September 29, 2011

Rating the Indian Ratings game

For those of you who may not yet know, a Common Entrance Examination has been conducted for Indian ratings recently. This, along with a physical test, will henceforth be mandatory for all Indian ratings who will then be guided, according to their preference, to the many approved training institutes across the country. Additionally, The Board of  Examinations for Seafarers Trust will continue the old exit exam system. It will examine ratings- academically, practically and orally- after their six months training is complete; only those that score sixty percent and above at the exit exams will be declared qualified. The BES has changed the format of the exit exams- starting December, part of these will be now computer based.

Prior to this new system, the selection process for ratings varied at institutes across India. At one- and this may not be typical- where I am directly involved in selection, candidates took at least two- sometimes three- written exams, followed by an interview. The idea was to test Basic English and general academic skills (both written and spoken), aptitude and general suitability for life at sea. I do believe we did a fairly decent job, and, although we are one of just two institutes in the country that can claim a hundred percent BES exit-exam result for the last three consecutive batches of trainees, almost all institutes in the country regularly produce a higher than ninety percent pass-out figure. Judging by just one yardstick- exit exam results-, most institutes did all right.

Which is not to say that the system did not suck and does not suck even today- it is plagued with touts, close to zero post-training berths (unless bribes are paid) and many institutes do not follow infrastructure and faculty guidelines put out by the Directorate General of Shipping. However, I do believe that training institutes- in their own self-interest- took at least the rating selection process quite seriously. After all, their name- and future marketability of their courses- was at stake. 

I am actually against CET exams for ratings on principle, although I acknowledge that the attempt at standardisation, raising standards and the elimination of touts from the game are three worthy desirable reasons for their promulgation. Touts have not disappeared though, at least not yet, and I guess it will take more than a CET to make that happen. Anyhow, my disagreement with the CET has to do with two factors: One, a CET is the ideal solution when the number of interested entrants exceeds the number of training seats by the thousands- not the case here. Second, a CET seems superfluous when a common exit examination- conducted by the same BES- is less than six months away.
That said, I will grant that the BES and the DGS are trying to improve the system, and, disagreements aside, I am quite willing to be an eager participant in the new CET and exit exam regime. I also grant that it is early days yet; just one CET has been conducted, results are yet to be announced and placements at institutes are still to be made for the January session. The jury is still out.

 Some things are known, though, and I believe a much closer spotlight needs to be focused on many factors if we are actually going to improve the system and not just add another layer of testing to it- the latter will just discourage intake without doing anything useful.  

Before I go further, there are a huge elephant in the room that must be acknowledged- the training berths issue. I will just say in passing- because this is not within the ambit of this piece - that a time will soon come when we will have to examine a regime of 'training only for sponsored candidates' - and vigorously prosecute those that take bribes for 'placement' or sponsorship. Enough said. Many will be up in arms at the mere airing of such ideas. 

Some other smaller elephants- with both the CET and the 'thereafter'- need immediate attention:

