December 27, 2012

India and the cow tongue tightrope

The cow tongue, Chinese line of claim.

In the rising rhetoric with China, India should be careful that it does not lose sight of its strategic objectives in the region. The Great Game of the nineteenth century- rivalry between the Russians and the British- is long over. The Great Game of the 21st century has already begun, and the South China Sea may well be its first major flashpoint. The main adversaries are the US and China, of course, but there are many other countries that are seething at Chinese territorial claims- the so called red lined ‘cow tongue’ in the graphic- in the strategic and oil rich South China Sea.

That territorial dispute is now hotting up. China obviously wants to ensure its sea borders are well within its control, that it has access to nearby oil and gas and that other powers- particularly the US- are kept out of the region as much as possible. Ranged against it, for one reason or another, are the US, Vietnam, Philippines, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Brunei, Taiwan, Indonesia- and India. China’s recent belligerent moves, particularly the announcement that police from its southern Hainan province would search vessels that pass through waters everybody else sees as international and open to innocent passage, has every one of these up in arms.

The Navy Day remarks of the Indian naval chief DK Joshi should be seen in this context. Referring to Indian Public Sector giant ONGC’s oil related activities off Vietnam, Joshi said after the Chinese announcement, “When the requirement is there – for example, in situations where our country’s interests are involved, for example ONGC – we will be required to go there and we are prepared for that.” He added, “So, are we preparing for it? Are we having exercises of that nature? The short answer is yes.”  

As expected, Joshi’s rambling but pointed statement was downplayed by the Indian government that suggested that the whole thing was a media created mess. Salman Khurshid, the External Affairs Minister, made soothing noises a couple of days later, saying that as India and China moved to "finding resolutions to the issues… India will have to accept the new reality of China's presence in many areas that we consider an exclusive area for India and its friends."

Part of the doublespeak may be just an attempted fist in glove approach. Right of free passage and oil aside, the South China Sea is of considerable strategic significance; nearly half the world’s seaborne oil passes through it, for a start. India also obviously sees its moves in that region as a counterpoint to the ‘sea of pearls’ strategy that the Chinese have so successfully employed in the Indian Ocean- the encirclement of India, if you will.

However, India needs to realise that China’s projection of power in the South China Sea, belligerent as it is, is nonetheless inevitable; one cannot expect a superpower to ignore influencing its own backyard. India also needs to take note of the extreme polarisation that the ‘cow of tongue’ is causing in the region, with countries banding together in pro-US camps, and it needs to stay out of these camps. It needs to realise that rising tensions may suit the Chinese, the US and even US allies like the Philippines and Taiwan, for their own reasons, but they do not automatically suit India. In fact, escalation of tensions with China may be detrimental to Indian national interest.

Naval Chiefs are paid to adopt aggressive stances, but India’s response to Chinese pugnacity has so far been calibrated and its strategic interests demand that it continues to pursue trade and quiet diplomacy, much like it has been doing thus far. In any case, banding itself together with smaller and usually less powerful countries will automatically reduce the ‘major power’ status that India aspires for, and so will be a tactical mistake, and not just because Big Brother, the US, is in the room.

Any conflict near China will suit the US just fine. It will then use countries like the Philippines, Australia, Taiwan- and even Vietnam, a strange bedfellow, given the history- to legitimise its expansion in the region. That objective does nothing for India; its imperatives are different, even contradictory.

Besides, India needs to take note of its many weaknesses in its relationship with China. It remains far behind China in terms of political, financial and military strength, not to speak of trade and prosperity. It is way behind on all socio-economic indicators. Most importantly, it cannot outspend China militarily or match its political influence. India will therefore have to learn to live with a superpower neighbour sooner rather than later.

The good news is that rhetoric aside, India and China have sought relations backed by trade in recent years. It is precisely because there is much suspicion in India about Chinese intentions that these commercial activities need to continue. That, and not confliction, is in the best interests of both the countries.

All in all, India would do well not to be associated too deeply with the US camp in the South China Sea imbroglio. And, given our experiences over the decades with Pakistan- backed by its intermittent ally, the US- India would do well to be suspicious of that superpower’s intentions in the region too.

Unfortunately, the Manmohan Singh led Indian Government sometimes comes across as fawningly pro-US. It would do much better if it were aggressively seen to be more pro-Indian. 



