That Indians are a nation of hand wringers is my suspicion that has hardened into opinion over time. Another opinion, that way too much of Indian shipping- and its administration- is substandard, is something that is easier to conclude with each passing incident on the Indian coast.
The ‘Pratibha Cauvery’ grounding and the needless deaths of six of its crew- five when their lifeboat capsized a hundred metres off one of the most crowded beaches in Chennai after the cyclone ‘Nilam’ hit the city- is, in Walpole’s words, a tragedy for those who feel and a comedy to those who think. Enough has been written about the incident by the ambulance chasers in the Indian press. The authorities have been stirred out of their somnambulism long enough to order a ‘full’ enquiry, whatever that means.
As usual, the Indian press is concentrating on the wrong questions, and so are some of my friends in shipping. It is not important, for example, that the Cauvery is owned by Sharad Pawar’s family, as many claim. The conditions aboard the ‘Pratibha Cauvery’, thirty-one years old or not, were not the exception. Aboard too many Indian ships, they are almost the rule.
The abandoning of a grounded ship just a hundred metres off a crowded beach may appear to be an act of calamitous stupidity, especially when there was no immediate danger of its breaking up. It seems pretty stupid to me too, but I am sitting here dry as a gin and tonic, sipping a cup of coffee with the cat rubbing itself against my leg. I am not the Master- or a crewmember- of a thirty one year old disabled junk anchored in a cyclone, with no proper food or water for weeks, with reports of a near mutinous situation aboard (including stories that the Master was not calling the shots after the vessel ran aground)- and desperately short of fuel. My seamanship, good sense and morale have not been weakened by months of being unpaid and being otherwise treated like an animal. I am not mentally weakened, and I am not panicking because I have sent out distress messages for hours and I have not got any help.
These are not excuses, but statements of fact. Much of the blame for the tragedy must surely lie with the Master, though I don’t feel qualified enough to tell you how much. I feel qualified enough, though, to ask a few questions that will, no doubt, be swept under the carpet by the usual people.
To the Master: Besides the questions on terrible seamanship and disregard of common sense that beg to be asked regarding the abandonment of the Cauvery, another one: What on earth made you join, and remain in, a known substandard setup? Did you not realise, after all your presumed experience, that your first responsibility was to the crew? Why didn’t you walk away the first day they were unpaid or the moment your ship became unseaworthy? If you could not guarantee that, your agreeing to remain as Master was an unprofessional act in itself, for a Master who cannot say no to the shipowner is not worthy of being in command.
To the owners: (Ignore the French, please) - After you attend to the two other presumably substandard ships of yours that are detained in India and China, take a hike.
To the Coast Guard: Why on earth- within spitting distance from one of the most crowded beaches in Chennai, in a port that handles ten per cent of India’s major port cargo and in a city where the eastern regional headquarters of the Indian Coast Guard are based- could you not help? Your excuse of ‘high winds’ is so much nonsense, even given your past history of, shall we say, less than competence. If local fishermen could go out to save some of the crew and if others could swim ashore to safety, what really stopped you?
To the administration: Why does the system- after repeated incidents of terrorism, accidents, casualties and suspicious ships drifting into Indian waters- remain so amazingly incompetent? What will it finally take for you to actually do your jobs instead of just presiding over the destruction of what is left of five thousand years of Indian maritime heritage?
To everybody in Indian shipping: Can there be a bigger indictment of our industry than the fact that a known unseaworthy Indian ship (she was reportedly detained or arrested twice since June in two other Indian ports) can remain indefinitely in a major Indian port with its all Indian crew unpaid and unfed? Can there be a bigger indictment of our maritime infrastructure than what happened to the Cauvery before and after the cyclone?
To the country: Judging by your recent moves in the region and your alignment with the United States, besides other nations on the Indian Ocean rim, you aspire to become a regional maritime power. In the present circumstances of overall incompetence, corruption and lethargy, these are high hopes, indeed. Because if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
The Pratibha Cauvery tragedy will no doubt be blamed completely on the Master and the crew. Perhaps much of it should be. The fact is, however, that this incident also strips Indian shipping and its maritime infrastructure of all pretence and forces it to look at its decaying body in the mirror. Not pretty, that sight.