August 04, 2011

Children of a lesser God.

The newspapers carried two stories towards the end of last month. In one, the Kerala High Court ordered Air India to pay Rs 75 lakh (approximately USD 170,000) compensation to each of the families of last May's Mangalore air crash victims. Air India had earlier tried to offer compensation based on the income of the deceased- many on the flight were from low income families- until one of the poorer families went to court. The court ruled that under the applicable Montreal Convention, "It is clear that the intention of the lawmakers was to ensure parity in compensation irrespective of the class of travel or background."  Even after a court battle, the ruling has taken just fourteen months since the crash.

The second story is different because it involves shipping. That one said that the families of the victims of the mysterious disappearance of the tug Jupiter 6 off South Africa in September 2005- almost six years ago- would finally be paid compensation of USD 40000 for each officer and USD 25000 for each crew. I understand from sources that this is an interim amount, but the fact is that after six years, during which the parents of three of the missing crew have tragically died of heartbreak, a sailor's life is found to be worth a seventh that of an air crash victim in India. Seven dead Indian shipboard crew equal one dead Indian airborne landlubber.

One can only hope that the final compensation in the Jupiter 6 case is much higher; besides anything else, a Supreme Court judgement will set a precedent that will be difficult to revert. The families of tomorrow's dead sailors may finally get some protection.

Do not tell me, please that one case involved a bunch of employees while the other case involved aircraft passengers. Don't tell me about contractual agreements and built-in compensation clauses, please. Legal and other niceties went for a toss, as far as I am concerned, when the manning agents of the Jupiter 6 - Pelmar-took one month to inform either the DG shipping or the families of the crew that the tug was missing. All bets were off the moment an initial compensation of USD 400- yes, four hundred dollars- was offered to the families of the missing Indians, according to reports. All protocols and agreements were flushed down the toilet when the bereaved families- some coming from low income families in Kerala, the very demographic that the court protects in the other Air India crash compensation case today- were made to grovel and run around in their time of grief- by the manning agents, Indian owners and the Indian administration. Even after some of the parents died. Even after the court asking the DG shipping to detail steps taken since 2006 to 'improve the fate' of seafarers. 

Sorry, your Honour. No steps taken. No can do. Who cares? Don't you know that seafarers are children of a lesser God?

If it weren't for Manoj Joy and his 'Sailor's Helpline' that was involved in the Jupiter  6 case right up to the Supreme Court, the families of the dead sailors would still be grovelling before petty bureaucrats and assorted touts that call themselves owners and managers. Salute to Mr Joy, who has been unrelenting in promoting seafarer causes even after he was physically attacked by a gang with iron rods, sticks and beer bottles in 2007.  

Shame to the rest.

The Supreme Court has said that the Jupiter 6 compensation is without prejudice to the right of the kin to move an appropriate forum for more compensation. I know that the families will probably not have enough will left to fight further, but I wish they would. Easy to say, I know. In similar circumstances, I may well have settled instead for some piece of mind myself.

The Jupiter 6 story does not have a happy ending so far. Six years, dead parents, mental anguish- and insufficient compensation at the end of it all- is hardly victory. Although I hope that the families of the crew, after a harrowing six years, get some closure and a measure of peace, other ships will continue to disappear (The ending of the MV Rezzak disappearance story- with the same manning agency reportedly involved and 25 Indians missing since 2008- has still to be written). Other sailor families will continue to suffer the loss of loved ones. Their losses will be magnified, as usual, by a combination of fraud, indifference, lethargy, hardened neglect, petty mindedness, bureaucratic sleights of hand, corruption and plain inefficiency. All in a commercial and regulatory system that is - to this sailor, at least- not worth anything much at all.

The Children of the lesser God need many more 'Sailor Helplines' around, for sure. And all of us in this industry- too much of which is actually human trafficking in thin disguise- need to support Manoj Joy and his like wherever they are found and in whichever way we can.

Because outsourced conscience is better than no conscience at all.

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