  • Going by the sample question paper put up on the BES website, I am afraid there seems to be extreme optimism about the calibre of entrants that will take the CET. I can tell you from experience that many will have very poor English language skills and that their arithmetic skills (leave alone physics, chemistry, algebra or trigonometry) will be almost non-existent. Many struggle to understand a simple sentence from the BES textbook when we start with them. So, the following level of questioning- examples from the same CET sample paper- is way above their heads: a) The direction of the magnetic field around a straight conductor carrying current is given by……………; b) Write down chemical equations for metal reacting with hydrochloric acid; c) The curved surface area of a circular pillar is 528 square metre and its volume is 2772 cubic metre. The height of the pillar is... and d) If Tan A = 2 then find the values of all trigonometric ratios of angle A. 
  • Connected, a much greater appreciation of the backgrounds, educational levels and English language skills of a typical rating entrant is essential at all levels in the system. This is particularly relevant when we talk of many who come from semi-urban or rural backgrounds, including farmers, small shopkeepers, children of fishermen- and many others from low-income groups.
  • At least some logistical and administrative issues have been reported with the first CET. No doubt these will be improved, but admit cards for examinations not being received by candidates and cancellation of some declared examination centres has created considerable confusion. This kind of stuff, along with too difficult a level of the entrance exam, will result in disinterest or people simply choosing not to appear at the CET. This may be ok at the IIM or IIT entrance exams, where multitudes are keenly interested, but shipping simply cannot afford to turn away interested youngsters today.
  • We need clarity about on what will happen if enough candidates do not turn up or qualify at the CET (enough to fill the approved number of seats across the country, i.e.). I hope we do not go the management quota way if this happens; that dilutes the very purpose of a CET and opens a Pandora's Box for future batches. (No need to appear at the CET, some institutes will then say. We will take you in the management quota later). 
  • A hard re-look at the Pre-Sea training syllabus is needed. The recent addition of a few chapters on the 'seamanship' side, combined with a greater depth in some engineering topics, has resulted in the course becoming even more intensive, especially since one has to go beyond the syllabus to make teaching holistic, practical, connected and understandable. In this connection, I do believe that many engineering topics need to be made simpler, with less technical depth. We are not graduating fifth engineers. Similarly, I do not believe a Pre-sea rating needs to work out compass errors, understand cross bearings or study the Rules of the Road even cursorily. We have to pitch the syllabus with an appreciation of the fact that although the depth of many topics may appear superficial to us, each new heading is a completely alien concept- to a person who still has not stepped aboard his first ship- and adds considerably to unnecessary academic pressure. I can assure you that he will not need to know anything about magnetic compass errors for many years. We have to be much more selective in what they are required to know today- and to what depth.

At the end, it is worth repeating that any attempts to improve the educational or selection system for ratings in India will come to nought unless there are jobs for graduates after they complete Pre-Sea training. If we don't do that, then the rest of the game will remain an exercise in futility. For there is no point in producing a better calibre of rating only to swell the ranks of the jobless. The CET, the training and the exit examinations together form, at best, the wafer- or the waffle- that makes the base of the pudding. 

Without the ice cream- that is post Pre-Sea training berths- the wafer will remain insipid forever. 

September 22, 2011

The Seafarer Shortage: Lost and Found

Whatever happened to the desperate seafarer shortage shipping was jumping up and down about just two years ago?

When I hear the industry, their spin is that the recession is what happened, and that shortage concerns will rise again once the global economy stabilises. That is a lie.  Or, rephrasing the last sentence more charitably, those who say this are either clueless, incompetent or malign. Either they do not know (remember that they failed to predict demand even two years ahead last time.) Or, they know everything and promote the myth to try to flood the market with mariners that they will not pay an extra dime for.

Let us take just the last two years. In 2009, a manning report put out by a leading British consultancy said that there would be a shortage of 33000 officers at sea in that year, and that this figure would reach 42700 by 2013. This despite the fact that, months earlier, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression had already hit us. The single largest bankruptcy in US history -Lehmann Brothers, with 600 billion dollars in assets- had already happened. National governments were bailing out banks and stock and housing markets had tanked in many countries. People were already talking about sovereign default. Did the consultancy that threw out seafarer shortage numbers honestly think that an industry directly dependant on the health of the global economy would remain insulated by the mayhem instead of being badly hit by it? Forget a drop in manpower demand; their figures suggest some fancy extrapolation done based on airy-fairy projections made during the boom years of the mid 2000's.

If this columnist could recognise the warning signs in June 2008 (Monster's Maritime Ball, followed by another piece 'Preparing for the end of the boom' in September, both published here), why is it that an internationally known and respected consultancy, with massive resources at its disposal, was blind? Were they incompetent, clueless or malignant?

Similar numbers of seafarer shortage were disgorged by commercial entities across the shipping spectrum in those times. Educational and training establishments used them to lure teenagers into the dying profession. Shipmanagers used them to panic ship owners by projecting escalated salaries- and asking them to demand that their governments find a way to dramatically increase mariner numbers.  The fraud (or incompetence or malignancy or cluelessness) went all the way to the IMO, which launched a 'Go To Sea' campaign in November 2008 to attract entrants to the shipping industry. Three months later, at a BIMCO, ICS/ISF, INTERCARGO and INTERTANKO meeting under the Secretary-General on 30 March 2009- the so called 'Round Table'- everybody "agreed that the shortage of seafarers was the biggest issue for shipping and further agreed to intensify their efforts in support of this worthy cause."

