March 11, 2010

Who's the Boss?

Litigation in India is a pernicious affair; interminable and strength sapping, a dispute assumes a life of its own once it reaches the hallowed portals of our judicial system; huge court delays and appeals can often stretch the process -and the litigants' patience along with it- to the hilt. Even so, difficulties are compounded manifold when the conflict involves an arm or two of the government. In such a case, legal disputes can additionally have far-reaching and long-term consequences, not only for both the sides that are in court but also for the public and industry at large.

The hullabaloo over who has ultimate authority as regards to the training of seafarers has been public knowledge ever since the matter was taken to the courts in Chennai. An earlier ruling was made by the courts there, and I for one have no idea whether this judgement is being appealed or not, or how seriously. I only know that there still seems to be a lack of lucidity as to who will eventually be responsible for both pre-sea and post-sea training as well as the multitude of other courses that seafarers have to endure in India: the Directorate General of Shipping or the Indian Maritime University. I may be wrong or maybe I am not in the loop; perhaps the matter has been decided already. Even if that is so, there is a lack of clarity in the public domain about the immediate future of maritime training; this is a diffuseness that sits poorly in the era of transparency and the Right to Information Act. As with many matters related to the Government, we seem to be in a ‘wait and see’ period.

The problem with just waiting and seeing is, of course, that there is a price to be paid for the enforced procrastination. I am sure that many MET institutes have had to put their expansion plans on hold pending a final resolution of the mini crisis; questions are already being asked about whether the Board of Examinations for Seafarers Trust (the body that has been doing a good job of conducting exit examinations for Ratings across India) would now come under the purview of the IMU. What will happen to approvals pending with authorities? What about audit schedules, both internal and external? How long will we not know?

I am sure that it is difficult for any organisations to issue any clarification since the matter is subjudice; unfortunately, the uncertainty has bred rumour, speculation and discontent, none of which are positive developments. Alas, politics and parochial interests seem to have entrenched themselves within our shipping establishments across the country. I am particularly pained at this, because I have often told outsiders that what you do is more important than whom you know or where you come from in shipping: I was evidently wrong. I think that it is particularly regrettable that a profession that is truly multicultural and multiethnic should be victim to regional and other such interests that should have no place in a meritocracy. To add to my discomfort is the fact that all this is happening in the arena of training and certification; what would the youngsters we are teaching think of all this and of the industry, if only they knew the details?

The issue needs to be resolved as soon as possible, and with crystal clarity too; I am hopeful that the courts and the government realise this. We are ‘waiting and seeing’ at a time when we should be busy increasing capacities, inducting and training those thousands of officers the industry is reportedly (and soon) going to be short of. The entire industry should be debating the new STCW convention and modifying its requirements; the government should be busy deciding how to support the career of seafaring; owners, managers and MET institutes should be working on how to improve the calibre of entrants and the standards of training and we all should, in cohesion, be examining ways of improving Indian seafarers and producing even better officers and crews.

We have stopped instead. We have been put on hold, and the music at the other end of the line is beginning to sound a little less melodious with each passing day.