April 28, 2011

Piracy: No more baniya response.

Baniya: (Hindi)- grocer, trader, merchant, small businessman. 

The sobriquet ‘Soft State’ sits dismayingly well on India’s shoulders. For years, its diffident stance on Pakistani terrorism and Chinese expansion have been two main points of reference as to why it has earned the moniker. I now add Somali piracy and terror to the list: I do so with the knowledge that the Indian navy has been especially aggressive against pirates since December- ever since the government realised that insurers were charging higher premiums for ship transit through large swathes of the Indian Ocean and Arabian seas.

I say soft State knowing full well that the basis of this naval belligerence was economics, not security or the safety of seafarers. I say this with the knowledge that the Indian Navy has driven the pirate mother ships away from the Indian coastline, at least for now. It has not been quick enough, obviously, because Lloyds has recently declared the entire West Coast of India a war zone, and vessels in the region will see insurance costs skyrocket. The Economic Times says that the additional premium for a large ship could be in the range of a 1.5-7.5 crore of Rupees per week (I crore= Rs 10 million).

Those are staggering numbers; I hope their numbers are correct.

Given all this, the aggressive Indian naval response is unsurprising, but the fact is that piracy will not be fought with what is akin to a village baniya’s response to a gang of armed dacoits. That response- alternate capitulation and sporadic resistance– does not work and exposes you as a soft target to future brigands and terrorists. It makes the country a laughingstock in the eyes of the rest of the world. It exposes your lack of resolve and your easy tendency to surrender.

Moreover, the Indian State cannot mirror the Indian public’s sea blindness; it cannot ignore or be unaware, as most Indians are, of the fact that half of the country’s coast- the more important half- today lies on the thin edge of an official war zone. The rest of India may finally awaken if the cost of petrol touches a hundred rupees a litre on the back of terror or piracy or increased war risk premiums, but the Indian State cannot do that. It should know better.

India must be aggressive, yes, but it needs planned and sustained aggression, and for the right reasons. Those have to do with existential threats to its security- have we forgotten the Mumbai terror attacks already? - and threats to its citizen seafarers first. Protection of its trade routes comes next. The cost of petrol must come even later.

India needs bold solutions to kill piracy. It needs to realise, first of all, that coalition navies have hidden agendas: they are protecting their trade routes and expanding their presence in the region for reasons that have to do with geopolitics, not piracy. Some have a conflict of interest; many countries, not only in the West, are making billions from piracy annually. India needs to realise this today. Trust, share intelligence and resources with coalition partners, sure. However, be wary of intentions and be well aware that their agendas do not often coincide with ours.

Furthermore, India needs to engineer a stepped response to terror linked piracy. I would like to see some of the following happen:

First, a government declared ban on official (more on what I mean by ‘official’ later) Indian seafarers transitting the entire war zone without a sufficient number of armed guards aboard their ships. Statistics tell us that this is the only tactical response to the immediate threat of hijack that has worked.

Second, a government declaration that unofficial Indian seafarers are on their own, and that India will do nothing for them. Everybody knows that many Indian nationals sail on dhows and such to Somalia, often on illegal or shady missions. Many dhows are Indian controlled, and still ply there despite an early Indian prohibition from doing so. India needs to make clear to the owners and sailors of these dhows that it will not jeopardise the effectiveness of its response to terror or piracy by catering to their safety.

Simultaneously, a comprehensive and absolute operation to have all current Indian sailors ransomed out of Somalia. Arm twist owners, flag states or whoever, and realise that pirates will try to retain at least some Indians at any point of time. Examine military options when this happens. But our sailors must return because this is a prelude to taking the war to the pirates. This step is essential if we are to take the initiative instead of just reacting to the enemy, which is what we have been doing so far.

Ensure that the families of any Indian seafarers killed in the prelude to the war on piracy are very handsomely compensated. We have the military capability to ensure that these numbers are minimal; we often do not have the will.

Simultaneously beef up intelligence from Somalia. Some will come from satellites and high tech gadgetry- either coalition or our own. Some may come from informers. Some will have to come from spies on the ground.

