so has the Red Sea. And so has, in case you missed it, the Indian coast including off Mumbai.

• The International Maritime Maritime Bureau now says (better late than never) that piracy is increasing in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, and that pirates have moved closer to India.

• The Associated Press reports that an unnamed Muslim country is financing a 1000 strong militia that is being trained in Puntland, northern Somalia, just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen. The force will have armoured carriers and a few aircraft. At least one ex CIA official and a senior ex-US diplomat are involved. Interestingly, old allegations of gunrunning from Yemen to Puntland have never gone away, not least because much of the smuggled weaponry is being sent to the Al Qaeda linked Al Shabaab in Somalia.

• More and more media reports are talking about Westerners being trained in jihadi camps in Somalia and Yemen, or indoctrinated off the internet by rabid clerics and the like.

• US drone strikes in Yemen continue; tens of civilians have been killed. Some Al Qaeda personnel are reportedly fleeing to Somalia- the godforsaken country is being called, somewhat ironically, a safe haven for these fighters.

• The coalition navies are not saying any more, as they were during the useful monsoons, that Somali piracy has decreased. In fact, not a day passes without an attack or the other being reported. Unreported attacks remain unknown and unaccounted for as usual. Pirates strike almost at will. They seem to be nimbler, more adaptable and smarter than the dozen most powerful navies of the world out there. Reminds me of a Tom and Jerry cartoon show.

• Blackwater- the US mercenary organisation accused of serious abuses, including murder of civilians in Iraq- had proposed in an earlier plan that it would use lethal force against pirates, indicating a no-prisoner approach. The plan never took off.

• Figures of the number of sailors held hostage by Somali pirates continue to rise. Official figures have reached somewhere around the five to six hundred mark. Unofficial figures are higher. (Western media went to town on Paul and Rachel Chandler’s release after a year of being held hostage; the mainly Asian seafarer hostages held hostage are not pretty enough to get excited about, I guess, or are damned with the wrong colour of skin.)

• The average ransom for pirated ships has approximately tripled in the last couple of years, judging by reports. No wonder Neel Choong of the IMB says that ‘piracy off Somali waters will flourish”. I rather disagree with him, though, on his use of the future tense. It already flourishes, Mr Choong.

• The average time a mariner is held hostage is up by about forty percent, adding a month or so to his agony, on - as the accountants say- a YOY basis. (What this mariner says is probably unprintable)

• At least one security company – who’s bottom-line I am sure, thanks to piracy, is naughtily firm –says that there may be links between piracy and terrorism, but there is no conclusive proof so far.

• Involvement of terror groups in piracy has complicated negotiations for ransom payments, says the well-known Andrew Mwangura of the East Africa Seafarers Assistance Programme, because terrorist groups have infiltrated teams that negotiate for ransom.

• There is deafening silence as to which country the boat that bombed the MStar bombing in the Straits of Hormuz came from.

After joining the dots above (and, for the sake of good order dotting my i’s, crossing my Rubicon and watching my p’s and q’s carefully), this is what this dumb seafarer wonders:

• Most maritime interests, except seafarers, will refuse to see the link between piracy and terrorism right up to the time when said link jumps up and bites them in their you know whats. They will obfuscate the issue because it is not in their commercial or political interests to acknowledge these links. Plausible deniability rules.

• What worries me most is the piracy-terrorist connection that I believe exists- this chilling connection is logical and natural anyway. Incidentally, what happened to the well-trained Pakistanis, including the one in control of operations, caught by the Russian navy on a mother ship last year? And can somebody tell me, please, what the Somali pirates caught on the island of Lakshadweep a few months ago told us? What have the Pakistanis and the Iranians arrested a few days ago revealed?

• That 1000 strong militia force being trained in Somalia probably has the US behind it somewhere, given the CIA and the ex Ambassador connections (as for the funding, remember the Iran Contra affair when third parties were used?). In any case, ex CIA head of stations do not get involved privately anywhere without US backing. There is probably a proxy war in Somalia in the offing. Should be interesting- African Union soldiers, government soldiers and irregulars, US backed militias, Al Shabaab, pirates and mercenary outfits. Add a dollop of oil and gas to the soup and let the cauldron simmer.

• The pirates are winning. The terrorists are winning too, if only because they are not losing- in fact, the MStar attack has resurfaced the spectre of maritime terrorism once again. The coalition navies are hamstrung and tasked with doing the impossible by nations that care more about geopolitical games than piracy. In any case, the wrong strategy is being used- defending the oceans instead of attacking the pirates. Managing piracy instead of fighting it.

• There seem to be numerous mother ships of all sizes in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. Surely we can keep track of them, can we not? What happened to all those AWACS and P-3 Orions or other fancy reconnaissance aircraft oozing with all those gizmos and electronics that are supposed to be out there? What about satellites? I mean, isn’t this an age when a satellite can zoom in on a tattoo on an interesting part of Angelina Jolie’s anatomy? Isn’t a mother ship a little bit bigger?

• The pirates are straddling busy sea lanes. Most everything moving out of the Gulf has to pass either the Indian west coast or the Omani coast, whether the ships are going to the Suez or east. VLCCs and others that go around the Cape excluded, of course. I note, idly, that the pirates are doing a good job of disrupting sea lanes, another terrorist aim. Coincidence?

• What about targeting the money? Dubai is the place where ransoms flow and are laundered, or so everybody says. Does it just disappear? Besides, there is a decent level of organisation involved in piracy. These are not just a bunch of teenagers with a mouthful of khat and a gun. What about going after the big guys, or at least their links in the West? We heard those London and Canadian stories eariler this year. What happened?

But don’t take my word for it. To see how widespread the war zone is, take a look at this year’s IMB Piracy map here. It shows, until the beginning of December, piracy attacks in the Indian Ocean, Arabian and Red Seas in 2010. Successful attacks are in red, attempts are in yellow. Take a good look. Each marker tells the tragic story of the callous abandonment of our mariners.

Look at the map, and tell me, in this, the Year of the Seafarer that is thankfully about to end- tell me please, with a straight face, that we are winning the war.

map, December 3, source IMB- Piracy attacks in 2010 to date.

In the time between the writing and publication of this piece by Marex Media, a Thai crewmember was thrown overboard off the ‘Prantalay 12’, (a trawler hijacked two months ago ) 350 miles from Minicoy islands off India as the trawler/mother-ship was being chased by the navy. The crewmember was rescued by the warship INS Krishna. What the pirates are saying is that they will not hesitate to kill the crew if navies get too close.


December 02, 2010

Last minute blues again

Some of those in shipping that are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel have resumed their hand wringing in earnest. We did not do enough to attract or train mariners in the last couple of years, they say. We lost another opportunity. What will we do now with the accursed seafarer shortage?

This behaviour is typical and does not surprise me in the least. It appears to me that at least some shipmanagers are akin to King Sisyphus, doomed for eternity to rolling a boulder up a steep hill only to see it roll down again. Their stump speeches add to this unique aura of helplessness that permeates throughout the business- pleas for loyalty, pronouncements of seafarers being best assets, declaration of being a peoples company and all that clichéd claptrap included.

Meanwhile, managers toil with unfailing resolve doing the same things day after day, mistaking tactics for strategy and hoping like hell that they will have a different result this time around. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the recruitment and retention tactics commonly seen. That boulder rolls down the hill once more; our efforts fail again. Yet we labour on resolutely, hopefully- and seemingly helplessly, as if oxen yoked to a plough.

