June 03, 2010

Information or confusion?

It is quite incredible, even inexplicable, that there is so much misinformation going around in the age of the internet and cheap communication.

Take CDC’s, and the confusion about that basic (and these days, essential) seafarer’s document. A google of ‘Indian CDC’ throws up 810,000 hits, the first one being the DG Shipping’s website. The NAMAC site a little lower down explains things much better, but of course a youngster either planning to join a maritime institute or graduating from it would prefer an official site. One would think that reliable and authoritative information would be available easily at the click of a mouse, and be a huge improvement over the time when, for example, I was a Cadet.

Cadets signed indentures in those days and were not eligible for a CDC (after a particularly sadistic Chief Officer made me mug my indentures up word for word, I started calling them dentures instead.) Most of us never owned an Indian CDC until we rejoined after our tickets; I, who joined a foreign company immediately after Second Mates, never got around to getting an Indian CDC for the next twenty years. I did all my examinations in India without an Indian CDC. All that was required (and accepted then, by the MMD) was a stamp from a Consulate or Embassy of the country where the vessels I sailed on were registered; if any of these were part of the Commonwealth, a stamp from the Indian Chamber of Commerce at Ballard Pier sufficed instead. Youngsters are disbelieving when I tell them this today; no doubt, they write it off as yet another old salt’s exaggerated tale.

Nonetheless, contrast my experience with that of youngsters today. Whether trainee ratings or cadets, too many seem to believe that a CDC, instead of being a simple document of a seafarer’s identity and a record of his sea service, actually guarantees them a job. It is not their fault that they are misinformed; middlemen and ‘agents’ tell them so in moffussil hamlets and shipping companies in major cities fob youngsters off with the notion that once they get a CDC they will be employed by them. Small wonder then, that considerable effort has to be made by people like me to correct their misconceptions. The fact that Shipping Masters and their offices remain largely inaccessible to new entrants adds to many a youngster’s anxiety; this, in my view, is largely unnecessary and easily avoidable.

It is the same with STCW courses. I came across a young man on his mobile phone outside a shopping mall recently, and overheard a conversation where, at his end, he was loudly repeating ‘PST, ‘PSSR’ etc, and writing the words down on the palm of his hand. There was no shipping office or any maritime institute of any kind within fifty miles.

Curiosity aroused, I asked him what his conversation was about. It transpired that the ‘agent’ in a small Bihar town had taken him for two lakhs, telling him that if he went and did the four basic STCW courses (at additional expense), he would get him a job on a ship. What company or ship, I asked him. He did not know. What about a CDC or Pre Sea training? He did not know that either. Who was this agent and what was his history? Well, he was a small time scrap dealer who had ‘contacts’, and had a history of having sent one guy on board a ship in ‘Saudi’ with a Liberian CDC. Finally, what was the phone call about? Turns out that the agent had forgotten to tell him what courses to do; just ‘go to so and so institute and they will know’. Our youngster, finally, was making some enquiries.

I sat this lad down over a cup of cheap roadside dhaba tea (it was good but the cups are getting smaller) and explained the game to him, leaving him sadder but wiser, I hoped.

We in the industry will say, with some truth, that there are charlatans associated with every profession. We will say that the information is out there and is easily available to anybody who has access to a ten rupee an hour internet connection. We will say that some steps have been taken to stop corruption in the system, including centralisation of issuances of CDCs. We will say that DG approved institutes are easily identifiable to anybody who is interested in a marine career. We will say that maritime institutes or commercial ship management companies are not in a position to regulate what happens outside their bailiwick.

However, that is a legal position, not a humane or equitable one, and certainly not one that my conscience allows. The fact is that abuse of the system is widespread, be it MET institutes selling courses (and promises) of all kinds, agents selling fake documentation for CDC issuance- and even fake CDCs on occasion. (Another such racket was busted in Mumbai just last month). The fact is, also, that there is enough information available for the interested out there, but it is not easy to assimilate for a person totally unfamiliar with shipping. I bet that I would find it easy as pie, in comparison, if I needed information on an MBA, engineering, medical, IT or a multitude of other such careers.

I think there is an urgent need for a centralised authority or industry body to put up a website that is current and gives all the relevant information to a youngster interested in the career, all in one place. Perhaps a Ministry of Shipping or DG website would be best, but it is not essential. At the risk of repeating myself, it is critical that this website be authoritative, comprehensive, current, relevant and widely publicised. Furthermore, there should be a way for the interested to call up or email a human being for any clarification. Maritime institutes across the country could be persuaded to be contact points for this- and they should be involved in publicising this website, as should the Ministry of Shipping, the DG, industry bodies, maritime job portals and ship management companies. Not to speak of newspaper advertising; we see enough of the feel good ones from the Government; let at least a few be useful.

No doubt, I will be reminded that many such websites already exist. My point is that these are not comprehensive enough- and, equally importantly, they do not have the obvious authority that a Government approved (or even run) website would have. Maybe one of these existing websites can be beefed up and a link to the site placed on the DG shipping’s website- confirming the fact that the DG recommends the site. Maybe the DG itself can put it up under their ‘training’ section. Maybe the IMU can. There are many ways of doing this, but the present way- of often having competing websites- is not comprehensive, and is just confusing for a newcomer.

This is the information age, if we want good people we have to make it easier for them to become educated about pathways and options in maritime careers. We simply cannot leave it to scrap dealers and other such touts to educate potential talent: if we do, then we deserve both the devaluation of the industry and the low caliber of future crews that we get to train.