At some stage of this exercise, and hopefully with most- if not all- legitimate Indian sailors back home, declare an unofficial war on the pirates in Somalia. Bomb their lairs and kill their leaders. Destroy their skiffs. Give captured pirates speedy trials in India and mandate stiff sentences in the new law that is already being processed in Delhi. Go after their financiers and banks legally. Do this aggressively.

And all this time, for God’s sake monitor the effectiveness of that armed-team initiative that is preventing more Indians from being taken hostage.

Note that my suggestions are not a way to kill piracy or even protect our coastline; they are a way to protect Indians from being taken, held hostage for months, tortured or killed. This is a way to – first and foremost- minimise today’s casualties and stop future ones.

After that, future actions can include protecting trade or the coastline or look at the cost of petrol. Or even the cost of soothing ruffled feathers of the ‘international community’- or their wretched IMO stamped orchestrated response to piracy.

This is a first step. It is not long winded or difficult. It is doable. It is a way for India to stop the outrage of torture and executions being perpetuated on its citizens- at the will of the pirates, so far.

It is a way of India making clear to those criminals that enough is (expletive deleted) enough.


April 21, 2011

Tip of the Iceberg

The MV Iceberg 1 was taken by pirates on March 29 2010 with 24 crew, one of whom died last November of ‘malnutrition and distress.’ Another had to be ‘tied down’ because he had lost his mind and had threatened to kill himself. The owners, Azal shipping, broke off negotiations for ransom months ago. The crew- including 6 Indians- has been held for more than a year. They ran out of food, medicines and water last year, and are now surviving with no power, on bare rations the pirates give them once a day- and are drinking sewage water. Some are obviously physically and mentally sick. Sometime last year the crew were forced to sail- probably after beatings and torture- the renamed ‘Iceberg’ as a mother ship while the pirates looked for other prey. The pirates are said to have threatened the crew then that they would ‘kill them and sell their body parts’. Some in the industry said later, from the safety of their conference rooms, that this statement was a hoax and a pressurising tactic.

I normally do not watch Indian news channels; my sadomasochistic tendencies do not include watching shrill and vacuous news anchors substituting sound-bytes and sensationalism for news or analysis. But I did watch most of the CNN-IBN circus on the ‘Iceberg’ last week. The channel had managed to get recent video footage from aboard the Iceberg from a Somali who was there; the ship’s crew- minus the one already dead- looked shell shocked and beyond despair as they pleaded for their lives on camera.

Amidst the other self-absorbed ‘experts’ paraded on CNN-IBN was the gutsy Sampa Arya, the wife of one an Indian sailor held hostage in Somalia, and who has been at the forefront of trying to get the Indian government to do something about the indefensible state of affairs. She was scathing in an attack on the Directorate General of Shipping and the Ministries of External Affairs and Defence, all of whom- she said- were making her run from pillar to post while doing nothing, and showing no interest in trying to bring tortured Indians home.

I must declare that the purpose of this piece is not to restate the Indian- or the international community’s- impotence in the face of piracy; that statement is a given and will not look any prettier on repetition. The purpose of the piece is different, and is brought about by the fact that I wondered, as I watched CNN-IBN, also hearing Ms Arya say that piracy was a more than ten year old problem, what my sense of the shipping industry would be if I were not a seafarer, but an ordinary guy: Joe Public with little knowledge about the marine world. What impression would I have of shipping? Not just with the Iceberg story, but in general, based on what I had seen on the news in the last year or three.

Etched into my mind would be the Deep Water Horizon disaster- to a layman, the oil and shipping industries are lumped together- where I was told that a mix of less than safe practices and corruption within the administration in the US were the main reasons why an environmental catastrophe occurred and was covered up.

I would have seen reports of ships, accidents, sinkings and oil spills- including in Mumbai and at least Black Rose off Paradip, if not some others.

I would remember TV reports on the Hebei Spirit incident, and perhaps the faces of the two officers as they came home after jail.

I would remember that Seema Goel, the ‘Stolt Valor’ Captain’s wife, had looked as distressed as Sampa Arya does today when her own husband’s ship was hijacked. I would remember that she ran around Delhi’s babudom trying to get somebody to do something too. I would wonder, was that last year? Two years ago? So nothing has changed?