Now the good news, which is that all is not lost just yet. I believe that there is still time to set this right, because I believe that the shipping industry is not out of the woods yet. Maybe even not for quite awhile, given the huge tonnage overhang, creeping protectionist policies and new worries about the economies in Ireland, Portugal and Spain. I also believe that any recovery will be gradual even if the global economy has bottomed out already. There are unlikely to be huge spikes upwards in freight demand and therefore tonnage is not going to take off and hit the roof day after tomorrow. Which means that there is still time to begin to address the seafarer shortage problem.

I must say again that I continue to believe that the shortage numbers are grossly exaggerated for obvious reasons to do with the industry wanting to flood the market and keep wages low. Besides, to me the issue is not just the numbers involved but the quality of crews trained. At a time when ships, systems and legal requirements are getting more complicated, we are failing to produce men and women who will meet the demands of tomorrow. Forget professional competence; we have an increasing problem with mariners who do not even have the basic language or academic skills needed to understand the manuals that explain our systems, requirements or machineries. Clearly, there is no safety in numbers even if we do manage to attract the young somehow; training has to be much better than it is at present.

That said, I have some hope, based on anecdotal evidence alone, that the ‘cradle to grave’ strategies that a few shipmanagement companies have started employing may produce some good results. The fly in the ointment here continues to be continuing hackneyed retention policies, but the better companies are managing that thorny issue reasonably well. Under present circumstances, of course; what happens when laid up ships are re-commissioned or when new tonnage hits the market remains to be seen. As an example, Indian companies, particularly SCI, have huge expansion plans. Can they get appropriately qualified and experienced bodies to staff these ships?

I hope officers don’t start jumping companies for just a few dollars more again, but they well might; not all much has changed in the last two years that would make them act otherwise. Nonetheless, there is a lot going for the ‘cradle to grave’ strategies, not least the fact that these require minimum government involvement- for waiting for the general state of affairs to improve in the MET space is a lot like waiting for Godot. The industry and its regulators remain committed to much rhetoric and not enough action.

In the Indian context again, the new Direct Tax code that will come into effect two years later appears to have a clause that may become greatly problematic, and, unless amended or clarified, may make incomes of thousands of Indian mariners sailing with foreign companies income taxable. Although some experts are saying that nothing has really changed here, there needs to be a categorical clause in the DTC that addresses seafarers. Why cannot there be absolute clarity from the Ministry of Finance on this once and for all?

As things stand, the DTC is worth keeping an eye on, and even lobbying against if required. The potential negative impact on Indian mariners can be huge: roughly, a quarter to a third of all their salaries is at risk of being gobbled up by the taxman. (Aside, an example of how income tax rules can have major consequences: reports suggest that the Norwegian Seatrans group will flag its ships out of Norway, since Polish seafarers working under the Norwegian flag will now have to pay Norwegian tax.)

Besides the many actions that need to be taken to address the numbers and calibre of future mariners worldwide, I believe that there is one small step that should be taken immediately: increasing the remuneration of on board cadets and trainees by around a quarter. The increased outlay will not be a large number for any shipowner. I am confident, though, that this single step will give him a big bang for the smallish buck. I say this knowing full well that a cadet gets a stipend and not a salary, and that us old (ok, older) timers were paid hardly 20 dollars a month (and 3 dollars a month, at today’s rates!) as first year trainees.

I do believe, however, that a Cadet should not be used as cheap labour, and a stipend should be such that a trainee can save enough money, during the apprenticeship period, to pay fully for any college, certificate of competency and STCW courses when she or he gets down for the junior officer’s certification. This single step will have a substantial impact; right now, a cadet often needs additional money for his COC time, especially if he appears for exams in other countries. Added to loans often taken for Pre Sea training, (including to fund my pet peeve, ‘placement’ or tout fees), this is an additional prickly burden.

I think we would attract a better quality of youngsters if we could sell to them the fact that they would be able to completely support themselves from the day they first stepped on board as cadets.


November 25, 2010

Wild optimism

I distrust third party management consulting reports. They are usually commissioned by organisations with hidden agendas, are indicative of the commissioning organisation’s inefficiency (do you really expect a bunch of young hotshot MBAs with little business experience to know more about your businesses than you do yourselves?), and, after the dust settles, will be put away in fancy bookcases to be taken out only when their fancy spines need to be periodically dusted. Occasionally, interested folk will selectively use some findings of these reports to push their own narrow points of view.

It is with some hesitation, therefore, that I quote McKinsey’s recent report that says that there are 1.1 million seafarers- officers and ratings- in the world today and that Indians constitute 6.3 percent (officers) and 7.5 percent (ratings) of this number. The Ministry of Shipping wants to increase Indian seafarer market share to 9 percent in five years; by this time, the demand for seafarers- both officers and ratings- is slated to touch 1.4 million. I must point out that the IMO’s statistics are different. Secretary-General Mr. Efthimios E. Mitropoulos referred in September to there being today “1.5 million seafarers in the world.” The difference between 1.1 and 1.5 million is pretty large: this lack of clarity is symptomatic of the confusion that generally reigns ashore with regard to anything to do with mariner affairs.

I assume, even with all those iffy statistics and assuming an equal number of Indian ratings and officers, that the percentage of Indian seamen stands at about 6.9 of the global workforce. So, using the figures above, I reckon that there are approximately anywhere between 75,000 and 100,000 active Indians mariners today. To put things in perspective and to perhaps indicate why seafarers remain divorced from public consciousness in the country, consider this: Just one Indian software company, Infosys, had, at the end of 2009, almost 110,000 employees- more than the total number of active Indians at sea.

We must be realistic: we can hardly expect, given these numbers, great public or political support for either seafarer or industry ‘causes’. It is equally presumptuous to assume that the criticality of the industry will dawn on the entire populace next Monday morning. In any case, there are two different issues here that need to be pushed: on one hand, broad industry commercial interests will need lobbyists and a proactive administration. Seafarer employment issues will have to be largely addressed in-house and within the industry.

Therein lies the rub.

We are not going to produce that additional 2% mariner number the Shipping Ministry targets by 2015-around 40,000 additional Indian mariners with the projected demand slated to grow 20%- by sitting on our hands. As things stand, we have no concerted plan that will get us within even spitting distance of such a number. We have no workable databases of existing seafarers, to begin with- but perhaps the INDOS one can be tweaked to reflect active seafarers. The industry does no research, besides making assumptions based on anecdote, of what will attract new talent; we don’t even know for sure what makes present seafarers tick. We do not even know how many of the present lot plan to sail for even the next contract with us- or anywhere else.

Come to think of it, we actually don’t know our seafarers very well, do we?

It is telling, in more ways than one, that whatever little research is being done on the much overused term- the ‘Human Element’- is being conducted in the West, whereas much of the mariner workforce comes from the East. This needs to change quickly: why can’t the Indian maritime industry do its own research and come up with its own ideas? Cultural and nationality based factors cannot be applied on a one size fits all basis- European HRD ideas, for example, often do not work too well in India. A pan Indian industry body funded by individual companies has a much better chance of success. It could research and promote the profession, disseminate best HRD practices, suggest initiatives for improvement in both the quantity and quality of fresh entrants and provide industry feedback and comment related to general seafarer calibre to training institutes.

It would provide Indian solutions that would, in all likelihood, make sense in the Indian market. (The first thing it would need to do, in my opinion, is to recommend to the industry that it stop using touts in manning or training and that it stops charging any ‘placement fee’ from any sailor, either officially or under the table.)

I am convinced that unless we-and I mean those in the industry in India- do much more in the human resources development space than just hire and fire (or, more likely, hire and hope), our ambitions of increasing Indian seafarer numbers will remain pipe dreams. Actually, our ability to maintain even present seafarer market share is a huge question mark in my mind- leave alone that overly ambitious 9 percent number.

