April 27, 2013

Balancing the act

Intercargo Chairman John Platsidakis is quoted grumbling in The Economist. “We (shipping) carry 90% of world trade and we emit only 2.7% of the CO2 but still we are treated as if we are acting with indifference to the environment.” 

Mr Platsidakis, I am afraid that a) perception is everything in today’s world, and b) things are going to get worse. And they are going to get worse partly because, if a joint Lloyds Register, Qinetiq and University of Strathclyde report is to be believed, global seaborne trade will more than double by 2030. I believe that things will get worse simply because a major shipping weakness- inability to effectively lobby before one sided and unworkable regulations are passed- will be exposed on a larger scale if trade really takes off.

I have a few issues with that report, by the way, that cites mainly Chinese- but also Indian and other BRIC expanding economies with their huge populations- driving demand for commodities, finished goods and everything else under the sun. To me, these economies, their populations and their GDP numbers are not sustainable- they never have been. Also, in a part of the world mired in poverty, and where social security and State support is absolutely absent, there is only so much disparity that will be tolerated by the effectively disenfranchised before something gives. And so chances of upheaval in countries like India and China, and consequent major global economic turmoil are high. After all, the Arab Spring kick- started over a small episode, when Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after a dispute with a government official over where he could sell his fruit and vegetables. Optimists may think that was a black swan event. Realists will disagree.

But coming back to Mr Platsidakis- and our- problem, which is not just one of perception, by the way. The IMO, which should know better, being industry specific and all, has long made regulations that pander to the perception that shipping is some unique monster that is destroying the environment. The problem is that shipping today cannot really afford the huge financial cost of dealing with over stringent emission and ballast water regulations that the IMO has passed. I doubt very much that it will be able to pass on these costs to the consumer- the Chairman of the ICS reckons these will to be to the tune of ‘hundreds of billions of dollars.’ Just the ballast water regulations may cost the industry upwards of 50 billion.

Shipping has no choice but to lobby; it will be squeezed out of its last breath if it does not. And it needs to allocate resources –money and people- to lobby. This is where shipping- one of the oldest businesses in the world- fails. Don’t tell me this is because we are an international industry, fragmented and incoherent. Look at the airlines, which are clearly focused; they have, not so long ago, effectively got the EU to back off regulations that threatened their profitability. It is not that shipping is incapable of getting its act together and soliciting cooperation; after all, it started the marine insurance business, amongst others, over informal meetings at a coffee house in London. But that was long ago.

It seems to me that modern shipping suffers from a singular combination of hubris, stinginess, short sightedness and lethargy. And of course, the old failing that every seaman will confirm: owners and managers are often penny wise and pound foolish. Nobody wants to spend a dime before the horse bolts. We will spend millions afterwards searching for the horse.

Let us assume that global trade will actually double by 2030, as the Lloyd’s et al report would have you believe. I bet that the costs of complying with environmental regulations will go up at least five times from now until then. Common sense says that shipping should try to influence regulations before they are passed instead of cribbing about them afterwards, or asking the IMO to rethink its rules, which is what the industry is doing at present with the ballast water and clean fuel debate. 

If things are bad now, imagine the scene a decade or two down the road. We will be drowning in a deluge of regulations; it is clear that the IMO is far from done yet. Equally clearly, the industry bodies we have are incapable of doing what is required. Also, the new shipowners of 2030 will be based in the East, particularly in China; existing industry bodies are largely Western. This mismatch will fragment us further.

Shipping must find an effective way to lobby. It needs to set up an international body to do so, and it must go in to battle with a war chest. Scrimpy shipowners should be made to realise that the cost of complying with bad, expensive and almost unworkable regulation is much, much higher than the cost of lobbying. It is critical that shipping persuade, cajole and influence politicians, think tanks and regulators, like all other industries do.  It should find a creative way to get funds for that war chest- perhaps some association of shipowners can start by levying a small one-time cess on all shipowners. Say a small fraction of a cent per Gross Tonne registered. That amount is not crippling for any shipowner, and it should add up; there is supposed to be a billion Gross tonnes or so out there. That should give us the beginning of that war chest.