I- Joe Public- would not be aware of the depth and width of piracy today, or that it had reached Indian shores- the broader corporate mainstream media has done a good job of leaving that alarming news buried- but I would be well aware that Somali piracy has been a huge threat to mariners and ships for a long time. Hijacking of ships seems to be an everyday affair, I would rightly conclude from watching the news. Crews remain hostage for months and are sometimes being tortured. Or killed.

I would have watched reports of the Indian Navy’s ‘successes’ against mother ships and pirates. If I were a thinking man, I would wonder what happened to the hostage crews of those ships when the navies attacked them. How many seamen were killed and by whom in these ‘successes’, I might ask myself?

I would have watched, repeatedly on camera over the weeks, distraught families of seafarer’s taken hostage crying for help. I would wonder why our government did not do anything to help, and how ship owners could just walk away.

“Because we are from a third world country no one cares,” a seafarer hostage told CNN-IBN. I would have noted that, too.

I would have watched, on earlier shows, the Minister of External Affairs wringing his hands- the sole defence of the impotent- claiming that the government was ‘doing everything’ to get the Indians released. I might even wonder what that ‘everything’ was. Considering that Ms Arya had told me that this was more than a ten year old problem, I may even start to think that the Government of India, like God, had been moving in slow, strange and mysterious ways for a long time here, and would continue to do so while more Indians were taken, tortured or even killed.

Shipping is a dangerous, unscrupulous and dirty industry, I would conclude. Like those uneducated labourers who go to oppressive Middle Eastern countries and are treated worse than cattle, seamen do not seem to have any human rights or protection. The Indian Government walks away if there is a problem. The middlemen who call themselves management companies do nothing. Piracy, environmental disasters and innocent workers arrested after accidents seem to be common at sea. Companies abandon seamen. Hostage seamen are being tortured, dying or threatening suicide. Seamen are drinking sewage for water and being given some morsels once a day for food. No medicines. No lights. No hope.

Joe Public doesn’t consciously think about all this, mind. This is just the impression that is reinforced over time. Same as other stories on television.

But then, a year or so later, Joe runs into an old pal who has been sailing for many years. This pal tells him, over a beer or two, that Joe should consider a career at sea for Joe’s now teenage son. The money is good, and the sea makes a man out of a boy, the mariner pal says.

Joe puts down his beer and looks his friend dead in the eye. “A good career option for my son, you say? You must be out of your mind”.

Postscript: another piece of news has just hit CNN-IBN as I write this - Somali pirates have just released the 'Asphalt Venture' after extorting a 3.6 million dollar ransom but retained all its Indian crew as hostages in Somalia; the pirates say that they have collectively decided that these Indians will only be released after India sets free more than a 100 pirates that it’s navy has apprehended off the Indian coast.

Oh boy, those news channels are sure as hell going to milk this one.


April 14, 2011

Streetwalker’s commitment

I will be amongst the first to generalise and say that shipping needs more commitment from the youngsters that are coming out to sea today. Alas, commitment is a two way street, so it would be nice if the industry, too, showed them a bit of what this scarce commodity might look like. Even more unfortunately, the usually un-committed, always noncommittal and often self-servingly corrupt body shopping culture that shipping exposes young sailors to- long before they first taste salt on their lips or have any idea what the career is all about - sets the cultural tone for the rest of their association with the industry.

The fact is that when somebody from shipping talks about commitment they always mean a seafarer’s long-term commitment to their own particular company, and nothing more. This is a notion so laughably arrogant, given our contractual model of employment, that those seeking this need to be committed to a certain kind of asylum. Like the philanderer husband who demands a chaste wife, they seek commitment without offering any.

Consider a youngster’s typical introduction to today’s maritime world for a moment. He has probably paid shady agents- who have promised him the moon- to join a below-par training institute, and he will probably have to pay somebody to get a training berth at sea. The training institute’s placement commitment will be usually (and creatively) advertised as ‘100% placement assistance’, which can mean whatever they want it to mean. The first year or two of a trainee’s life in the industry will be spent, therefore, in an atmosphere where he is at the receiving end of corruption and cold indifference and where many promises are made and most broken. This debased unprofessional behaviour is what he comes to believe shipping is all about, because this is all he sees. He will struggle for months, sometimes years, to get employed as a cadet or a junior rating after graduation; he may even, in rare cases, sign petitions or seek media support to advertise his plight. This industry is dog-eat-dog, he learns soon enough. No long term commitment. Everybody is out looking for the quick shady buck. If I get a chance, I will take my money and run too, he decides.