Change will not come from the Government, mainly because seafarer numbers are small in India and so politicians can ignore us: I could house all those 75000 or so active mariners from across the country in one corner of a suburb of Mumbai and nobody would even notice.

Change, if we want it, has to come from within.


November 19, 2010

Out of the bag

Considering how much you have learnt from me, my cat told me yesterday, rubbing itself on the leg of my chair, I should own the intellectual property rights to the book. He was talking about a treatise on shipmanagement that I have been threatening to write for some time. The only thing that has held me back, so far, is that I am sure that nobody will read it.

But the cat, as usual, had a point. There is a lot sailors can learn from cats and their approach to life. There is also the fact that ‘Shipmanagement by a cat’ makes for a catchy rubric. Better than ‘Shipmanagement for (and by) Dummies', which was the original working title of the book.

One of the first feline lessons we learn is that curiosity does not kill the cat: quite the contrary. Watch a cat entering unfamiliar terrain for the first time. Cautious, treading softly. Whiskers sensing on full alert. Examining everything in minute detail. Crouched and silent until it has familiarised itself with everything around it. This is an excellent practice for a sailor to follow too- the habit of complete familiarisation with the ship as soon as possible. Certainly makes one a better professional, and can even save lives.

Even in familiar territory, a cat will usually and periodically take a quick glance at its surroundings, registering changes and possible threats, going from relaxed to full alert in one point eight seconds. What I call the cat scan. A lesson for our watchkeepers there, I think, and maybe our crews too.

Much larger than these practical disciplines are the soft skills that cats intuitively display- their emotional intelligence could teach us a thing or two when it comes to dealing with others aboard and ashore. Forget the Human Element- it is the Cat Element that rocks.

For example, cat wisdom says we should talk only when we have something important to say: no pointless barking for the cat. It mews when it wants something, or wants to indicate something. The rest of the time, it leaves communication to one’s imagination. Particular lesson at sea today, I think, with much unnecessary communication, both aboard and from shore to ship, that detracts and distracts us from the basics.

Live with dignity. No running around with tail wagging and tongue hanging out like a dog. Cats live in a businesslike environment, treating each incident on its own merit and each person with the respect that they deserve; so should we. Nobody owns the cat; nobody should own the sailor.

Have no favourites. A dog has a master; a cat prefers nobody in particular. It will sit and purr in one lap today and in another the next. It gets along with everybody, and invites everybody to get along with it. Wish I could do the same.

Always land on your feet. Useful mental ability, what with the particular pressures sailors face at sea- and ashore- today.

Be a partner, not a slave. Unlike a dog, a cat cannot be taught to do anything on instruction- unless you are one of those Hollywood pet trainers, I guess. Otherwise, it will work with you, not for you. Good pointer to effective crew-management relationships.

Be poker faced. Keep them guessing. I swear I do not know, looking at the cat, whether it is going to purr or attack in the next instant; the expression gives nothing away. Useful for senior officers when dealing with problematic crew and managers, I think. And vice versa.

Relax whenever you can. Watching a dozing puss is a complete lesson in instant relaxation techniques. Just looking at a cat stretching lowers blood pressure. Fatigued seafarers note: a catnap is a wonderful thing. Corollary: Taking time off for yourself increases output and decreases the chances of a coronary.

Treat irritants with disdain. A cat walks away with obvious contempt when peeved. To deal with the cat, one has to factor in the possibility that it will just disengage if pushed beyond a point. I daresay we would have fewer retention issues if shipmanagers understood this lesson well.

If you play with a cat, expect to be scratched. If you go out to sea, expect what comes along with it- the tough life, the hazards and the annoyances included. Take the bad with the good.

Useful lessons for sure. But, much more than all this, the defining classroom that my cat conducted for me was held a few years ago, when a kitten walked into our home and adopted us. After the initial flurry of vet visits and shots were done with, my daughter dragged us to a pet shop where I bought, amongst other things and with scant knowledge of any animal except a pet dog, squeaky toys shaped like mice, rattles more expensive than we had bought for our children, yellow table tennis and tennis balls that were guaranteed to keep the cat gamboling cutely for hours on end, and an assortment of similar artifacts. My wife even produced a ball of wool from a ten-year-old shopping bag at home. Kittens are famous for unraveling and raveling this, usually accompanied by oohs and aahs of human delight, right?

The kitten investigated all the goodies thoroughly, then ignored all of them and spent an hour and a half playing with an empty plastic bag on the floor. The lesson, I thought immediately, was that things are not important. What you want to do is.

It was much later, though, that the incident triggered in me what I discovered was the deeper lesson- and the most basic one of all.

Slow down, the kitten was telling me. Forget money for a while. Forget the one-more-contract syndrome. Forget even that commercial shore job that you are half-heartedly chasing, because you know, with previous experience, that it will kill your soul. Find your own game to play and enjoy. Make your own rules.

Slow down, it was telling me. The first rule of the game of life is this, that whoever dies with the most toys does not win.


November 11, 2010

Calculated mistake.

My calculator and I are confused again.

For most of my working life I have been told, by the cabal sitting ashore, that crew costs are rising unsustainably and that we Indian sailors are- to use a favourite banality- ‘pricing ourselves out of the market’. So you can imagine my surprise when I read of a Lloyd’s List article that said that, since 2003, when the the International Bargaining Forum began, ”the costs of the 23-man model ship used as the basis for negotiations have increased from USD 42,794 a month to USD 54,850, a rise of 28%”. Coincidentally, another report I ran into, this time by Moore Stephens, says that total ship operating costs fell between 2% and 8% in 2009 after 7 years of rise, although they are expected to be marginally higher this year. The nine year average rise is between 6 and 7 percent.

My calculator and I work out that a 28% increase in crew costs over 7 years translates to a compounded annual rate of a little above three percent. That, in reality, is a number much closer to the wage hike that we seafarers have been given over time, and is hardly the earthshaking rise that my colleagues in management have been whining about. I also know that the US dollar that a sailor is normally being paid with is dropping against the Rupee, and that a low level grunt working for a software company in India will often wrinkle his nose at the 15 percent annual increment he is almost guaranteed, barring the odd year or two. True, ’crew costs’ may include repatriation, insurance and other such expenses and is therefore not an absolute indicator of wages, but I believe that my calculator is close enough. And, as we know from experience, years may pass, in our market consumed by supply and demand, with no increase in wages at all- or even a dollar decrease. If that were to happen today, a seafarer will be doubly hit, because the dollar isn’t what it used to be and the rupee is stronger.

You will excuse me for wondering if I, a Master since 1991, whose ambit of responsibility at sea cannot even begin to be compared with that software grunt’s, should be getting an annual increment just a fourth of that guys. If, on the other hand, I am a fresh faced 18 year old, I will likely question the business model of an industry that jumps up and down wailing about wages- of contracted workers, at that- in panic with doomsday scenarios built in, when all it offers is a 3 percent os so increment annually over time.

Obviously you will tell me shipping is not software. It is a different industry, capital intensive and cyclical and so the two cannot be compared. Fair enough, but what you are really telling me- whether I am me or that 18 year old- is that working at sea is not all that great financially. That i am better off elsewhere. In which case the business model is up in the air- or down the tube- once again. These objections, even when I compare shipping with, say, the aviation industry, actually tell that youngster that we acknowledge those industries as superior, and trust on either goodwill or subterfuge to get him to choose shipping as a career instead. As is obvious with the numbers and the quality of new entrants seen today at sea, this sleight of hand does not work anymore. Neither does it make shipping a career of choice, with due emphasis on the last two words.

