March 28, 2013

Deadlines for headlines

It is now two months since IMO head Koji Sekimizu pledged that his organisation would halve the number of seafarer deaths in the next two years- and, to boot, eradicate piracy by 2015. There is a strong possibility that his was just an administrator’s sound-bite, of course, short on substance and long on rhetoric. Whatever. I should remind the IMO that a twelfth of Sekimizu’s self-allotted time over the seafarer death issue is already over- and as for piracy, it has actually escalated over the last two months, especially off West Africa. Sekimizu’s statement had hit the headlines in the maritime press two months ago; it is time to start wondering, methinks, if there are any teeth behind the words. 

Unfortunately, the simple fact is that shipping does not have a clue- or a structure- that can effectively and practically handle issues that the IMO honcho has pledged to control. Shipping does not even have reliable statistics to understand the extent of the problem. The figures of a thousand odd annual seafarer deaths Mr Sekimizu quoted in January are shots in the dark; he admitted as much when he said that the figures were “neither accurate or comprehensive,” and he caused at least my eyebrows to rise with his opinion that the IMO should set up an official system to collect and collate casualty information. We don’t need more administration of life-threatening issues, Mr Sekimizu; we need solutions instead.
The reality is that systems in shipping, including at the IMO, are not set up to pursue either safety or security. Clueless administrators, uncaring Flag States and an industry ridden with short-sightedness, a culture of penny pinching and conflicting interests combine to churn a cocktail that freezes the already impotent system- and, consequently, makes it even more dangerous for seamen out at sea. Owners switch flags if pushed, States stall, administrators continue to administer the ludicrous or are complicit in corruption. Everybody spews homilies while sailors continue to die or be taken hostage at sea. 

“The problem is the industry and the people who work in it,” Allan Graveson from Nautilus says. I could not agree more.

I assume Mr Sekimizu was serious when he made that statement in January.  If so, maybe I could remind him that a system- like a cleanup- should start from the top if it has to succeed. First of all, the IMO needs to start building up momentum- on a war footing- to ensure that the international shipping community commits to safety and security. For example, issues such as seafarer fatigue (directly linked to many accidents), lifeboat drill casualties, container weight misdeclarations, moisture content in ore fines et al cannot be addressed even remotely satisfactorily if international or national legislators and administrators are checkmated by commercial or regional interests, or compromised by corruption. The people who purport to be at the apex of decision making must be on board this initiative; if they cannot be or will not be, then the whole exercise is futile.

As far as piracy is concerned, the systemic solutions here are, frankly, beyond the scope of the IMO and Mr Sekimizu; he has to involve IMO parent- the United Nations- to get anywhere worthwhile. I am afraid the UN’s history is not very encouraging either; its report card is littered with Fs in almost any country into which it has dipped its toes. Nonetheless, the UN is all we have, and the IMO- with the member states of the UN- must formulate a SOP wherever pirate incidents occur- and they will occur more and more, because the Somalis and the Nigerians have shown every wannabe criminal in the world a business model for raking in big bucks at relatively low risk. Unless international systems are robust, timely and practical, and unless we have standard operating procedures in place that will automatically apply to any new piracy zone, we will continue to dither while our seamen die. 

Controlling the gravy train of anti-piracy will be another big test for Sekimizu.

I am afraid that the ambitious time targets set by Mr Sekimizu- two years and 2015- are never going to be met. The IMO Chief would do very well if- in the next two years- he can just get the international community on board on security and safety issues and do the simple things that need to be done in a concerted and honest manner. If Sekimizu is serious, he needs to start now, because his effective power and his ability to make a difference will wane as his term as IMO head winds down later.

The simple fact is that shipping, like much else in life, does not fail because of the strengths of its enemies. It fails because of its own weaknesses.


March 21, 2013

Italians outside

First, the Kerala High court took marines Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone- accused of murder of two Indian fishermen- out of jail in Kerala and allowed them to go home to Italy for Christmas. As agreed between the court and the Italian consulate, the two returned later to continue their detention in India. Then, a couple of months later, the Indian Supreme Court allowed them to go home to Italy again, this time ostensibly to vote in the elections there. The difference was that this time they didn’t return to face trial for murder in India, and probably never will: the Italian government said this week that it won’t be sending them back.