December 20, 2012

Everybody knows

(All poetry from Leonard Cohen’s ‘Everybody knows’- and special thanks to a friend whose email that gave me an idea)

Everybody knows, by now in India, that the basis on which Pre-Sea maritime training institutes are allotted students in line with their approved intake of General Purpose Ratings- the Common Entrance Examination- is headed for abject failure. The latest twist is this: it has been announced that, should enough CET approved trainees be not available, each institute is allowed to take in trainees on their own to fill up its seats for the January batch. This, in my opinion, is akin to the ‘management quota’ system in use and abuse in engineering and other colleges in the country. Everybody knows that this undermines any common entrance examination system like nothing else does.

Everybody could see this coming. Everybody knows that the GP Rating CET system was plagued with problems from the start. That the shortage of successful CET candidates meant that some institutes ran batches at less than full strength, and were up in arms because they suffered revenue losses. That some went to court and took in students on their own to fill their seats, upsetting the Directorate General of Shipping and the BES, the Board that conducts the entrance (and exit) exams for GP Ratings.

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost

Everybody knows that the CET has been gasping for breath ever since it was rolled out just a couple of years ago. The presumed objective- standardisation and a raising of standards- may have been a worthy one, but it never really worked on the ground; at least I never felt  that any CET cleared student I saw had more potential than those taken in earlier, before the CET; even their English language skills were found wanting. Surprising that, considering that the CET was conducted in English.

What everyone did not know, though some were suspicious, was that the CET was a way the system was trying to limit the number of Indian ratings entering the job market- a market that had little place for them anyway. And while this may have been an even more laudable objective, everybody knew that maritime training institutes- some politically connected and all having invested considerable sums in premises and material- were not going to sit idly by and celebrate their own funerals.

In this scenario, and with
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long stem rose
Everybody knows

it is hardly surprising that we are where we are today. The CET system has been successfully subverted now. I do not know who in their right minds will appear at the CET next time; as it is, stories are doing the rounds of successful CET candidates who are complaining on various grounds. Who will spend money, time and effort in writing an exam when he can get admission into the same institute at the same price without the effort? (Perhaps not the same price; stories are also doing the rounds of some institutes charging significantly higher fees from non CET students)

What has been lost sight of, in all this drama of turf wars and revenues, is the farce that is being perpetuated on hapless pre-sea trainees in the country today. Everybody knows that there are no jobs for these guys. Everybody knows that they will likely get substandard training. Everybody knows that they will pay some tout in some shipping company to get a job. Everybody knows that their future is bleak, and everybody knows that that the chances of their careers taking off, or of these guys becoming reputed seafarers of tomorrow, are similar to a snowflake’s chance in hell.

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died

December 13, 2012

Thoughts on the Baltic Ace

The news, two days ago as I write this, of the sinking of the car carrier Baltic Ace in the North Sea hit close to home. Memories of Zeebrugge came flooding back. That port is a major- perhaps even the most major- car carrier port in Northern Europe, and the hub for many car carriers, a dozen or so of which are always docked or anchored there. Many more are always around in the North Sea that lies close outside Zeebrugge.  I, too, have sailed on one or two of those ships, on a Europe to Mediterranean to Turkey run, doing twenty ports a month, a schedule that is hardly unique for a car carrier in those waters. 

The picturesque little village of Zeebrugge is also where I spent a few days in a small hotel on the beach six years ago, going for long walks along the deserted seafront waiting for my ship to come in. It is, unfortunately, also the port from which two similar vessels have sailed out and gone down. First, the ferry ‘Herald of Free Enterprise’ that capsized in 1987, killing almost two hundred. Now, the Baltic Ace, where eleven of her crew are presumed dead, drowned in the frigid waters of the North Sea after a collision with the ‘Corvus J.’    

I have no doubt that we will soon hear the official version of the story of the incident. No doubt blame for the tragedy will be apportioned between the Baltic Ace and Corvus J; the managers of the Baltic Ace have already started the ‘human error’ refrain that is considered normal in the circumstances. What may be mentioned but not stressed- and certainly not acted upon by the industry- is what I believe is the underlying cause of these kinds of incidents, and even of the human error involved- Fatigue. With a capital F. 