Popular thinking- the cabal’s and the seaman’s- is that shipping is tough but the money is good. I am afraid that is no longer true for India. Sure, the money is good if, as that 18 year old Class 12 graduate, your folks cannot afford good higher education for you. The money is good if you are terribly below par and so really cannot make good anywhere else, now or in the future. However, looking purely from an earnings perspective, sailing today is a financial dead end If either of these caveats do not apply to you.

For example, the chances of a well educated youngster earning a seagoing Master’s (or at least a Chief Officer’s) wages ashore within a decade or so are quite high in many other industries in India if he or she is any good. This possibility becomes actually very likely if you factor in future exchange rates and the wage-increase disparity I have spoken of. And, given that working lifespans are longer ashore, the decision to ignore a career at sea, with all the additional handicaps thrown in, becomes almost a no-brainer. Sure, the salary ashore will be before tax, but then again, tax rates for resident Indians are being relaxed with slabs raised annually- while those for NRIs and seamen working abroad are being tightened. The tide is turning against the mariner here too.

As somebody who has loved the life the sea has given me, I take no pleasure in propogating my arguments in this piece- in my opinion, these point to an approaching tragedy. Also because I see few youngsters with love for the sea life today, a passion that made going out to sea as- and sometimes even more- interesting as the money. Unfortunately, shipping today has a huge problem if it cannot even prove to its sailors that future financial rewards are worth the risk and hardship that they are being asked to undertake.

We are getting second-rate new talent. And what is even worse, this is not the career of choice for the second-raters either. Many of us still say, somewhat derisively, that rocket scientists are not required at sea. This statement may be true, but it obfuscates the fact that what is indeed required of new talent- motivation and commitment, for a start- is usually missing or is at levels that are abysmal.

As for the old canard about Indian sailors pricing themselves out of the market, it lies nakedly exposed before us. Indian mariners may well dwindle in numbers in future, but that won’t be because they have priced themselves out of the market. It will more likely be due to reasons outlined here or the growing realisation amongst owners that higher salaries are not justified given the dropping calibre of officers. The industry would do better addressing those issues instead of continuing to waste energy on its old fictions.


November 04, 2010

Citadels in the sand

I have long resisted commenting on the citadel strategy that is being flouted as the second coming by the best piracy management practices folks and their accomplices. Briefly, this Plan A involves the crew locking themselves up in a strong room on the ship when boarded by pirates- often the steering gear compartment- after tripping the engines and generators. The cavalry from the coalition navies comes in to rescue them as the frustrated bad people flee the dead ship facing capture or death in a firefight.

There is no Plan B.

I comment now because I fear that more seamen will soon be killed by what I consider is a foolish strategy. (A seaman or two has already died when boarders fired through a door- presumably not a steel one- in one incident.) For it is just a matter of time before the pirates figure out a speedy tactic to breach the shaky bastion that the crew have fled to. Time is indeed critical, because the pirates win if they can get to the crew before the naval forces get to them. I would, in their place, be running drills with plastic explosives to see how quickly a watertight door or similar can be blown off the hinges. (Let me tell you, after witnessing an accident on a ship where a battery exploded in a confined airless room at sea, that the door blows off quite easily.)

What then, if the strong room is breached? Will the pirates, who have shown remarkable adaptability so far, make a decision to execute one or two of the crew to deter other ships from the citadel approach? How soon before an explosion kills somebody? What happens if they decide to chuck a few grenades into the engine room before they leave, or start a fire outside the citadel? What happens when an unarmed and untrained crew face khat-chewing desperados with Kalashnikovs now made more irate and frustrated? What happened to the ‘no-resistance if pirates board’ recommendation that has been long advised- what I call the ‘if rape is inevitable’ response? Will the best management people take responsibility for the consequences when somebody is killed?

Pigs will fly long before that happens.

The fact is that Somali piracy was a headline a year or two ago; by now it is hardly news anymore. As with reports of violence from Iraq or Afghanistan, another hijack does not titillate the global citizen or the media; it may even elicit a yawn instead. The fact is, also, that the best management folks and their spin-doctors are underplaying and underreporting the menace while simultaneously exaggerating the few successes; as an example, Ecoterra’s reports indicate to me that many near trade, fishing and such vessels hijacked off Somalia are just not reported in the official figures. This fudging of figures, this tom-tomming of the success of the ‘Citadel Strategy’- a term probably floated by a bright eyed media advisor and which conjures up images of a fortress instead of an asphyxiating steering gear compartment that is the reality- is all part of this creative endeavour. Pirate attacks have increased and are more widespread, and now include incidents in the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea alarmingly close to the Indian mainland. They have also moved south.

Meanwhile, the EU squabbles over proposals to float private navies to combat the Somali pirates. Resistance to the idea of armed guards on ships continues, although some owners are certainly using mercenaries aboard their fleets. Wary as I am of the trigger-happy Blackwater types, I cannot see many options to a problem I am convinced will stay with us for many years, especially since we do precious little to solve it. The criminal neglect of the entire issue of piracy by the industry continues. The breathtaking tragedy is that the strategies and tactics that will probably work are not being exercised or even seriously contemplated.

Here are some that should.

First, armed guards. The canard about how this will escalate violence is nonsense, given the scale and violence of the Somali attacks. Armed guards will be an excellent deterrent, in my opinion. The pirates are not a couple of guys with knives coming to steal your ropes and paint; they are already armed to the teeth, and they intend to take the whole ship away. They have, in the past, killed or wounded seafarers and at least threatened rape. They have beaten, starved and ill-treated hostages for months. The violence has already escalated long ago, and to use this excuse is rubbish. Using the same reasoning, not a single weapon should be carried by security at international airports.

Consider this: what are the best management folk recommending right now? Lock yourself in the panic room and await armed men who will rescue you, right? How is having armed guards on board much different to this? Besides, using the same citadel reasoning, if armed men on board can hold off pirates for the same amount of time that the crew plans to spend in the steering flat, the navies can still come to the rescue, right? Then why is everybody, including the IMO and other industry organisations, stubbornly resisting this? Are there other reasons? Does the plot, monsieur, thicken?

Second, ships changing routes. Not going to happen and we all know why.

Third, a mechanism for prosecution of arrested pirates, which is a bad joke thus far. Surely, we could have come up with a workable law after years of escalating piracy. As things stand, the international legal response to piracy is pathetic.

Fourth, a naval blockade of Somalia. Will take a huge amount of resources, but, as luck would have it, is being recommended by the African Union too, albeit for other reasons. The AU wants an air and naval blockade of Somalia to stop arms getting into rebel Al Shabaab hands. Ramtane Lamamra, the AU peace and security commissioner, told the UN Security Council less than two weeks ago that "The African Union is very concerned that the insecurity in Somalia is spilling over into the region.” Asking the naval forces that are fighting piracy in the region to provide more tangible and operational support to the Union’s AMISOM soldiers that prop up the Somali government, such as it is, Lamamra wants a naval blockade and a no-fly zone over Somalia “to prevent the entry of foreign fighters in Somalia as well as flights carrying shipments of weapons and ammunition to armed groups in Somalia." The Somali Foreign Minister echoed the blockade call, saying that his country was “in a dire situation”.

Shipping needs to throw its uncertain weight behind this blockade demand, because a blockade will greatly and coincidentally strengthen the fight against piracy. The best way of stopping piracy is to stop the criminals a few miles off their friendly neighbourhood beach, not in the vast ocean. Let their villages become pirate citadels; let a blockade ensure this.