Biggest issue, eh? So alarming that the ITF announced just last month- two years later- that the International Bargaining Forum- made up of the ITF and the Joint Negotiating Group of employers- had met in Miami where, "the conclusion, which has been hard fought by both sides" resulted in this deal: Seafarers will be grudgingly given a 2% wage increase in 2012, with 2.5% and 3 % further increases in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Dave Heindel, Chair of the ITF Seafarers’ Section, said, probably defending the niggardly increments agreed upon, “The collapse in the world financial market has led to employers wanting to minimise their cost increases in difficult times and has put pressure on those who represent the seafarers to understand this financial situation."

Miami, eh? I wonder how much that jaunt cost per seafarer represented, and whether that 2% was a worthwhile outcome for anybody except the well-junketed members of the International Bargaining Forum itself.  Whatever, the IBF agreement shows me more clearly than fudged numbers ever will where the supply and demand game actually lies today.
Meanwhile, no ships will stop because we do not have enough certified bodies aboard. None did in the boom days, an excellent indication of the lies we were told, so none will now that the heydays have spectacularly ended.

For the mariner, the takeaway from this carnival- or carnage- is that the industry and the IMO cannot be trusted with projected demand figures. (They cannot be trusted to handle piracy, criminalisation et al either, so this is hardly surprising).

The seafarer is warned that a time will come in the next year or two, or once the global crisis subsides, when this spin will start again. Everybody will resume jumping up and down bemoaning the shortage of qualified and experienced men and women at sea. The entire industry, almost without exception, will regurgitate grossly inflated numbers of seafarer demand put out by some consultancy or the other. Incompetence, cluelessness and malignancy will resurface to tell us that seafaring is the 'career of choice' once again. Perhaps the IMO will be urged to put its previous embarrassments aside and start another "Go To Sea" campaign. Respected industry bodies and other emperors with no clothes will join the bandwagon, screaming at us from the rooftops. Something like, "Two millions seafarers required by 2017!"

And we will start cheating kids again, enticing them to join- or remain in- the profession. See the shortage numbers? Salaries are bound to shoot up like Marilyn's skirt in the breeze! You sailors have it made! There is a shortage of millions of seafarers!"

"The IMO says so!!"

September 15, 2011

The 'Lecky's big fat Greek wedding

I should have guessed something was not quite right with the Electrical Engineer when I ran into him ashore in Gdansk. I asked him where he was going; instead of replying, he silently pulled out a dozen prophylactics from his jacket pocket. I left him and went on my way slightly concerned. This was 1986 and Chernobyl and just blown up not so far away; maybe the Lecky's brain was irradiated. Maybe unknown side effects included delusional behaviour and wishful thinking.

About two months later, the bulk carrier we were on docked in Liverpool just before the weekend. No operations for two days, so the Fourth Engineer and I- the Mate- decided to hit the town for some serious pub-crawling.  At least one Bacardi and Coke at every pub was in order, we decided, but amended our plans an hour or two later to exclude the Coke- which was filling us up without doing anything useful.
Then, exiting a pub, we ran into a bunch of other Indian officers- and one or two of their wives- from the ship. The 'Lecky- or Condomman, as I had taken to calling our superhero-was amongst the group; they were crossing the road to a Greek restaurant and invited us along. They promised us Ouzo, which settled the matter as far as I was concerned.

So we went into this nice restaurant; a warm and inviting place with a small wooden dance floor and seating for perhaps fifty. There was another large group sitting nearby; newlyweds out with their families, it appeared. They looked Greek, which gave us renewed confidence in the quality of Ouzo that would be on offer at the fine establishment.

We ordered the tipple, and food after a while; Moukassa is a favourite of mine, and the 'Lecky, sitting on my right, said he would have a plateful as well. We nibbled on Souvlaki and drank some more. The 'Lecky was looking a little flushed on my right; a trick of the light, I idly thought.