Later, once he has sailed for awhile, he may be treated better- or not, depending on how badly companies need warm certified bodies at that point in time. His employer’s commitment, if any, will be only for a single contract, and sometimes not even that. Everything will depend on supply and demand, including the apparently vexing question of whether he has to be spoken to politely or not in the manager’s office. He is a contractual commodity whose value varies and who can be discarded or treated like dirt under a shoe at anytime. Of course, banal promises and clichés will be served to him periodically like hors d’oeuvres by employers, depending on the prevailing demand and supply situation. These mean nothing. They cost nothing. They are not the main dish.

And so, when his time comes, he does what has been done to him. No commitment to a company. Worse, no commitment to the profession. The industry reaps the whirlwind that it sows.

Seems to me that the business model that dictates that seafaring employment be contractual for nationals of developing countries is not going to change; besides other reasons, shipping does not seem to have the capacity to think out of the box and come up with a different model. Seems to me, also, that this is no excuse why seafarers cannot be treated better, especially when they first enter the industry. There should be no excuses for unprofessional or insensitive behaviour at any time, and there should be no reason why corrupt practices should be allowed to flourish to an extent that they threaten to overwhelm the body shopping business, which is what it actually is. There is no excuse why we can’t be committed to honest body shopping practices.

At the moment, though, and at the risk of being shot down in flames by my contemporaries, I cannot help but compare the plight of most youngsters who enter the profession with that of a young girl who runs away from her small-town home and is eventually- almost inevitably- sold into prostitution in the big bad city. Like our young sailors who go out to sea, prostitution wasn’t her first choice of profession. Like these kids looking for training berths, her first contacts with her professional world-to-be is only through corrupt and corrupting pimps, who promised her everything, took everything they could, and left her the bare minimum. She, too, learnt- to her cost -that promises are made to be broken. Like our future mariners, she learnt the hard way that, in her line of business, commitment from employers- or even equitable behaviour- was an expectation that was naive. Like our would-be sailors, she didn’t see any commitment- or even much common decency- from most in her industry. Her pimp demanded loyalty without giving her any in return; keeping the option of kicking her out into the street at any time that it suited him. Just like our body shopping outfits tend to do.

How much commitment should that industry expect from this girl today, do you think?


April 07, 2011

Reluctant Brides

Shipping reminds me of a reluctant bride the way it behaves sometimes; it knows what has to be done- and by whom- but it will try everything else first, and usually for the wrong self-serving reasons. It then runs hither and thither like a headless chicken as the sky begins to fall, appalled as if its modesty has been outraged.

Take for example the issue of armed guards on ships passing through the pirate infested Indian Ocean. Many, including this perpetrator sitting behind this keyboard, have cried ourselves hoarse for many months, saying that arming ships was the only short term answer to piracy, political stability in Somalia being the obvious permanent solution. Shipping, however, was fixated on the Best Management Practice hoopla even when that directly resulted in the torture and killing of its crews, because that was the cheaper way out. Industry thinking changed only when the entire Arabian Sea became a war zone and re-routeing ships became a very expensive exercise. Cheaper to hire armed guards, so the reluctant brides did so after much blood had been shed, and amidst displays of great opportunistic sanctimoniousness.

The flavour of the month has since changed somewhat. ‘Go after the mother ships’ is the new battle cry, and this makes me as irate as the BMP claptrap did earlier. Navies- including the Indian navy- are aggressively attacking mother ships mindlessly, uncaring of the plight of the crew hostages held there. The sequence of events goes like this: the navy chases a mother ship. Sooner or later a pirate fires a round or two off his AK47 in the general direction of the naval ship, which then quickly claims self defence and firebombs the indiscriminate crap out of everybody on the hijacked vessel- often a fishing boat. Hostages and pirates alike are fired upon; many survivors jump in the water. Some pirates and hostages are undoubtedly killed, though we never hear- or ever will hear- the truth about how many innocent mariners perished in these operations. We will never hear the truth about the torture they may have had undergone as naval vessels moved in. News may leak once in a while- like that of the Pakistani hostage who was executed by pirates as the Indian navy closed in on a mother ship last week- but I am willing to bet half my meagre life savings that actual casualties, and atrocities against crews, are considerably higher- and are kept secret. Keep those dumb sailors – and future cannon fodder- in the dark. Way to go.