The problem is that the best management folks are managing the situation instead of fighting it. Their strategies look impressive in boardrooms and conference halls; they look very shaky at the front line. The problem is, also, that we have ceded the seas to the pirates, concentrating instead on coastal security and maritime security ‘corridors’ that are failing. After another attack close to the Indian coast, this time on a VLCC just 350 miles from Mangalore, India is failing, too.

The citadel strategy, like much of the global response to piracy, is akin to children making a sandcastle on the beach in a rising tide, calling it a citadel, and then sticking their heads in it.

And then hoping like hell that they will not drown.


October 28, 2010

Clash of the Titans

The currency wars, now well underway, may have started by being a predominantly US vs. China spat, but it has now sucked in far too much of both the developing and the developed world into the battlefield to be written off as just that. Outcomes are impossible to predict at this stage, although experts are going to town with their pet theories as usual. Regardless, I only know this: The importance of the US dollar will decline sooner than we think. And that shipping will be at particular risk, given the inevitable instability that the currency markets are likely to see for some time, not to speak of the direct economic fallout of this squabble. We are an international industry dependent on trade; the dollar is the currency we deal in. We carry commodities that are traded in the US dollar on ships that are paid and hired with the dollar- a currency whose stability has been taken for granted so far, even if concerns were periodically raised about the quantum of the staggering US debt. That, we assumed, was a long-term problem. Well, long term may be here and the US dollar domination of global trade may be slowly- we hope slowly- ending.

All these years, the hubris of the US financial markets extended to its satellite thinkers across the world. Their flawed reasoning was this: China has a huge trade surplus with the US. Therefore, what will happen is that China will be awash with dollars, which it will naturally spend, thereby making its own currency stronger. When it does this, what it sells will automatically become more expensive; therefore, Americans will buy fewer Chinese goods and so the trade imbalance will correct. Voila. Economics 101 through a narrow prism.

What people forgot was this: The driving imperative of China is to be a dominant global superpower, not just a rich one. Therefore, with calculation, it simply did not spend the billions of dollars it accumulated, thus short-circuiting that logical chain. When it did spend, it did not spend enough. Totalitarian China kept its own currency artificially cheap and bought US debt like there was no tomorrow. China did not want its exports to dwindle because of two main reasons: One, as said, it wanted to replace the US as King of the Economic Hill, which I would argue is a mission now accomplished. Two, it faced huge labour unrest at home, if its manufacturing driven exports screeched to a halt. And so we are where we are today.

Today, two years after the economic collapse, the US, along with many other nations, is still printing money like there is no tomorrow. This money is sloshing around world bond and stock markets, driving up stock prices in India and Brazil and elsewhere- and, inevitably, creating bubbles in markets across the world. The high inflation figures in India today, and the obvious unwillingness of banks to raise interest rates, are direct fallout of this crisis.

Countries are worried: Brazil has doubled taxes on foreign purchases of its bonds, South Korea, Japan, Peru and Thailand are taking similar measures or threatening to- in fact, Japan and S Korea seem to having a mini sideshow spat of their own. Britain and the US are keeping their interest rates abnormally low in a desperate attempt to boost jobs and exports- thus, effectively, devaluing their currencies. (The UK will also lay off half a million people and cutback heavily on defence). The US is screaming, long after the horse has bolted, that China is growing at their expense. Meanwhile, China is sitting on US$ 2450 billion in reserves, 30 percent of the world’s total. That a currency war is on is now well accepted; I hope sense prevails and a full-blown trade war does not follow. Unfortunately, the US- and Europe, what with its own crisis (witness the French strikes and unrest) and with the future of the Euro looking wobbly- are running out of options at this stage.

Shipping will have to, at the very minimum, learn to manage currency volatility; chances of the dollar- and other Western currencies- getting devalued further seem to be more than slim. And, although our industry may be global, its players are often not: they live in Greece or Japan or India or Taiwan, paying taxes and making profits in one currency or the other. The figures in balance sheets may well become skewed because of this. The Indian Rupee, for example, has appreciated nicely against the US dollar in recent months. If I were an Indian ship-owner (or exporter) getting paid hire in dollars, I might find that my profit, in rupee terms, has been impacted significantly just because of the changed exchange rate. A worse scenario is that a trade war erupts: the industry will obviously be hit much harder; it is hardly out of the woods as it is.

It is quite likely that we will see, in the coming years, a gradual shift away from the US dollar that is now the reserve currency of the world, and the currency against which almost everything in shipping is often benchmarked: commodity prices, freight, hire, bunkers, insurance, acquisition and crew costs included. Also, trade may likely increase in some cases without any dollar exchange or pegging: India and China may see a marked increase in the Rupee-Yuan trade, for example. We did go the Rupeer-Rouble route for a long time.

Even without this possibility, the maritime industries may well see a basket of currencies, or an SDR like mechanism, slowly replacing the dollar internationally. I am sure many ship-owners and traders are already seriously increasing their currency hedges, or starting new long term ones. Also hoping, along with the rest of the world, that the devaluation of the US dollar is gradual, that the Yuan is finally allowed to appreciate, and some normalcy is restored in the global financial system. Uncertainty usually hits markets harder than bad news.

The overriding prayer, however, will not be that one. The first hope will be that the two behemoths that triggered this war come to their senses and stop battling. Because it is in neither the US’ nor the Chinese interest to deepen or prolong the skirmish. Also because, as they say in Africa, it is the grass that is trampled when two elephants fight.

(Postscript: In the time between the publication and writing of this article, the G20 - 19 industrial and emerging nations and the EU- said they would "move towards market-determined exchange rates and refrain from competitive currency devaluation". A statement of hopeful intent meant to calm everybody down more than a certainty, methinks. In the absence of monetary targets, the whens and the hows of how this is to be done is unclear. )

October 21, 2010

Basic Instinct

Any navigator worth more than a pinch of salt should know that GPS uses the WGS84 Datum, which often requires GPS positions to be corrected before they can be plotted on charts in use. All paper charts so effected will have printed, in the General Notes, something like “Positions obtained from satellite navigation systems are referred to the WGS datum; such positions should be movedx.09 minutes SOUTHWARD and 0.06 minutes WESTWARD to agree with this chart”. Pretty simple, right?

Then why is it that in my experience, few watchkeepers actually make this correction? Some assume it is small, and some simply do not know that it exists. I remember a Second Mate being flummoxed, a few miles off Kaohsiung breakwater in Taiwan a few years ago, at the almost half mile difference between his GPS position and my radar fix. He was, pardon the sarcasm, completely at sea about the correction.

The London P & I Club said last week that an unnamed containership on a regular schedule ran aground because the officer on watch “commenced a significant alteration of course about half a mile before it was due.” The reason he did so was that he was “wholly unaware” that a significant correction had to be applied before GPS positions could be plotted on the chart. The Club appears to recommend that proper passage planning would have eliminated this dangerous navigational illiteracy.

I beg to differ with the passage-planning bit. It is the responsibility of maritime schools and examination systems – not a ship Captain’s- to ensure that an officer is educated in the basics. ‘Proper passage planning’ should not have to include a course for certified officers in basics of chart reading, limitations of equipment or accurate position fixing. But then, we seem to have become terribly fond of finding complex reasons- after often uselessly elaborate risk analysis- for tardy watchkeeping: the fact is that sometimes an officer’s certificate is not worth the paper it is written on, and no amount of on-board training will change that. If one cannot put down even a GPS position accurately- something I could teach a ten year old to do in an hour or less-then one has no business being a navigational watchkeeper at sea.

