The New York Times recently ran a bunch of articles on lawlessness on the high seas that was pretty scathing of international shipping. The series- ‘The Outlaw Ocean’- does not have to be taken too seriously, though. It is poorly researched, spews too many bromides and, in addition, extrapolates the sins of the worst players in the shipping and fishing industries to the entire maritime industry. It suggests that the disregard for the environment at sea is endemic. It lumps seamen, migrants, fishermen and stowaways together. It suffers from pieces that are too damn long, as if the strength of an argument is proportional to the number of words used to peddle it.
The series is sensationalist at best and dead wrong at worst. From a long list of rubbish that I could quote, just a little- It tells us that murders regularly occur offshore. That egregious crime is routinely committed with impunity. That thousands of seafarers, fishermen and migrants die under suspicious circumstances each year (this is probably accurate, given the situation in the Med today, but the fatality rates are implied as extending to seamen. That, on average, a large ship sinks every four days. That 99% of the crimes committed at sea go unprosecuted and barely noted.
Even with the New York Times gets it right- when it talks about the flags of convenience or nobody having the inclination to enforce weak laws, it does not say anything new. I suspect that the only reason some- mainly Western- maritime associations have taken the articles seriously is because it is the NYT; I will, however, just write off the series without further ado.
A clipping from an Indian magazine, “The Week,” that Manoj Joy of ‘Sailors Helpline’ emailed me has more significance. The report, ‘Prisoners at Sea’ details how ‘recruitment sharks and a callous government continue to put the lives of Indian seafarers at risk.’ (I would have added ‘and corrupt managers’ to this). It tells us the stories of people you will probably never hear of again. The story of Captain Shreepal Singh of the Ocean Star that disappeared four years ago, whose family has been doing the rounds of government agencies- even Rahul Gandhi- to find out what happened to him, all without effect. The older story of the ill-fated Jupiter 6 and its ten Indian sailors; the tug vanished a decade ago towing a bulk carrier to Alang. The bulk carrier was found adrift off South Africa with the tug missing; nothing is known of the fate of the crew. The families have had to spend years in courts fighting for their right to be compensated.
From callousness, we come to criminal collusion. The Week writes about a half dozen case like Chennai’s Vasantha Raghavan’s. This is the story of thousands of Indian seamen, who, ever since the abomination of the implementation of the STCW convention twenty years ago, have been lured into shipping, taking huge loans to ‘train’ as cadets or ratings. Raghavan landed up in Malaysia to join a ship and was forced to work as a cleaner in a hotel; he was beaten up and tortured when he protested. We know that many, many others work on substandard and unsafe ships- some no better than floating coffins- ‘placed’ there by touts and officials from even Director General of Shipping approved agencies. This scandal is an open secret; the fact that nobody can get his (thankfully, few women are joining the profession) first berth without paying somebody or the other is the rule, not the exception.
Cadets- like Nikhil Silvi and Vignesh Kumar, both mentioned in the article, who collapsed in a tank on a ship- often die on these unsafe ships without anybody in the industry or its regulators giving a damn about them, their remains, or the plight of their families.
Sorry, New York Times, but the sea is not the outlaw; it is as clean as it always was. There are no outlaws in shipping anyway, at least the part of it that is managed from India; the criminals here are firmly in the mainstream. Thanks to a government that does not care about its seamen, a regulator that is powerless to criminally prosecute even a doorman in a shipping agency and an industry that does not feel the need to clean up its act or weed out the corrupt, the criminals have taken over the system. The lunatics have taken over the asylum.
No, there are no outlaws in shipping anymore. And that is the biggest tragedy of all.