On my left, the Greek wedding group had begun to enjoy themselves; toasts were being raised to the newlyweds; one or two at the table then got up and started dancing. Suddenly, two men with violins came out of the kitchen and started playing at their table, right next to the dance floor. The bride and bridegroom got up to dance too.

Maybe it is time to tell you that it is a custom in Greece to break dinner plates and dance on them - not just at weddings, but to express the spirit of joy and passion. They call it Kefi: exuberance that cannot be contained and must burst out in public display. So they dance with abandon on broken plates at weddings, shouting "Oopah!" to wish the newlyweds good luck.

Kefi or not, the atmosphere at the restaurant changed within minutes. The violins picked up tempo. A huge stack of old dinner plates appeared from the kitchen. A waiter started breaking them very professionally- no shards to damage onlookers- on the dance floor. The dancers were now dancing wildly on the broken plates, the sounds of crackling china adding to the violins' twang. Meanwhile, our food arrived - on expensive looking china, not the simple white dancing plates that were being broken- and we were eating, drinking and watching the dancing at the same time. The dancers were whirling around in gay abandon. Others at the wedding table were clapping rhythmically and we joined them. Wonderful music, I thought- and great atmosphere. Unique experience, one of the wives said.

The violins reached a crescendo. The dozen people on the floor, the bride and groom amongst them, started dancing faster and faster. I started clapping along with everybody else.

Suddenly, I saw, with vision blurred somewhat by Bacardi and Ouzo, a plate full of food sail in the air almost under my nose. Laden with Moukassa, with knife and fork still in it, the dinner plate went on flying- in slow motion, like a bullet in those Matrix movies I saw years later-and landed on the wooden floor.  Broke into smithereens. Moukassa everywhere on the floor. Moukassa on the dancers' shoes and clothes. Sauce on the bride's dress.

Everbody froze. Everything stopped. The fiddlers stopped fiddling. The dancers stopped dancing and looked around angrily. The clapping at the table died. Not even a strangled Oopah, and all within a heartbeat.
I looked to my right. The 'Lecky was sitting with a beatific smile on his red face and a piece of Moukassa stuck to his moustache. Overcome with emotion, caught up in the moment, he had succumbed -like a Greek- to the irresistible call of Kefi.  From twelve feet away- with remarkable accuracy considering his inebriated condition- he had flung his plateful of food on to the dance floor.

After the initial shockwave subsided, somebody came and told us, politely but firmly, that we would have to leave. We paid quickly and left a large tip. Outside, on the pavement, the 'Lecky- soon to be renamed Zorba the Greek- appeared more hurt than embarrassed. He just could not understand why the Greeks did not want any Indians bearing dinner plates anymore. 

September 08, 2011

MLC-2006- slow road to nowhere?

It was supposed to be akin to the second coming, the fourth pillar of a regulatory regime that -along with the STCW conventions, MARPOL and SOLAS- would ensure quality shipping and seafarer rights forever. The ILO's Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) 2006 was a result of a resolution backed by governments and ship owners made way back in 2001. Five years later, when the ILO adopted the MLC in 2006, its Director-General Juan Somavia said the organisation had made 'labour history' for the world's more than 1.2 million seafarers, providing them comprehensive rights and protection at work. Ship owners, unions and assorted talking heads fell over themselves to pronounce the MLC a unique and vital piece of maritime legislation.

So vital, it turns out, that today, five years after 2006 and a decade after the original resolution, just half the required 30 countries needed to ratify the MLC have actually signed up (the 33% global tonnage requirement was met long ago). We are now told that the MLC 2006 is unlikely to come into force before the latter half of 2012. They hope.

Countries that have signed up so far are Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Benin, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Liberia, Marshall Islands, Norway, Panama, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Singapore, Spain, and Switzerland. I count just six countries in that list of fifteen that have any significant stake in the shipping industry, either as ship owners or labour suppliers. I do not see the US there, and neither do I see Greece, Japan, Korea, the UK, the Philippines, China or many other important maritime countries. Or India. What I do see is, once again, a system that will delay and dawdle- as it continued to do for decades with seafarer work hours and rest regulations- over any initiative that aims at improving the quality of a mariner's life at sea.