The news sent the Indian media into its usual frenzy of simulated outrage, had the opposition flaying the government in Parliament (with Jaitley quoting my favourite from Goldfinger- three times is enemy action) and resulted in the Supreme Court putting what appeared to be foreign travel restrictions on the Italian envoy to the country; I wonder how that ties in with the tenets of diplomatic immunity. 

The uncharitable amongst us will say that it is not surprising that Italian killers are given special consideration in today’s India, and using Indian jails as a place to rest between picnics. A friend reminded me of Khushwant Singh’s joke from the Rajiv Gandhi and Quattrocchi days: A politician is bemoaning his recent lack of access to Gandhi, the Prime Minister, saying, “Things are different today. There are battalions outside and Italians inside”. 

Today the two Italians are outside.

I don’t buy the Italian government’s point that the Lexie was in international waters when the two marines shot at and killed fishermen Gelastine and Ajesh Binki mistaking them for pirates, or their assertion that the two marines should be tried in Italy. All evidence- documentary and otherwise- suggests this is hogwash, and points to a shooting that was probably the result of trigger happy soldiers who panicked when they spotted people of the wrong colour on a boat. As for the jurisdictional issue, the Indian authorities have insisted- backed by evidence- that the killings occurred in Indian waters, and that the Lexie had to be more or less forced to Kerala by the Indian Coast Guard. The Indian Supreme Court has ruled that the killings took place in Indian waters and therefore the Central Government has jurisdiction over the incident. 

The new Italian Government says it is not sending the marines back to India since the country has not responded to requests for a diplomatic solution to the case, adding that it is now raising a dispute over jurisdiction under UNCLOS. That is hogwash, too; Italy could have raised the dispute internationally at any time, regardless of the location of the two marines. 

Actually, if truth be told, what stinks most in all this is India allowing the marines to repeatedly go back home while awaiting trial for murder. Combine this with the Italian government now refusing to send them back, and the whole episode begins to smell of a carefully but clumsily orchestrated conspiracy.
In any case, whose argument I buy- or don’t- is a moot point. The reality is that there was a diplomatic row between Italy and India over the incarceration of the two marines and it needed to be resolved diplomatically. The thing to be done, eventually, was to send the two marines to trial in Italy if the Italians were right; alternately, put them on trial in India if the Indian position was correct. Sending them for Christmas and elections (why the hell, in this century, could they have not voted from jail in India?) makes a mockery of India and its laws. 

It also sets a dangerous precedent. Will all foreigners arrested in India now have the right to go home for holidays, elections, shopping and weekend visits to pubs? What about Indians held in their own country? The colonial hang-up that seems to persist in the minds of so many Indians- especially those in government and such- is undoubtedly to blame for some of this mess. 

There is also the issue of fairness and reciprocity. The Captain Jasprit Chawla’s of our world suffer cold and bare prison cells, bad or inappropriate food, hostility and a singular lack of compassion even when the whole world- including supposedly powerful industry bodies- is screaming their innocence from the rooftops. The Latorre’s and Girone’s of the world- acknowledged killers – get special privileges in Indian jails (including Italian food). And are then set free without even the semblance of justice.

To those Indians in administration and government who allowed this to happen, I will only say that there is no point in India puffing itself up pretending to be an emerging power when its systems are circumvented with such blatant impunity by its own enemies within the gates. There is no use in trying to bask in the glory of five thousand years of Indian maritime heritage if, in the end, we are to allow the true inheritors of that legacy to be shot and killed without consequence. And it makes no sense, us screaming about being the world’s largest democracy, when we debilitate and compromise our systems ourselves, show a remarkable lack of spine and behave like a banana republic and a tin-pot dictatorship both rolled into one.


March 14, 2013

West side story

One size does not fit all, shipping is belatedly realising- or pretending to- and Nigeria is not Somalia. As the increase in violence against seamen in and around the Gulf of Guinea rises exponentially, our self-proclaimed experts have started saying what a sixth grader could have told them two years ago during his lunch break- different strokes will be required, compared to Somali pirates, for the folk in operating in and around the Gulf of Guinea.