Our reluctant brides in shipping do not care that all this is happening, though. I hear nobody in the industry objecting to this deliberate exposure of its employees to torture and execution. In fact, the mood is usually quite the opposite. Shipping magnate Jacob Stolt-Nielsen may have been criticised by some for his disdainful comments on mariner safety when he advocated that any pirates apprehended should be summarily executed, hang the possible backlash to seafarer hostages. “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs,” he said in response to those who worried about hostage crews being tortured or killed in retaliation for pirate executions. This is war, he said, and warfare costs lives.

Criticised or not, I assure you his way of thinking has many shipping executives nodding their heads in synchronised unthinking agreement. And governments that order their navies to fire willy-nilly on hostages and pirates obviously agree that the death of mariner hostages is acceptable in crossfire or because of deterrent execution by pirates. I think these folk don’t care about breaking eggs to make omelettes because none of their own eggs is on the line here- and never has been.

They also don’t care about seafarer lives for one simple reason- almost nobody in the general public does. Imagine the uproar if the crews of commercial airliners were being systematically tortured and executed anywhere – and regularly- because of international security force actions.

Take seafarer fatigue- another issue that has resurfaced recently for the nth time- as another example that displays the reluctant brides’ lassitude in technicolour. SIRC Cardiff’s study may say bluntly that “the major cause of death for British seafarers is suicide that is undoubtedly linked with excessive fatigue”, but this means nothing to the reluctant brides that have been fending off the amorous suitor called fatigue since he became a nuisance more than twenty years ago. The numbing, depressing and demoralising impact of a day-in-day-out stressful atmosphere caused by a combination of –amongst others- fatigue, alienation, paperwork overload, short manning and regulatory or operational pressure can only be understood by a seafarer who has sailed recently. Unfortunately, few of our reluctant brides ashore, especially in senior regulatory or commercial positions, can claim that honour today, so they are like virgins advising streetwalkers on sexual technique. Even more unfortunately, they have lost their ability to empathise with their colleagues at sea- and, in fact, will blame ‘the human element’, fatigued, undermanned and depressed as it may be, for a large proportion of accidents on the water. Without doing a thing about addressing the root cause of fatigue, of course. Some hand wringing goes on, as recently, when a CMA CGM Master killed himself over the way the company treated him after an incident. The hand is wrung a couple of times and then sailors are hung out to dry again.

You can bet that the reluctant brides- or should that be coy virgins? - put up an act, though. Many a company seminar promises ‘frank exchange of information between floating and shore staff’ once or twice a year. Full of Shakespearean sound and fury, this usually signifies nothing and goes nowhere. Unsurprising, for this is an industry that asks its hostage seafarers to keep silent about the atrocities they suffer at pirate hands, as recent reports have shockingly exposed. Instead of offering counselling and all kinds of support to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder- even trained soldiers are granted that these days after conflict - we sweep civilian mariner blood under the carpet. Typical. Loathsome.

(I now invite some of my ex-employers to invite me for a ‘frank exchange of information’ on issues of my choice. I promise you that the meeting will make all reluctant brides present blush beetroot red in unison.)

And then we lament the fact that nobody wants to go out to sea today. Are we that dumb? Do we expect young prospective mariners to be even dumber? Do we not know that an uncaring industry that does not even have the will- leave alone the guts- to protect its own employees is worth absolutely nothing? Do we believe- in this age of revolutions off the internet- that educated and qualified youngsters will still be sucked into this profession; that they do not know the truth? Are we content in continuing the pretence and ignoring the stink, borne out of cynical insensibility that wafts higher and stronger every day?

Do the reluctant brides even know, amidst their tittering nuptial charades, that the emperor has been without clothes for quite a while, and that every active sailor knows this?