Equally worrying is the fact that the industry seems to have accepted as fait accompli the notion that electronic navigational instruments (and, with ECDIS and Integrated Bridge consoles, entire navigational systems) should replace traditional navigation, and even overcome such navigational blunders as shown in the incident above. Witness reports of the main reasons for the Shen Neng 1 grounding in the Great Barrier Reef earlier this year: besides fatigue, the fact that a changed waypoint was not entered in the GPS (which meant that alarms did not sound on the GPS or the Radar when the ship was off course) is seen as material. Of course, it is, but overstressing this fact also tells me that many seem to have accepted that traditional navigation was superfluous; are we determined to navigate only if an alarm sounds somewhere? If so, it is another dangerous sign. Old fashioned navigation- visual or radar fixes, being aware of and monitoring electronic aids to navigation (not for nothing are they called navaids, you know), being aware of the limitations of equipment, parallel indexing, following the COLREGS, and simply looking out of the bridge porthole for quick situational awareness- are enough to avert many accidents. Do we even need to say this?

Overreliance on navigational aids is a long held and universally acknowledged bad practice. Why are we then promoting this? My uncharitable view, not fully formed yet, is that the industry is also using these gizmos to justify lower manning levels. I therefore wonder: are electronic systems like the ECDIS being mandated at least partly for the wrong reasons?

Stating the obvious, electronic navigational systems are not a panacea. They are excellent tools provided one understands their limitations and verifies what they are telling you periodically. They will, however, not be able- or should be expected to- cover up for inadequate education and training, poor certification or, simply, lousy watchkeeping. Before asking navigators to be aware of GPS corrections, we should be asking them to use basic watchkeeping skills.

Another grounding a few years ago saw a ship equipped with ECDIS and two GPS receivers go off course after the GPS connected to the ECDIS malfunctioned and switched to Dead Reckoning mode soon after an alteration of course. An alarm sounded when this happened, but was switched off by the OOW; no action was taken. Amazingly, the ship sailed this way for over thirty hours before running aground, often coming close enough to land for navigators on the bridge to have noticed that fact visually or on the radar. Twice in this thirty-hour period, positions were ‘checked’ by navigators with radar fixes and nothing found awry. A thirty-hour period would have seen the entire navigating team on watch at one point or another- none of them realised that the ship was sailing on DR and drifting to danger. Nobody verified position with the other GPS, which, given the bridge team’s incomprehensibly awkward proficiency with radar fixes, should have been mandatory. When, finally, islands were seen on the radar fine on the bow where they should not have been seen, the OOW thought they were bands of rain. Inevitably, the ship ran over some rocks thereafter.

By the way, North Korea is rumoured to have developed the ability to block GPS receivers, with South Korea saying that signals were intermittently jammed over many days in August this year. The possibility of countries blocking GPS signals- or feeding errors into them- have always has been a risk to navigation. With the advent of the ECDIS, however, the consequences of GPS failure have escalated. So have the chances that a downloaded virus will play sudden havoc with IBS or ECDIS systems that are run by inexperienced or incompetent officers. (I get livid when, in the event of a sudden and short blackout at sea, many officers run to the GPS to see if it is working when they should be switching over to manual steering and more concerned about the gyrocompass instead. Their actions tell me that GPS is their God; they also tell me that these officers are somewhat less than competent.)

Therefore, training, situational awareness, basic watchkeeping and position fixing skills must be strengthened and refreshed, not weakened and cast aside. If we do not do this, we will go the sextant way- we know that a large majority of present day watchkeepers are not proficient in either taking or working out sights. This is a sign of professional incompetence born out of lack of practice, besides being a pity. A ten-year-old schoolchild can read a GPS readout; navigators should be able to do more. Will we see, in the future, officers at sea who cannot fix a position, either visually or by radar, if the GPS or ECDIS malfunctions? What about a Gyro malfunction, which will obviously throw all synchronised displays out of whack? Will we see industry still looking at solving these issues using jargon and tools of risk analysis, examining root causes and auditing elaborate systems when the truth is much simpler?

The projected shortage of officers will, inevitably, translate to quicker promotions and relatively inexperienced watchkeepers at sea. ECDIS systems will soon be everywhere. Elaborate courses will be designed, mandated and undertaken across the world; many already are. Generic and equipment specific training will be given to people, some of whom display unshakeable faith in anything showing a Lat/Long readout. ISM and SMS systems will continue to be hammered into officers, many of whom will continue to have problems even understanding the language in which their manuals are written. ECDIS systems will probably be used as tools in what the experts will call, pompously and ominously, fatigue management.

Hold on to that jargon and that training for a bit, is my opinion. Address basic competency skills first, before it is too late. Make existing navigating officers prove their basic watchkeeping instincts are correct. or mandate training that ensures this.

Walk before you try to run.


October 14, 2010

Snake Eyes

(‘Snake eyes’- two pips on the dice- is the lowest score a gambler can roll in a game of craps. A loser’s roll, obviously)

If the IMO, like its parent the UN, represents the will of the international community, then I have to say that where there is no will there is no way.

On the first of this month, the IMO’s Marine Environmental Protection Committee met, deliberated and failed to reach any consensus on proposals to cut emissions from new ships. Shipping is not covered by the Kyoto Protocol and is said to be responsible for 3 percent of global CO2 emissions. The meet threw up, once again, the huge chasm between the developing and developed countries that seems to be the norm on environmental issues these days.

Around the same time, the BBC reported that Russia is planning to float the first of eight floating nuclear power stations in 2012: Part ship, part platform, these vessels will be positioned in the Arctic circle to take care of the energy needs of a country that is increasingly targeting the exploitation of natural resources in the frigid Arctic. “The territory includes an underwater mountain range called the Lomonosov ridge, an area which some Russian scientists claim could hold 75 billion barrels of oil. This is more than the country's current proven reserves,” the Beeb says. Each Arctic nuclear station can stay twelve years onsite (what? no dry-docking?) without maintenance, and supports power needs for exploration and for 45000 people, the Russians claim.

Other recent events- the Norwegian/Russian deal on the Arctic, Russia accelerating the promotion of the northern route as an alternate (with Russian icebreaker assistance) to the eastern passage to China or Japan, the discovery of new gas and oil reserves off Greenland and the continuing mad race by some Western nations to exploit the Arctic- confirm my suspicions that activity around the North Pole will escalate exponentially, and very soon.

That, with its inevitable consequences on climate change, is bad enough. What is worse is that I see no regulatory body on the horizon that will moderate this change, make operations safer or mitigate environmental risks. Worst of all, I do not think we even know what we are letting ourselves in for in the Arctic. We sure as hell don’t know enough about the weather, or the impact of extreme conditions on men and machinery, or the devastation that would surely ensue if there is, say, a Deep Water Horizon incident out there. Besides the fact that there are extremely limited facilities for refuge in emergency, the race for the Arctic assumes, fallaciously as usual, that proper regulation and procedures will be in place. As things stand, they will not. We are ‘lassoing’ the ice using tugs and moving it away from platforms out there right now: we do not even know what impact this will have on the delicate polar ecology and whether the lasso will turn out to be a noose around our necks later.

It is clear to me that a) the maritime industries, with their abysmal record of self regulation, are hardly going to start properly regulating their operations in the North voluntarily anytime soon; b) The IMO, with its equally abysmal record of reacting to events (using the permanent out it has, like the UN, with its hand-wringing claims that it only represents collective will of member states and is thus hamstrung) , its snail-like speed of action and its general inability to actually solve problems, is the wrong horse for this course; c) The rift between the developing and developed world will widen- shipbuilding and ownership in the latter is growing, and fears that regulation on shipping will become a one sided affair impacting largely the developed countries are not unfounded and d) the oil industry, as the Deep Water Horizon incident has shown, controls governments, including those of some of the most powerful nations in the world today. Their gung-ho operations will continue as usual with the thin veneer of regulation that pretends to be workable.

