April 15, 2010

No noose is good noose

I must admit that I have mixed feelings about the spate of maritime news that has hit the Indian media around the National Maritime Day this year. On one hand, and as is usual, the reports was not salutary, and therefore hardly conducive to making seafaring more attractive as a career of choice; they nullified somewhat the ‘Seafaring- Career for Opportunities’ theme of the NMD. Another usual negative: the mainstream media’s reporting was so sloppy that it was sometimes plain wrong.

On the other hand, some newspapers, at least, did highlight the importance of shipping to the global economy a wee little bit. Saddled as the industry is with an image of being dirty and seedy, every news item that says otherwise helps, however small it may be. In our case, no news is not always good news.

The hijacking of almost a dozen dhows (I thought initially that the number was smaller, but apparently not) and around a hundred Indian sailors off Somalia was the most widely covered piece of news, obviously. Everyone loves a train wreck. Unfortunately, the media coverage stopped there: the fact that at least some of those folk were engaged in illicit activity was not researched or widely reported, and neither was the fact that ship owners sitting in Dubai or Gujarat may well be culpable here.

The DGS’ circular barring dhows from sailing to some areas around Somalia got a fresh round of excited coverage; at least some mainstream reporters, not knowing port from starboard or a dhow from chicken chow mein, seemed to imply that all Indian vessels had been so barred. Case in point was an article in the Hindu. Headlined, ‘India bans vessels on hijack prone stretch’, the first line of the article read, “India has banned all motorised vessels from sailing south or west of a line between Salalah and the Maldives in a bid to stem the tide of pirate attacks.” One wonders how many readers mistakenly understood this to mean that all Indian traffic was now barred from the region; this dumb seafarer was confused for a while too.

(Aside: We really must find a way of getting mariners involved in such reporting, whether in newspapers or on TV. I am a little tired of seeing retired admirals or academics waxing eloquently on fighting piracy when neither has a clue of what it means to even start thinking about fighting a dozen men doped to their gills and armed to the teeth with rocket propelled grenades and assault rifles, when all you have is fire hoses and other such esoteric equipment. I bet their doctorates would wet their pants if it were to happen to them.)

Other news was hardly positive. The Indian express carried an article on the third of April where the headline said it all. “Shore leave- Mariners feel like prisoners”, it said, echoing events that this magazine covered last week. Events that pertained to the atrocious shore leave rules that seem to apply to Indian mariners in their own country. I have mixed feelings about this report, too, but for other reasons; my gut says that this kind of news coverage is long overdue, and that the mainstream media reporting it has to be a good thing. My brain tells me, however, that the Express article may have cost us a few hundred potential recruits at least. (My brain also tells me, by the way, that this may not be such a bad thing after all: we should not be looking at making youngsters join the profession under false pretences; that is just short of hoodwinking them, I think).

As I write this, news about the great screw up around the Great Barrier Reef by a Chinese (Cosco owned) ship has not yet hit Indian newspapers or TV; when and if it does, that tidbit will be another small nail in the industry’s global coffin. Meanwhile, another bit of news has been reported by NDTV a few minutes ago: an Indian sailor from one of the hijacked dhows has died during a joint US/Omani rescue operation. It appears that the pirates were planning to use the dhow as a mother vessel; Kutch resident Sultan Ahmed Khijja jumped into the water, probably fearing that he would be caught in the crossfire. He ‘could not be resuscitated’, which is a polite way of saying that he tragically drowned.

Yet another report that I read in the Indian Express on the second of April was, if anything, even worse. Headlined “Shipping Ministry faces sailing community ire”; it gave a somewhat sensationalised but detailed report of the cases of numerous dead or missing crews of various ships. The Indian Express blamed the DGS, various ship owners and assorted ship managers for, essentially, either being downright callous or not caring enough about missing or dead mariners and their families. The 2005 Jupiter 6 reported sinking off Namibia was brought up as a case in point. Families of Indian crewmembers were being given the run around by unscrupulous managers and ship owners, Indians were told.

I did not get too excited by that article, I am ashamed to say, but then unscrupulous owners and ship managers are not really news to me. You can bet, though, that many a youngster read that newspaper and made his own inferences about whether seafaring was really as attractive as the National Maritime Day “Career for Opportunity” slogan seemed to suggest.

I have, unfortunately, saved the worst for last. Listen to what the Hindu Business Line, usually a pretty staid and conservative newspaper, has to say about National Maritime Day. “Reading the theme for this year's National Maritime Day celebration, ‘Seafaring —career for opportunities', the first thing came to mind is the story of Vivek Singh Bhist, a junior marine officer who died on board an SCI ship in 2007. Officially, it was an accidental death. But news reports had it that Vivek Singh, a junior engineer, committed suicide as he was denied leave even after working continuously for more than ten months.” The article is titled, “Make seafaring a more attractive career option,” and it goes on in quite some detail about what has gone wrong with the profession in India.

Time to wake up, people. The natives are not being fooled no more, and that is precisely why I am getting off the fence and saying that such mainstream newspaper reports are, overall, a good thing. Because we need to clean up the act to make seafaring attractive again. Because the beauty and the tragedy of the thing is this: Shipping is truly a career of great opportunity, except that too many of us, pardon my French, have messed it up.