What is sickening in all this is that the atrocities against seamen in West African waters will be allowed to increase just as they were off Somalia, before the armed guard solution was ‘found’ by the same self-styled experts- a solution that many of us were saying for years was the necessary evil needed to fix the problem. While we were beating that dead horse, though, everybody was busy raking in the moolah- and I am not talking about the pirates here. What makes me livid is that the same thing will be repeated off West Africa; shipping and the rest of the world will sit on their hands while the violence against seamen escalates. The sick joke will be retold at the sailor’s expense again.

I am not going to repeat what I have written on the subject before; instead, if I may, I would like to forecast-  for the ears of the few who still want to solve problems instead of using them for personal or financial advancement- and hang the seamen- what I broadly see happening off West Africa in the near future.

·         Officials in authority and law enforcement in corrupt regimes like Nigeria will expand further into businesses linked to piracy. The notorious functionaries in the oil industry there will follow suit. Anarchy was the big issue in Somalia; corruption will be the thorn in the international community’s flesh on the other side of Africa, whenever it tries to engage in the region. West African countries do have functioning governments, unlike Somalia. The problem is that many are riddled with corruption, and so the end result is the same. All this will mean, just like Somalia, that there will be no easy solutions on the ground.

  • Regulations against armed foreigners in West African waters- some of which are already in place- will not be eased easily. Security companies are already working around the problem somewhat by using foreigners as advisors instead of armed guards, I know, but there is not much evidence around that the system is working. I think that there will be just enough obstruction from the system to make any serious initiatives unworkable.

  • Violence against crews and ships will increase even further, because West African pirates are after cargoes, because they cannot take hijacked ships to safe havens and because they will become emboldened since they have the backing of powerful people ashore. This has already started happening, as anybody who reads the news knows. Alarmingly, pirates off Nigeria don’t seem to be wary of getting into prolonged fire fights with armed guards on ships; the Somali’s, on the other hand, used to break off attacks and seek other targets much more readily. In the end, many more crew are going to get killed- and we will let it happen. Just like we did in the Indian Ocean.

  • More and more Nigerian youth from the impoverished Niger Delta- that is, paradoxically, swimming in oil- will be drawn to piracy. Reasons include well-armed criminal gangs in the region who are flush with money- some reports say that up to 10% of Nigerian oil worth millions is looted every day. Warlords need foot-soldiers to sustain their operations. Also, Nigerian domestic initiatives- including financial packages- to wean away men from these gangs do not apply to youngsters just coming of age, so they are broke and unemployed, and, therefore, cannon fodder for the recruiters in the gangs.

  • The criminals will have the money, the resources, the connections and the motivation to expand piracy up and down the coast. (They are already using at least one mother ship). Shipping, on the other hand, seems to have access to none of these. The dice are loaded against us- just as they were off Somalia.

But forget what the enemy is doing or will do, I say. Concentrate on your actions instead. What are we doing? What is shipping doing?

The short answer, as usual, is precious little.

Today, we should laugh in the faces of our suited-booted experts who are telling us, just as they did off Somalia, that citadels and BMPs are the big elements that will combat West African Piracy. We should slam the door in their faces and burn the root cause analyses and the thick reports produced that are typed by the inexperienced with manicured fingernails.

Regular sufferers of this column will know from a few years ago that my short solution to Somali piracy was armed guards. Today, my short solution to West African piracy is this: Send in a multinational naval force to West Africa tomorrow. Next week, ask all the countries in the region to start vigorous law enforcement measures against pirate gangs and their backers ashore, and immediate legal prosecution of those caught. Simultaneously, ask the same countries politely to amend laws to ensure ships can be armed and protected effectively, and by whatever nationality they choose.

Concentrate on Nigeria. Promise them equipment to beef up their maritime security apparatus. Not money, please, but equipment. And training.