Like some other ships like small coasters and container feeders, car carriers are brutal ships for crews at the best of times. They therefore become unrelenting when they are on hectic runs in places like Europe; two ports in a twenty four hour period is not unusual, one port a day is normal, and a port after two days is a luxury. In areas like the North Sea- the busiest sea in the world- shortmanned crews are often fatigued into a zombie like state, shell-shocked by the vicious schedule and a system that is stacked against them. 

Take, for example, the car carrier I was on last. Departing Rotterdam the previous afternoon, our schedule typically meant arrival Zeebrugge for the first shift early morning, about two hours manoeuvring up the channel and through the locks into the port (that seemed to be perennially buffeted with strong winds, any car carrier’s nightmare). Berthing. Unlashing of cars by ship’s crew started in the channel and continued during discharging (West European gangs are too expensive, better to roger the Asian or East European crews with overwork; after all, they are contractual workers with no long term liabilities for shipowners). Same for lashing cars that are being simultaneously loaded. Four hours later, shift berth (if Mohammad can’t some to the mountain…) and ditto the berth exercise for another four hours. Sail before evening. Another couple of hours in the channel getting out. Sail at night in the most congested sea in the world, probably in fog and rain and cold, reaching Southampton next day before noon. Go up the Solent, another few hours. Routine same as Zeebrugge, only thankfully no locks. Six hours alongside, then out again. And then Tilbury overnight, again same waters, reaching in the morning. And on. And on. And on. 

In winter- now- visibility is often close to zero in the North Sea, English Channel and Western Mediterranean. The area also has, very often at this time, extremely bad weather with high waves, freezing spray, and nature’s other glories thrown in. For a Master to have to spend the entire transit from one port to the next on the bridge is not unusual. Slow steaming up and down, when ports are sometimes closed in bad weather and anchoring is not an option- Livorno used to be my personal nightmare- adds to the stress and fatigue.

Then there are port formalities and paperwork to be prepared for at sea and suffered in port. Crew changes. Stores, bunkers, sludge disposal, inspections, surveys, audits and repairs. Engineers can go crazy working against the clock keeping everything running and following the PMS system. Stopping at sea with even a minor breakdown is high tension time for everybody. Shore support is scanty because it is expensive. Deck staff goes crazy with cargo loading and lashing and running up and down eleven decks, not to speak of port papers, arrival and departure stations, checklists and the million things that every ship demands of every seafarer.  

And ISPS requirements; don’t forget that. (Trick question, how do you deploy a total of five or six deck crew when you need one each for ISPS watch at the gangway, stern ramp and the side door,  four for cargo lashing and monitoring, two to be resting before watch or before sailing, another one to handle the bunker barge and another two to handle stores? Answer, you throw the ‘rest period’ claptrap out the window, because if you followed that the ship would stop and probably never sail.)   

Anybody who has been there and done that could tell you stories.

I have refused to sail more than just three or four months at a time since the late eighties, and so I had it easier on those car carriers too. I presume that the mainly Polish officers of the Baltic Ace had not contracted to do long stretches. (I also hope- for their sakes- they were not under the influence; sadly, the stringent zero alcohol policy followed by managers when it comes to Asians does not seem to apply equally robustly to Europeans.)  Regardless, many officers do six months of this hellish tenure on car carriers today, day in and day out. Many of the crew- if they are Filipino, as some on the Baltic Ace were- do twice that. It is inhuman. It is made inhuman, actually, because owners and managers operate at stripped manning levels- promoting conditions that could be easily confused with slavery.

Seamen know that fatigue tastes like in the mouth; it is dry and metallic. They know it impairs judgement. They know they make more mistakes when they are tired. They also know that nobody acknowledges this; the industry needs fall guys after every Baltic Ace, not the truth. Leaving aside all other human foibles, claims of ‘human error’ make for good economics and ‘insurance sense’. 

I am not here to tell you that there was no human error on either the Baltic Ace or the Corvus J. I am not even here to tell you that the Baltic Ace sank, tragically killing all those people, because of fatigue.
However, I am here to tell you that fatigue is the root cause of many a close shave and many an accident- and that some of my mistakes at sea could honestly be attributed to it. I am here to tell you that car carriers- those breadboxes with no vertical bulkheads in cargo spaces and with a single compartment design that can make the shebang go down in minutes if there is a breach in watertight integrity- are the last ships where you want to have fatigued crews.