I am sure that a lot of this malingering has to do with an industry that wants to delay spending money on the MLC for as long as possible. Apologists will say that these delays are inevitable given austerity measures today that dilute commitments to ratify the MLC. They will also point out, as some countries have, that considerable changes have to be made to domestic laws to bring them in line with MLC requirements, and this takes time.

These are just excuses. The austerity argument smacks of the mindset in the industry that sees any expense connected with improving a seafarer's life as extra 'welfare costs', like charity, when they should be seen instead as the costs of doing business. We are talking about costs related to long overdue seafarer rights, you know; we are not talking about not giving alms to beggars because our pockets are tight.

In any case, the lethargy is selective; the sloth in ratifying the MLC disappears when money has to be made off it. Similar to the near cancerous growth in training after the STCW 1995 circus- that I believe actually degraded quality instead of enhancing it- the MLC, and the Manila amendments to the same STCW, have allowed the industry to roll out new useless courses today to supplement the old useless ones. Many people are making money off the MLC and the STCW Manila amendments. Meanwhile, seafarers are, to add insult to the injury of delayed ratification, being made to waste their time and money to 'upgrade' themselves. Some ship-owners are spending money preparing their ships (and offices, thanks to an increase in procedures and documentation) to handle the impending MLC and STCW regime. The business of audits, inspections and certification is also doing well, thank you very much. No doubt, this entire racket will explode in the next year or two; considering the number of vessels that MLC affects, it will be impossible to have all of them certified in time otherwise. We know -after the ISPS and ISM experience- that the creation of instruments and tools needed to comply with international regulations takes time. We count on it. It is big business. For some, it is the only business.

This is the most distasteful part of the MLC (and STCW 2010) carnival- but the main purpose of almost any legislation in shipping has been, for a long time, the promotion of the business of regulation, not an improvement in quality, so we should be used to it by now.

Compare the passage of the MLC 2006 with that of some earlier regulations. The ISPS Code- yet another iffy regime that has done little of what it touted it would do- was agreed upon in December 2002 and brought into force in just a year and a half, in July 2004. The STCW 95 amendments were adopted in July 95 and implemented a year and a half later in February 97. Major revisions to this convention were adopted in Manila in June 2010; they are to come into force on Jan. 1, 2012. It is telling that the ratification of the MLC 2006- the 'fourth pillar' and all that jazz- is on the slow road to nowhere.

The MLC is too far gone not to be eventually ratified, so that will happen with some kicking and screaming. I am willing to make a small wager here, though; I predict that even after the MLC2006 comes into force, its thrust will be considerably diluted because of slanted audits and selective priorities similar to those seen with the STCW 'rest period' regulations. I bet there will the usual wink-wink arrangement between all the shore-based stakeholders in the industry. Auditors and Port State Control Officials will just not bother too much with inconvenient rules that are to a mariner's benefit except after an incident. They did this with the working hours rules; the same thing will happen with the MLC 2006. Issues related to workplace conditions and improvement of the mariner's life will be slow-tracked. Owners will be in minimum compliance mode here. Auditors will choose what to inspect, obviously, and paper documentation will triumph over practical good sense, as it usually has. Regulators, both national and international, will ignore this non-compliance, meanwhile spending a fortune on junkets that will, no doubt, bemoan poor MLC implementation. And managers will hold fancy seminars to 'update' hapless sailors.

The crew's rights will come last as usual.

I am betting on history and the mentality of the industry- and the fact that the law- when the MLC 2006 eventually comes into force- is one thing. Character is quite another.


September 01, 2011

Maritime Jihad: last call for the incompetent

Viewed in conjunction with other intelligence reports, the interrogation of the nine foreigners- five Yemenis, two Tanzanians, one Kenyan and one Somali- at Porbandar after the Indian Navy's operation against the vessel 'Nafis-1' 170 miles off Mumbai two weeks ago have confirmed that there exists a strong linkage between pirates, terrorists and elements in Pakistan- and beyond. Actually, linkage is too mild a word, because the pirate-terrorism nexus is fast becoming a seamless conspiracy that includes countries thousands of miles away from the Indian Ocean. 'Somali piracy' and 'maritime terrorism' are interchangeable terms, or soon will be.