Unfortunately, it is hugely naive to expect that shipping, or the oil industry- with the public perception of a dirty business run by shady operators- will see the opening of the Arctic as an excellent opportunity to clean up its act and turn perception on its head. To be fair, though, these are far from the only industries that pay lip service to environmental issues while continuing down risky, unethical –or illegal- courses, cutting safety corners and exposing the environment to potential catastrophe. But that is neither here nor there. What we need is this: We need an international body to regulate these international businesses, we need the regulations to be placed before we put even one more sailboat in the Arctic, and we need this body to be proactive and control safety and environmental issues as its only priority. The IMO is, right now, the only game in town, but it is a rigged game played by unwilling players with loaded dice. The game’s final score, to me, is inevitable. Snake eyes.

As for those Russian plans, I cannot help but recall Chernobyl, parts of which were kept running for sixteen years after the worst nuclear accident in history devastated the immediate area when four hundred times Hiroshima’s radioactive material was released into the atmosphere. Radiation levels rose across almost entire Europe. Thousands of children and adolescents have been reported with thyroid cancer in Ukraine and Russia since then. The full environmental impact of this disaster- a quarter of a century later- is still not known.

That was a nuclear power plant too.

Maybe it will take a Chernobyl in the Arctic before sense prevails; maybe we can step back from the abyss once again. Maybe we should get some workable rules in place. If we cannot, we should stop playing the game.


October 07, 2010

Tangled Web

I am quite sure that for most of us internet connectivity is far more important than the phone or television- or even a car. I know that is what I would choose if I were told that I could have just one of these round the clock. I am quite sure, too, that most of us reading this are not seventeen or eighteen year olds deciding what we want to do with our lives. If I were from that generation, grown up on those seemingly reflexive and annoying texting habits or twittering like Shashi Tharoor almost before I could think, I might well shoot down shipping as a career choice because of one reason alone: limited or no web accessibility for months on end.

I am also quite sure that, sooner rather than later, round the clock broadband (or, as some say in India because the speeds are so slow, fraudband) availability for crew will become the norm on most ships on the high seas. At sea internet costs are coming down, commercial uses are multiplying, and more and more crew will soon be asking this question of managers: does the ship have internet? In return, more and more managers will, in turn, be tom-tomming ‘unlimited web accessibility’ to attract crews, especially youngsters. Everybody wins. No more problems.

Well, not quite, because we better start thinking of what this will do to operations on board. There will be new problems instead of the old ones.

The first question, of course, is access. Does unlimited mean that I can spend any time I get between work to hit the web and land up bleary eyed for watch? What happens to STCW mandated rest periods if they are abused? Who monitors this, the Captain? If so, that policeman’s job is all he will be doing.

Then, do we want everything on the ship to be emailed or blogged or broadcast on Twitter or Facebook -or other similarly (and euphemistically) called ‘social networking sites’ - in real time? (‘This is a rust bucket. See the attached photograph of the starboard lifeboat’). Is the Master ready for incoming emails from, say, a Cadet’s parents? (Dear Captain, please sign off the apple of my eye before Friday so he can attend his second cousin’s third engagement).

Which reminds me. Can I use Skype to ask that girl out? You know, the one I met in the bar on our last call to our next port?

What if confidential documents are scanned and uploaded by a disgruntled miscreant? Or morphed photographs? (An Indian shipping company is fighting a case in court where a whistleblower employee allegedly sent morphed photographs to authorities to claim pollution by the vessel he was on, though not through the internet, I think)

What about YouTube? (Possible titles: “Video of lousy food on MV Rustbucket” or “See Chief Engineer panicking while bunkering” or “Movie shot by Second Officer while on watch in the Singapore Straits”). For more, use your imagination. The possibilities are endless.

The possibilities for good are endless, too. Imagine the access to technical information that an engineer could use, or the ability to contact manufacturers directly with photographs and other details of defective equipment. Imagine improved navigation with direct access to real time weather related satellite imagery. Imagine a hundred other ways officers and crew could use the internet to better themselves professionally.

We can choose to imagine that. Or we can choose to imagine crews spending all their free time downloading porn, and viruses with it for free.

What is clear to me, at least, is that every company operating ships will need a clear internet policy, and a workable one at that. This needs to be done before internet installation; making the rules up as we go along is a bad idea, for obvious reasons. Moreover, policing is not possible: Masters and officers have enough to do already without an additional headache. So, perhaps some urls may have to be blocked instead, firewalls and antivirus software robustly installed and systems administrator training given to a crewmember- or, better still, outsourced to a port of call. Certain equipment- like the GMDSS and ECDIS- will have to be protected; there has already been at least one case of an ECDIS crashing because watchkeepers were using the dedicated internet connection (meant to download or upgrade ECDIS charts) to browse the web. Obviously, the safety implications of this kind of behaviour- in critical equipment failure and distracted watchkeeping- are huge.

However, if we take a step back and think a bit, this conversation has long been in progress in offices ashore. Office workers in almost every setup regularly use official time and resources for ‘personal use’. To some extent, this is an extension of the fact that the line between work and non-work life is even otherwise blurred nowadays. Nonetheless, even after so many years, statistics are published regularly across the world about how much productive time is lost because of internet misuse ashore, or how many trillions a country loses in GDP because of this. The same scenario will play out at sea, too. The only (and, admittedly, big) difference is that a guy ashore cannot kill somebody easily if he is browsing the internet during working time, or if he is tired as a result of too much time on the computer the previous night.

You know, maybe there is no solution to this problem. Maybe we have to put good systems in place, accept that the good outweighs the bad, trust our crews as we trust them with many more important things, and leave it at that.


October 01, 2010

Quiet damnation

Stena lines, the cross Channel ferry operator, brewed a mini storm in a small British teacup recently: Director Pim de Lange said it was hard to find British seafarers “unless you want types with fat bellies and covered with tattoos”. De Lange was happy with Filipinos, who he said were “jumping after a two month holiday to work again for six months.” (I suspect his joy had more to do with the 2.2 GBP an hour wage that the Filipinos are apparently being paid.)

Nautilus, the British maritime union, reacted angrily to de Lange’s comments on British seafarers, calling them slanderous and a “disgrace to the hard working men and women who go to sea.” Many days later, the Stena Director expressed regret for any offence caused. Regret, not apology, and he has not retracted his statement so far.

Well, shipping is not booming today, so maybe de Lange thought he could get away with his tirade. But it was certainly booming about two and a half years ago when a very senior manager in an international ship management company (one that still has a large recruitment presence in India and the Philippines loves to pretend that the organisation is all one big happy family) was reported to have compared seafarers publicly to whores, saying, “if seafarers behaved liked mercenaries and prostitutes, that is how they themselves would be treated.” There was no public outrage in India or elsewhere over this scurrilous denunciation, perhaps because he was talking about seafarers from the developing world.

Do we really expect things to be different in India? A country where the shipping ministry is sometimes used as an economic pay-off for political support? Where the shipping administrations are headed by bureaucratic appointees that will change every couple of years? Where ship managers, with rare exception, can barely hide their disdain for seafarers in stray conversation? A country that has much substandard, poorly maintained and crewed tonnage? Where corruption in the new-entrant recruitment business has reached a stage where it is hard to get a training berth without paying off touts? When little can be done in government ports or with connected authorities without bribery? Where the industry motto seems to be as on a sinking ship, where every rat should be for himself?