John Platsidakis has got it right when he complains about how unfairly shipping is treated, but being right does not matter so much. Being able to influence regulations to make them more balanced does.


April 19, 2013

One hand clapping

Intriguing questions, the ones that dominated my conversation over a one and a half hour drive with a HR guy recently: should rigid shipboard rank oriented structures be tweaked to become more in line with this century’s human resource development concepts?  Are we paying enough attention, in that Alpha-male dominated world at sea, to things like soft skills, mentoring and collaborative decision making? Is the rank based system on ships broke enough to need fixing? 

Evangelical HR guys with their acronymic jargon aside, nobody who knows anything about life at sea will recommend a change of the organisational structure aboard merchant ships. Which was my point too: hostile environments in which decision making must be usually immediate demand rigid hierarchies- autocratic structures, not democracies. Waiting for consensus is perhaps appropriate in boardrooms; it is a luxury at sea. There we need a person- a rank- that will make the decision. He (almost invariably, still ‘he’) will have, hopefully, the experience and the knowledge to make the right decision, and it will be his rear end on the line if something goes wrong. There can be little collective responsibility at sea, so there can be no collective authority. Simple as that.

If we must apply shore HR concepts to sailors, I told him, shouldn’t we be applying the basic ones first before we threaten everybody with the acronyms? Treating sailors with respect would be a good start, as would be removing the endemic corruption that a youngster faces today when he looks for a first job in countries like India. 

What about formalising for them a career path that goes beyond five or ten years? What about addressing issues of job satisfaction, job security, grievance handling and workplace environment (critical when a worker spends months at a time at sea with no respite)? What about their social needs- internet, for one, aboard ships- even (gasp) Wi Fi?

What about simple recognition from the organisation for a job well done, I asked the HR guy? What about not scapegoating him automatically when things go wrong- often to protect those ashore? Isn’t all this HR 101?

But we are talking about stuff aboard ships, he told me, and what needs to change there.  (Typical, I thought. In his world sailors must show all the commitment and get little of it directed at them- except, of course, those ‘our seafarers are our best assets’ kind of statements that simultaneously amuse and annoy. His talking is the sound of one hand clapping.)

That said, what should change at sea is this: Seniors- Masters, officers or crew- must be involved much more with people working under them than they are today. I don’t like the word mentoring for some reason, but it would be wonderful if more people had an attitude that made them pass on some of their knowledge and experience to those younger than them. It is a way of giving what was passed on to us when we were in those young shoes. Unfortunately, too many- especially senior officers- are too distanced from the rest of the crew aboard the multinational ships of today; that is an attitude that is plain dumb. Interpersonal and other soft skills may be considered somewhat unnecessary by many at sea, but they are not. They get things done.

I would have seniors listen to their juniors more. Relax more. Empathise more. Give a pat on the back for a job well done more often. Avoid contributing to an already stressful job by bringing in the human touch - this circus is filled with self-starters and does not need unnecessary ringmasters. 

Most of all, I would have Shipmasters perform a part of their job that too many have forgotten- ensuring the welfare of the crew. This does not just mean just decent food and water and a television in the smoke room. This also means being fair- and being seen to be fair. This means standing up for them when managers or owners want to penny pinch or short-change or treat them unfairly in other ways. This means taking that extra step towards looking after the crew’s basic physical and mental needs. All of which means a genuine concern, from the Captain, for the well-being of all officers and crew. Too many of us do not have this attitude, and it shows in the results.

So, before going overboard with abstruse HR concepts and before being seduced by the jargon at the expense of the substance, managers and senior officers both need to remember a simpler rule that applies to everything in life, which is this: when you want commitment you have to first show it.


April 13, 2013

Less is more

A couple of years ago, my father’s brother, an ex-Army man, commented that I was a minimalist. I don’t know if he meant it as a compliment, but this was after I had landed up in an unknown city to handle an incident where a very close family member was going into coma at home. Rushing him to hospital and handling doctors and a myriad of medical complications took weeks. It did not help that the hospital had no resting place for attendants of patients in ICU and that medical treatment there was a racket. I was juggling three cell phones, sleeping in the street in winter and eating and washing when I could, in a city where I had nobody else for any kind of support. 