And I am here to tell you that fatigue is behind much that is conveniently passed off as human error.


December 06, 2012

Not enough Indians

The stifling of maritime skills threatens Indian shipping in many ways. We easily acknowledge problems like poor calibre of new entrants or their dwindling numbers. Less easily admitted- although that is changing fast- is the corruption in the new-entrant job market that has permeated every pore of the industry and its administration.  Admitted extremely rarely, on the other hand, are longer term problems that are on nobody’s radar screen at the moment. For one, that the near complete absence of good seafarers today will translate into a drought of able administrators and technically competent ex-mariners sitting ashore tomorrow is something that has been ignored so far. 

The last few decades have seen many Indians move to- and thrive in- shipping management jobs ashore, but they have usually done so on the back of solid experience at sea. True, some of them stayed at sea just long enough to get what some in India derisively call the ‘chhapa’- a Master’s or Chief Engineer’s stamp on their CDC. Many of these folk took additional professional qualifications, many more picked up management jargon and some even picked up the tools of their new trade ashore. Nothing unusual; happens in many other industries too. My point is that many thrived in their new environment because they had potential, were academically competent to begin with, and had gained professional experience- or enough experience anyway- at sea. 

This is not going to happen with the new generation. The combination of suspect academic credentials, low commitment and an attitude that sees sailing as ‘a couple of years’ kind of thing will not magically lead to riches, glory, or a future in industry ashore. In fact, I strongly suspect that many Indians joining the profession today will struggle to reach a stage when they will command ships or control engine rooms to begin with, for there is a steep curve that they have to go up before they will be good enough to do so.

What this will do to the overall employability of Indians in shipping is anybody’s guess. Traditionally, shipping has always sourced many of its technical and operational managers from the growing pool of experienced Masters and Chief Engineers. If the numbers of these fall drastically, as I suspect, or if ship owners move to other nationalities, as many believe, then it is obvious that the future managers of shipping will come from amongst nationalities that are producing enough Masters and Chief Engineers to begin with.

Faced with an analogous situation, Europe and the US have protected their shore maritime jobs somewhat by stifling immigration from Asia and elsewhere. India does not have the ability to do that; in any case, it is not a global shipping centre that can attract financial, insurance or other maritime businesses anyway. Moreover, it is not a major shipowning country, and none of its nationals are major ship owners internationally- with the possible exception of SCI, but government owned units work along different paradigms. And shipmanning - the one area that has seen a lot of foreign interest over the last thirty years or so- is dying, because Indian seafarers are dying. Shipmanagement will go, eventually- in a generation or so- to countries producing seafarers at the time; only natural. 

The signs are already there for those who want to see them. The fall in calibre, competence and experience at sea is a given, but those who have sailed in the last few years have noticed, on the ground, larger number of people like superintendents and surveyors landing up on ships with insufficient experience or knowledge. Operations managers who have little expertise in operations trying to handle, unsuccessfully, complex ships and their loading rotations. We see DPA’s who would struggle to manage safety in a lifeboat. Insurance surveyors with strange ideas about seaworthiness. Inexperienced- dangerously inexperienced- pilots. 

When competence drops, it drops across the board. The dumbing down of the industry ashore- led by the dumbing down of the industry afloat- is, essentially, what I am talking about. There are too many Chiefs and not enough Indians already. The blind will soon be leading the blind in greater numbers than ever.

There is a paradox of sorts in all this, which muddies the waters and makes it appear that Indian shipmanagement companies- and the jobs they create in the country ashore- are on the ascendant. Because so many shipowners that own just a few ships find it so hard to manage them on their own in today’s crazy regulatory and commercial environment, we continue to see comparatively large numbers of vessels going to shipmanagement companies. It may therefore appear, for some time at least, that because these companies are thriving, the countries that they source personnel from have it made. 

I think this notion is erroneous to the extreme, and I equate it with a situation where a mom-and-pop store suddenly notices a spurt in business, and realises that this is thanks to the footfalls generated by the nearby parking lot of a big supermarket that has opened in the neighbourhood. Mom and Pop may temporarily rejoice, but unless they are stupid, they know that they are on their way out. That their very survival is at stake.