This is what intelligence officials across the world know is happening today: Abu Yakoob is the head of the maritime wing of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). He is based in Karachi where he trains Somali pirates and other assorted terrorists for, amongst other things, the advancement of Pakistan's proxy war against India. On the other side of the Indian Ocean, the Al Qaeda linked Al Shabaab is using pirated ships for training its operatives in maritime terrorism. It is also financing pirates or extorting protection money. The Shabaab is simultaneously using pirates and pirated ships to smuggle Al Qaeda operatives into Somalia. It is also training wannabe Somali pirates. (Going rates are 5 to 10 percent for protection, 20 percent for training and a 50 percent commission if the Shabaab finances a pirate operation.) And the Shabaab continues to use pirates and pirated ships for gunrunning into Somalia.

Across the Gulf of Aden, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is providing logistical and ideological support to the Shabaab by smuggling people and arms into the country. The Yemeni island of Socotra is being used as a logistical midway point. Ransoms are being moved through banks in Yemen and in the wider Middle East. Almost on the other side of the world, far away from all this, An Al-Qaeda affiliate in the Philippines- Abu Sayyaf- and the Indonesian Jemaah Islamiyah, are meanwhile training cadres in, amongst other things, scuba diving training for maritime attacks. Lest you wonder why I bring this up, let me remind you that Manila gave definite warnings to the US about the 9/11 attacks many years before they took place; there was a Pakistani connection there too. We are now being warned about maritime terrorism but we still have earmuffs on.

Governments across the world- and in India- know what is happening, of course. They know that the LeT seeks to be an umbrella terrorist organisation operating out of Karachi, close to the oil rich Middle East and its archenemy India. They know where the piracy/terrorism business is going. More tankers will be attacked. The Al Qaeda, through the Shabaab, will increasingly finance piracy to fund its terrorist activities. Somewhere down the line, it will unleash its maritime terrorists on the world's merchant fleet- trained by now to navigate and manoeuvre ships and take them to inflict maximum and spectacular damage to the global economy and the environment. Crews will not be needed to navigate any longer, so they will be executed as soon as ships are taken. Of course, some nationalities- including Indian- will be tortured properly first.  

Governments know all this, and I suspect so does some of the shipping industry. The problem is that governments will not do anything greatly different from what they are doing today- unless the situation becomes economically untenable. Mariners will be exposed to greater and deadlier risks long before that happens. A gradual escalation of violence, as in the last few years, will mean that this will play out over months, maybe even years. Which is why the bigger question to ask is this: Forget governments. What is the industry doing about this writing on the wall?

Armed guards are now being seen as some sort of solution. Not for long, I suspect. Already, ships are now being hijacked from 'safe' anchorages and otherwise attempted to be swarmed by small flotillas of pirate skiffs. Pirates/terrorists are showing us their tactical superiority and adaptability once again.

Another problem is that of attitude. Shipping has seen the piracy problem almost completely through the only prism it uses- financial. The costs connected with ships held up for months, ransoms, escalating insurance premia, the cost of guards, negotiators and security companies are big economic blows indeed, but they are miniscule once I throw terrorism into the mix. Imagine the impact on trade, freight rates and premia if I am right; imagine the impact of crews flat refusing to sail through a vast ocean riddled with terrorism. Shipping succeeded in sweeping the MStar terrorist attack under the carpet; this will be tough to do with the large volume of crap that shortly promises to hit the fan.  

The industry has lost the plot at every stage of the piracy threat. All along, it has failed in doing the one thing it really has to do, which is to pressurise governments across the world- through the increasingly moribund IMO, or better still, directly at the slightly less iffy UN- to solve the problem of the failed States of Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen. Or begin to, at least. Terrorism is thriving there, and threatening the very lifeblood of the global economy. They are surely more important to the world than Libya, even if they have less oil.