Like the seaman that I am, I reduced everything to the basics. I concentrated on the problem and ignored everything else for nearly a month- refusing to even take phone calls from well-meaning but eventually useless relatives. My father’s brother made the comment sometime after the emergency passed.

One of the problems at sea is that Masters do not have much of an opportunity of seeing other Masters in action- barring short parallel voyages or such. We sign on or off and the other Captain leaves. But based on what I saw as a junior officer and on a few occasions later, my sense is that good Masters- indeed, all good seamen- seem to have one thing in common when the chips are down, and that is a minimalist approach to work. A sticking-to-basics kind of single-mindedness. A spareness of sorts, if you will. 

Observe a ship Captain when he is shiphandling. If he is good, he will not be charging around the place hither and thither, talking too much or asking for too much information. He will likely be absolutely still, and only his head or his eyes will be moving. He will be concentrating on the essentials and those alone- everything else will be shut out. His situational awareness will be on a knife edge. He will know, to a finely tuned degree, how the wind and the currents are effecting the ship, and at what rate. He will know the quirks of the ship, or those of her engines, better than he knows his wife’s moods. He will know how much safe space he has around him- or below him. He will know, even if he is swinging a two hundred and fifty metre long ship, how much clearance he has to an accuracy of ten or twenty metres. He will know what he will do if something goes wrong.

Everything else is shut out, including the ship-owners and managers- and, barring safety issues, even the crew. If there is too much noise inside the wheelhouse- modern equipment with its alarms, VHF chatter and blinking panel lights can be distracting - he will likely walk away onto the bridge wing, where it is quiet and he can ignore the clutter. Where he can concentrate on the basics. Where he can keep things simple. 

He has to be a minimalist to get the job done right. He has to be focused only on what is important- and dump the rest- to be in control of the situation. He has to ensure that he is not paralysed by information or distracted by peripheral issues; else he will have no room in his head to tackle anything unforeseen. And that, as every seaman knows, is going to surely happen sometime or the other; it is at sea, after all.  

I bet seamen have been minimalists in their work approach forever; in a hostile environment, that is the best way to ensure survival. Even today, training and experience may be critical to handle any emergency at sea, but these will prove to be insufficient, I think, without the mental rigour involved in keeping things simple. Which is, come to think of it, a very intelligent way of sifting out non-essentials. 

I am not sure whether the fact that seamen are often simple people given to pithy comments is an offshoot of this minimalist approach. I do know, however, that we are often perceived as not very smart. Not sophisticated or worldly-wise enough. Too simple.

All that may be true, but it seems to me that the rest of the world could learn much from the simple sailor and his brand of minimalism. Professionally, certainly, but on a personal level too. A world drowning in information overload, paralysed by mental fatigue caused by incessant bombardment of the senses and a world in which communication is often a substitute for action would do well to declutter, decongest and destress. Forget multitasking- another thing seamen do very well, by the way. Instead, discover the benefits of single tasking, or more accurately, of single-minded tasking. 

The world would do well to learn, from the simple sailor, that there is tremendous strength in the minimalist approach. Especially when the chips are down.

April 04, 2013

Oblivious ignorance

After you read this, perhaps you should read ‘Wolf at the door’ published in the same column some four years ago, in September 2009. Or perhaps not. No point aggravating your hypertension along with mine. 

The allegations of the Indian crew aboard the tanker ‘Royal Grace’- who were released unexpectedly last month after a year in Somali pirate captivity- come as no surprise to me. The 17 Indians claimed, after the ship docked safely at Salalah, that the Grace hijack was an inside job. That the Pakistani Chief Engineer’s behaviour was very suspicious- he was well stocked with food, toiletries and cigarettes and was well prepared for a long hijack. That he was the only one allowed by the pirates to stay in his own cabin throughout the year that the ship was held captive. That he was given other preferential treatment. That some of the well trained pirates were even speaking in Urdu. 

Forget the Pakistani connection coming as no surprise to me; it will come as no surprise to the so called international community, the Indian Government and its navy- or to anybody else in the business who has not spent the last five years with his (or her, to be politically correct for once) head buried in the sand.