I don’t know about you, but I sure as hell do not expect much different, and I suspect neither do most Indian seafarers who are still out at sea. I do not expect much better from other countries either, if that is any consolation. Or from self-serving international institutions that are meant to promote safety but end up adding to mariner problems instead. With stray exceptions, a huge part of our industry is not part of any solution, and, unless mentalities change, never will be.

I suspect change, if and when it comes, will come from commercial pressures alone. It will come from quality owners who are unable to find enough quality seamen. It will come from far thinking managers who will see the commercial advantages in retaining good employees (and letting go the bad ones). It will come from a gradually changing mindset that realises that the dying breed of mariners who choose the career as a first option (and not the last, as too often happens today) and for the right reasons (which are to do with more than just dollars and cents) needs industry support. I can risk saying that this change should be inevitable, because, as far as I can see, shipping is not shutting up shop and going away: it therefore needs quality mariners as much as mariners need quality ships.

But I am not too sanguine about this change happing easily: somehow, I cannot see Chinese or Indian ship owners- as just two examples of countries where tonnage is likely to grow rapidly- losing too much sleep over quality just yet. I am more confident of Western ship owners spearheading change, also because their national regulations are tougher, environmental and safety requirements more robust and administrations cleaner. Tougher implementation of laws means a greater demand for quality seafarers.

Not everything is very clean in the West, though, as evidenced by the recent MAIB UK report on the fishing vessel Olivia Jean. Amongst an assemblage of findings to do with poor stability criteria, maintenance, documentation and equipment, the vessel was carrying up to 15 crewmembers at a time when restricted to six, the Latvians and Ghanaians were working long hours without rest, and the owner “was showing a total disregard for the safety and welfare of his employees.” The fishing industry in the UK, Scotland and Ireland has been accused in the past of ‘slavery of Indonesian and Filipino fishermen’ – not enough has changed, judging by more recent reports.

An aside: Lloyds recently carried an article that said, “A significant number of UK officer cadets are so short of money that they are taking second jobs to make ends meet during their training.” Flipping hamburgers at MacDonald’s was mentioned. Dignity of labour banalities aside, is this the state of affairs that we want to see in the industry? Do we expect people to take pride in a profession when they cannot make ends meet pursuing it?

As for the present sorry state of affairs in India, the more I think about it, the more I reach the conclusion that the few remaining Indian mariners who expect the country or their peers to come up with ideas to address their issues (and obviously connected, problems of the recruitment business) bang their unprotected heads against a brick wall. Which is why few sailors actually expect anything out of the country in general and their colleagues ashore in particular. Ask them. All they want to do is to come home in one piece with their wages paid, without facing a major incident at sea or being taken hostage- on one pretext or the other- by the likes of either illegal Somali pirates or properly authorised thugs of legal governments.

Much as I hate to say this, I think they are right in their low- nearing zero- expectations from the industry. I think it is people ashore that make a big noise- and only a big noise- about the need to improve the seafarer’s lot everywhere. The average sailor, however, has given up expecting anything from anybody in the business ashore. He is getting on with his life anyway.

If you ask me, this stoical acceptance of neglect by our seamen is the biggest condemnation of all.


September 23, 2010

Tax Axe

The Indian Government has deferred the implementation of the new Direct Taxes Code Bill by a year. Just as well, because this Bill in its present form threatens both seafarer wallets and the supply of Indian mariners to the global shipping industry.

I should say at the outset that the DTC, a Code that will replace the old income tax rules in India, was tabled in parliament by the Finance Minister recently and has been referred to a Select Committee for scrutiny. It is not a done deal just yet. But the big change proposed is in the Non Resident rules that Indian seafarers have long used, to- provided they sailed with foreign shipping companies and stayed 182 days out of the country in a financial year- claim Non Resident Indian (NRI) status and therefore not pay any income taxes in India. The fact that a mariner on a contract went out on fresh employment each time added to the strength of his tax-free argument under the old rules. Since a seafarer did not pay any tax elsewhere either, his entire seagoing income was tax-free. Since he and his family lived in India, a mariner working for a foreign company had to just ensure that he spent 182 or days more sailing on a foreign flag ship to claim NRI tax-free status. That was all.

The DTC proposes to slash the 182-day period hitherto allowed to just 60 days. If experts are reading this proposal correctly, an Indian sailor working for a foreign ship will be able to stay just two months (or more precisely, 60 days) a year in India to avoid paying income tax. Price Waterhouse Coopers’ Director (Tax) Kuldeep Kumar says, "With this change, a non-resident would be at greater risk of becoming an ordinary citizen and become liable to pay tax in India as the threshold limit has been reduced."

The amount of tax will depend on a sailor’s income, of course, but back of the envelope calculations tell me that the tax payable by a Master may end up amounting to around 20% of his annual income, if he sails eight months a year. Which is a month and a half’s full wages on a total of eight months income earned. A significant hit, for sure, especially since his present tax liability is precisely zero.

The Direct Tax Code, in its present form, will make seafaring even less attractive for an Indian youngster choosing a career and will encourage older mariners to quit earlier. However, Indian ship owners will not be unhappy at the taxman’s plans: many have long argued, with no success, for seamen sailing in Indian companies to be given the same tax benefits NRI seamen enjoyed in order to support Indian shipping. They may now feel that Indian flagged ships will become more attractive options for mariners. I tend to disagree, because the fact remains that Indian shipping cannot absorb more than a very small percentage of ‘returnees’ from foreign flags. Not that this fact will bother them much: oversupply of officers in the market never worries any ship owner, who usually pays only sailing crew. In any case, foreign ships will remain relatively more attractive, I think, not just because of the money differential that will still exist after the new tax structure but also because many Indian ships, especially those run on the coast or in near trades, are plagued with substandard maintenance and iffy calibre of crews. (After almost thirty years in foreign shipping, when I was contemplating short tenures on the Indian coast, a Chief Engineer friend of mine, with some recent experience of Indian ships, told me bluntly that I wouldn’t be able to do it because the quality of ships and crews was often terrible. So was professionalism and commitment, both ashore and afloat. We agreed that I either would quit or be unceremoniously thrown out in short time.)

I expect some pressure from other lobbies to amend the NRI clause in the DTC. Seafarer travails do not matter to the public or the politicians: our difficulties have always been easy to ignore. But the objections of Indians working in the Gulf will not be as easy to brush aside; those folk will be hit too, and so will other Indian origin people in the US, Canada and the UK who always seem to be preferred NRI’s over mariners (who are second class citizens at best anyway), and who may well force some tinkering to the DTC. The Gulfies have vote banks in India; NRI’s in the West always have disproportionate leverage in domestic policy. OCI and PIO cardholders shuttling between India and elsewhere will put some pressure too. An amendment to the DTC is hardly an impossibility, in which case Indian sailors, usually at the wrong end of collateral damage, may get some collateral relief instead for a change.

But what if the DTC is kept unchanged?

In that case, perhaps the new tax laws will force foreign ship owners to think up new strategies for officer or crew retention and promote long term (can it be, even permanent?) employment. Perhaps they will think of devising seafarer packages on an annual basis that will minimise, to the extent possible, an Indian seafarer’s tax liability. Perhaps they will use the adversity and turn it into an opportunity instead.

Perhaps, but I do not think that will happen too easily. I think that the trend of employing more Filipinos and others instead of Indians, as many ship owners in Europe are already doing, will probably accelerate. Let’s face it: the quality of Indian seafarers is dropping, and fewer managers can justify paying a premium to many Indians sailing today compared to some other nationalities, Direct Tax Code or not.