December 18, 2015

The groupies in Indian shipping

Let me say, first of all, that I am going to avoid using the word ‘seafarer’ from now on. I am a proud seaman and refuse to be an airy fairy seafarer. And, since most of the people sailing on commercial ships are men, the generic word I will use is seamen. The few women out there-may their tribe increase! - are free to call themselves seawomen. I think they might prefer that anyway. 

The irrational exuberance in Indian shipping circles about the performance of the present government defies logic, or perhaps it is the contrast that has everybody all excited, since shipping has been neglected for decades in the country. Even though the many announcements made by the Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari are welcome, intentions do not mean too much on their own. The fact is, for example, that Indian government controlled ports will continue to struggle for the usual reasons for a long time even if they are (kind of) corporatised, that Indian shipbuilding will remain in the doldrums regardless of whatever sops are thrown its way and that connecting inland waterways or building hundreds of small ports will take decades even if there is continuity of policy and priority, since we do not have the crapload of money that will be required to do this. There is no need to get so excited about what are, in the end and so far, just plans.

None of these facts stops the establishment from behaving like a bunch of star struck teenage girls mooning over Brad Pitt. Delve deeper into this phenomenon, though, and you find that the crowd of groupies is made up of one or more of the following: the usual line-up of businessmen with links to politicians, blinkered supporters that this government has attracted ever since its inception, opportunists hoping to make a quick buck out of empty air, industry bodies trying to peddle influence and professional bodies run by outdated mariners trying to gain some influence so that they can pretend to be relevant. The lure of money and power prevails on the back of a faith in the corrupt system and the mistaken belief that announcements trump viability, capability or delivery.

What is remarkable- though hardly unexpected- in all this is that there is nothing mentioned about the establishment-sponsored plague that has hit Indian seamen for decades. Okay, sorry, there was one solitary announcement: granting some Indian seamen working on Indian registered ships- not all, not by a long shot- parity with Indians working on foreign flags when it came to income tax. That this is too little and far too late is almost beside the point; the really big problems that plague our seamen are not.

The huge falling-competency issue in Indian seamen make it unlikely that India will be a maritime superpower (how the groupies love that term!) anytime soon. Where will the thousands of competent ex-seamen required in maritime operations, insurance, classification, shore establishments, dredging and administration et al come from for this to happen? There is dead silence from the government or the groupies on this question. Can’t blame them since they are not looking beyond their noses; in any case, most are akin to short-term touts with no long term interest in the game.

That this competency issue is directly related to the endemic massive corruption in the recruitment of Indian seamen, the degrading of the profession or the cavalier- spiteful, even- treatment of Indian officers and crews is not spoken of in any official circles, leave alone addressed. There is no announcement on how we are going to address this problem. There are no plans for cleaning up the system that, incidentally, is run by many of the same groupies that are swooning over everything else. No ideas on how we will attract calibre. Those plans would be useless without cleaning up the act anyway, because calibre avoids a rotting carcass.

Somebody needs to tell the groupies that money is easier to attract than people in almost any enterprise. The former requires a robust business plan on paper, which is simpler. The latter requires good sense and a progressive mind-set, both rarities in the cesspool that the shipmanning business in India is today. Somebody should also tell them that announcements, whether made for questionable and corrupt reasons or not, are no substitute for a workable plan that includes, critically, the management of the human resources that will be needed. Somebody should tell them you can’t grow Indian shipping without growing the numbers and competence of Indian seamen and that the first step towards that is to begin to treat seamen like human beings.

But that somebody is not me. I am not going to tell them this, because that would be like breaking wind against thunder. Because, you see, most of these groupies would not recognise the concept of the development of human resources even if jumped up and bit them in the unmentionables; their regressive attitude is in their DNA.


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