Another week later, if they don’t listen, throw a ring of steel in and around the Gulf of Guinea- it is hardly as large as the Indian Ocean. Nothing moves in or out. A mini-blockade, if you will. Simultaneously, provide armed guards on all vessels, using the United Nations’ rubber stamp if required. Ask Nigeria- less politely this time- to cooperate or face incremental economic sanctions.

That should solve everything by the end of next month, I think, and put a lot of suited booted experts out of business.

For those of you who will scream, “But Nigeria has oil! What about the economic impact on the world- don’t you know there is a recession going on!!?” I will only say that you need to read somebody else’s column if you want to make an omelette without breaking eggs.


March 07, 2013

Exit strategy

Most people do not go to sea any longer, as many in my generation did, because we loved the life and made good money at the same time. They go because they do not have what they see as better options. With everything that sailing has become, they want to come ashore earlier, too, even if they sail. Nothing wrong with that, except that in my opinion they seek options ashore for the wrong reasons- just as they did when they signed up. 

All this struck me talking to yet another thirty something Captain last week. He was looking to get a job ashore, and it seemed to me that, instead of concentrating on what work he would enjoy doing, he was focused only on seeking to do something based on how much money he would make. 

I wanted to tell him that he would do better trying to be happy instead of trying to be rich- and that, by disregarding his instincts and concentrating on salary, he was setting himself up to be unhappy. I wanted to tell him that if he were any good, there were many areas in shipping where he would anyway make more money ashore than he does when he sails today- not at the outset, certainly, but certainly in a year or three. He would therefore be better off identifying what he wanted to do.

I wanted to tell him to be sure he had what it takes to begin with, because there were too many mediocre people out at sea today who are better off sailing because they are simply not good enough to be ashore. I wanted to tell him that everything else I thought assumed that he was not one of those people. Or indeed, that he was not somebody like me- who loved the sea so much that he delayed leaving it for years. 

I wanted to tell him that he did not yet have enough information about shore salaries and prospects to make a decision, partly because the industry conspires against sailors by keeping them ignorant about their options. Because it doesn’t want good seamen moving ashore- they are needed on ships. Besides, good senior officers often make good managers and threaten to take away existing jobs ashore from the very people who are part of the conspiracy.

I wanted to tell him that his calculations of income taxes were wrong. Too many Indian sailors just take thirty three per cent off gross shore wages as tax liability and shy away from shore jobs; real taxes are much lower after they have been properly calculated, and after legal deductions have been applied.  

I wanted to tell him that his projections of domestic expenses if he moved ashore were warped because of his old sailor’s habit of burning money between ships, and that many of his expenses were higher anyway simply because he was sailing. Many other costs were directly related to his profession. These would come down significantly if he moved ashore.

I wanted to tell him that he was hugely underestimating- by a good 30 per cent, at least- the salary package he would be drawing within three years ashore. That he was perhaps underestimating his potential; many seamen do that. We are willing to do whatever it takes to make things work, I wanted to tell him. It is in our blood, because that is the way things are at sea. I would have liked to tell him that while heading a software setup for a while in India midway through sailing, my US based boss had made a comment, saying that we should find merchant naval officers across India to help in our expansion plans. Seamen, once given a job, see it through; that is a unique work ethic- and uncommon ashore. 

I wanted to tell him that- once again, if he were any good- he should try to identify what kind of work excites him ashore, and answer some basic questions while he is about it: Does he want a second high pressure career or a semi-retired life? Do family or other commitments restrict his location? Where does he see himself, personally and professionally, five years down the line? Ten? Is he qualified enough? Does he have enough savings to last through the first year or two while he is setting himself up?

I wanted to tell him to take a year off and take the plunge; do something that excites you. See what happens. The Certificate of Competency can be burnt later. I wanted to tell him not to be worried about his shore move not working out- chances were high it would. Even if it did not, one of the beauties of the profession of seafaring is that it gives you unmatched flexibility; I cannot think of anywhere else where you can take a two year break, for example, without major career related setbacks if you change your mind and return, as  I have done once or twice. It is stupid, therefore, not to use the flexibility that you have been given, I wanted to say, when your heart is telling you that you want a change. 

I wanted to tell this man many things, but I did not. I did not know him well enough. Come to think of it, neither did he.