March 22, 2012

Inside Indian shipping: No return of the native

The last time I sailed on an Indian registered ship was almost three and a half decades ago; the experience left me so underwhelmed that I never thought of sailing on another one for thirty years. When I did think about coming back to the Indian fleet, a few years ago, some friends who know better dissuaded me. Fortunately. One Chief Engineer, in particular- we have sailed together often and are friends, so he knows me both as a person and as a Master- was categorical. "Captain Saab," he told me more than once in his typical, deceptively mild, way of talking, "Don't join an Indian company. Either you will quit or you will be kicked out".

Of course, he was referring to ships on short sea routes around India or on the coast. He had tried out some and walked away from most, including a couple of times when he refused to take over after he stepped on board for one reason or another. He knew what he was talking about; he also knew that the attraction of domestic shipping- for me and for many others I have spoken to since- is short contracts, being close to home and not being subjected to numbing levels of paperwork, accounting, inspections and regulations that are the bane of Captains and crews sailing on foreign ships on long international routes today.

Those advantages are known and are largely intact; unfortunately, the disadvantages overwhelm Indian sailors who have worked in foreign companies of even foreign standard. The result is that most experienced senior officers choose not to sail for domestic shipping- at least coastal and short sea shipping. Things may be better on longer routes mainly because those ships are exposed to greater international regulations and scrutiny, but many accounts tell me that they are not all that much better. 

The popular think is that it is the difference in wages that keeps Indian sailors abroad, as does the fact that salaries are tax-free on foreign ships. Perhaps this is why the Indian government periodically promises to waive the income tax liability that Indians on domestic ships suffer. A substantial wage differential will still exist even if the tax-free salary thing goes through, but I guess something is better than nothing.

In any case, they miss the point. The money is actually the smaller reason - or just one reason- why Indians do not return to domestic shipping. One of the many bigger reasons has to do with the often abysmal level of maintenance- especially maintenance of machinery- that so much of domestic shipping is plagued with.
Many senior officers - who are more responsible for safety- choose to walk away from a setup that does not supply even minimum spares or stores. My Chief Engineer friend is one of them. Domestic shipping seems to specialise in such setups; a short walk around the engine room is all the indication one needs to determine the state of affairs. Mindless cost cutting in domestic shipping impact safety in many ways- from machinery to safety equipment to cargo gear to paint. More than a few of these ships are little better than floating rust buckets. 

Quality of crews and the dreadful on-board work ethic is another reason. This is a vicious circle- substandard ships end up with low calibre officers and crews that cannot get better jobs, or want to just sit out their contracts. These unmotivated crews simply do not work to any acceptable level- the system seems to have decided that they are paid for holding STCW or competency certificates and not for the actual work that they do. Stories abound of how officers will simply not do anything except very basic watch keeping and how crews won't do even do any cleaning without haggling beforehand over how much overtime they will be paid. 

Add to this the fact that owners do not supply adequate spares and the result is a downward spiral in maintenance and safety- the ship will become substandard very soon. No self respecting Master or Chief Engineer of any decent calibre- especially one that has come from better managed ships- will want to work there. It is simpler for him to quit rather than bang his head against a wall to try to change this loser's paradise.  It is easier for him to work for a month or two on a foreign ship- even paying his fare to return-than to work for three months here.

Then, too many Indian ships have threadbare, broken and dirty accommodation. Cabins and mess rooms are ill maintained, poorly lit and ventilated- sometimes even cockroach and bedbug infested. Some coastal or short sea ships have illegal labour sailing aboard- in addition to the crew- doing assorted repair or cleaning jobs while sleeping in alleyways and eating gruel for food. Some companies and Masters seem to disregard even basics like lifeboat capacities, by some accounts. Too many cut corners. Too poor quality of food. Too much corruption in everything from stores to cargo to dealings with port officials or regulators. Too much sleaze for people like me who have better options.

The final nail in the coffin is the fact that shoddy organisations always treat their employees badly, and so do too many Indian companies. Sometimes two contracts are signed- we all know why. Living and working conditions are often terrible. HRD is unknown. Communication is rude, derogatory- sometimes even abusive. The 'take it or leave it' culture of some of these companies is actually not that different from that found in many foreign companies, it is true; the difference is that these firms and their ships are unacceptable to begin with, and they only get progressively worse. 

Income tax waivers will get Indian shipping near-nowhere; at best, they will attract a few more sailors for a while on the relatively better managed ships. However, Indian shipping will remain a poor second choice unless large parts of domestic shipping overhauls itself completely and addresses these other issues. I am afraid it will never get many officers of decent calibre back into its cheap fold under present circumstances. They don't need this kind of nonsense.


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