From the Indian newsmagazine India today, four years ago, September 2009:
“Pakistan has found Somali sea pirates as the new tools in its covert war against India, the Indian Navy confirmed on Tuesday. From jihad factories in Pakistan to pirate terror off the Gulf of Aden, Pakistan's hidden war against India has been crossing the seas”.
“Nine months ago (my comment- which would put it sometime in late 2008 or early 2009) the Indian Navy patrol ships found material evidence of Pakistan's sinister plot. Most of the weapons used by the Somali brigands bore the stamp of Pakistani ordnance factories. The rocket-propelled grenade launcher and the rifles seized from the boat were all made-in-Pakistan. Even the magazines recovered had Pak ordnance factory tags”.

Also in 2009 (September, from my “Wolf at the door”)- “On the 28th of April this year, the warship Admiral Panteleyev received a distress call 120 km east of the Somali coast from the Antigua registered tanker Bulwai Bank under attack by pirates. The Russians sent in commandos who foiled the attempt and tracked a mother ship that was giving directions to the criminals. When they arrested this vessel, they found that it was an Iranian trawler whose six man crew had been taken hostage earlier. The trawler was now in command of Pakistani national Mohammed Zamal, who threw his satellite phone overboard when the commandos stormed the mother ship”.

“Among those arrested were 12 Pakistanis and 11 Somalis. A large cache of arms was also recovered, including Kalashnikovs and handguns. The Russians later said that the Pak nationals, identified so by identity cards they were carrying, were well trained in military and naval tactics”.

August 2011, two years ago, from the Times of India: It is now official (my comment- now? Ha ha and ha): Somali pirates are being trained in Pakistan to carry out a proxy war against India… the evidence was obtained from nine foreign nationals caught from a hijacked Iranian vessel - MV Nafis-1, by the Indian Navy 170 nautical miles off Mumbai on August 14. Gujarat customs officials had seized a large quantity of food items from the vessel and also found that rice packets and juice pouches bore names of Pakistani companies with addresses written in Urdu… also recovered two AK-47s, a pistol and a cache of foreign currency including $ 86,000 and 1,500 Saudi Riyals”. 

Without wasting any more time Quad Erat Demonstranduming out here, let me make my point about the dangers of the world refusing to link terrorism with piracy- which is what everybody is doing.
A blind eye is turned by countries to pirate links between Somalia’s Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda. And, although Pakistani involvement in Somali piracy may not be on the grand scale that the ISI would want, Pakistan’s well-earned reputation as the epicentre for global terrorism, and its virulent animosity towards India, can only be ignored at our own peril.  But this blind eye is par for the course; similar density is shown towards by the world, for example, as regards Pakistani government links with land based terrorists.

Western countries make a fortune in what are euphemistically called anti- piracy operations. They will not upset the cart carrying the pie; moreover, formal acknowledgement of links between pirates and terrorists will automatically make ransom payment illegal and bring the house of cards crashing down (something that will also put the crews still hostage in Somali at great risk, but that is not the reason they refuse to acknowledge the truth).

So that link is not going to officially happen. What will continue to happen, however, are advisories and warnings like the US MARAD one issued last month that was almost coincidental with the Grace’s release. That warned vessels operating in the Gulf of Oman, North Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden and Bab El Mandeb regions that terrorist attacks were being planned for that region (in response to, it transpires, US drone actions against Al Qaeda leaders).

Indian seamen are at great risk in this secret- and secretive- war. And not just in Somalia. Terrorism is spreading across Africa from one coast to the other. West African piracy is concentrated too, perhaps not coincidentally, in areas where this is a history of sectarian strife, Nigeria included. Recent incidents with foreign hostages on the ground in that broad region should serve as a warning to those connected with the sea- particularly Indians, who are especially vulnerable, because, on top of everything else, they are particular targets and their government  does not care for them. Their government, along with the rest of them, is going down the path of pretended ignorance.

I quote Theodore Roosevelt, who is supposed to have said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing to do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.” Unfortunately, the right thing can only be done by people with the right stuff, and there is no evidence of that in the Indian government or maritime administration. Proving that they do have what it takes will take a kind of Quad Erat Demonstranduming I am absolutely incapable of. You can try.

Ignorance- pretended or not- is not always bliss. Sometimes it is oblivion.