December 26, 2008

Beggar’s Masquerade

and why the Prime Minister needs to get insomnia again.

With the imprisonment of the two Hebei Spirit officers, the burlesque act has almost come full circle. The caricature of justice in South Korea, accompanied by equally pathetic attempts across the world to have the two officers get justice, still has a final act to perform in the Korean Supreme Court. Meanwhile, we prove to the mariner, once again, that despite verbose guidelines of ‘fair treatments of seafarers’, the countries of the world hold him and his human rights in deep contempt. Worse, there is no escape, no respite and no effective support from the industry.

This overt disdain for the sailor is actually a remarkable achievement. One would have thought that, given that most international trade would grind to a halt if seamen disappeared, a bit of thoughtfulness towards their well being would be forthcoming. Far from it. This prosecution of accident victims, which is what the Hebei Two are, as
a criminal also has no parallel with any other international industry that I can think of. Even prisoners of war have rights, but it appears that seafarers have none. We are all fair game.

Remarkable, yes, but perhaps not surprising. One cannot expect respect from outsiders if, hypocritical lip service aside, one is treated shabbily by one’s colleagues in the industry. One cannot expect justice from the Koreans when one’s own Indian Government does not seem to care. Remember the Haneef case last year? An Indian doctor wrongly arrested in Australia is released within three weeks, partly because Prime Minister Manmohan Singh publicly said he ‘couldn’t sleep’ because of Dr. Haneef’s plight, besides making other statements in support of the innocent doctor. The PM’s insomnia seems to improve dramatically when innocent Indian seafarers are detained for a year, and then sentenced to jail. Perhaps mariners would do better if we marketed ourselves as vote banks instead.

Instead, even as Chetan’s wife Preetha says that the two are living in appalling conditions in prison, we have the Government of India asking South Korea to treat the two senior officers more humanely. What a nice, civilised, and useless thing to do.

The unions and industry bodies did make some representations to the government. These repeatedly failed, and will continue to fail in future for much the same reasons. Lobbying weaknesses, conflicts of interest and partisan agendas will ensure this. So will the fact that industry protests always start after an untoward event, while successful lobbying involves pressure to obtain a desired outcome before such an event even occurs. Put simply, we were reactive, not proactive. Another factor which will guarantee an effete result is the fact that, in the end, all elements of the industry consider their bottomlines before they look at anything else (quite revealing, the bottomline watching, if I may say so); any action against South Korean interests, in this case, will be weighed against possible punitive repercussions, and so no effective action will be taken. Will the industry, for a start, boycott all business dealing with South Korea? Will mariners refuse to sail to that country?

Most of all, all these impotent efforts will fail because the people who are most affected by the criminalisation issue, which is the seafarers, are nowhere to be seen in these so called ‘seafarer representation’ bodies. Although individual merchant naval groups have publicly protested, notably in Chennai, the fact is that unless there is concerted and decisive action in which a wide mass of seafarers are brought in to participate, all such protests are doomed to be ineffectual.

I am positive that many recruitment managers would have worked out the chances of their seafarers refusing to ply to South Korea. The consensus may well be that in the present economic climate, seafarers concerned about their jobs would fall into line easily once again. That the Hebei Spirit ruling is a travesty that must be fought for the future well being of the industry itself will be a sentiment brushed aside with impunity. The short term will prevail. Greed before integrity again.

Meanwhile, individual ex mariners, irate at the developments, propose a boycott and destruction of South Korean goods, besides other such knee jerk reactions. I disagree with these options, because they will be too little, too late. These kinds of options may have gained some traction in June, when the Hebei Two had a favourable court decision behind them. Today, the two have been found guilty and sentenced. South Korea, like any other country, will not want its courts to be seen to be buckling under commercial pressure. I also think a boycott will not pressurise them enough, and not quickly enough.

Despite my usual cynical pessimism, the solution to our innocent colleagues’ incarceration is actually not too complicated. All it needs is for one major body, (whether the government, FOSMA, MASSA, INSA or any of the unions) to make one decision. “Effective immediately, Indian seafarers will not sail on any ship destined for South Korea”. I believe that the Government of India is best placed to do this. I also believe that it is up to the rest of us in the industry to force that decision right now. Government pressure is the best and quickest option for Capt. Chawla and Chief Officer Chetan now. This includes Indian pressure at the IMO and other international industry bodies. Pressure needs to be applied now, before the Korean Supreme Court appeal even starts, not later. We all can burn Korean products later.

We claim we are a superpower in the making. Let us behave like one. We have been threatening to rattle sabers since the Erika incident ten years ago. It is a pitiable state of affairs when innocent Indians continue to be abandoned by shining India to suspect judicial systems, to say the least.

Regardless of the final outcome of this tragic sentencing of innocent mariners, it would be good to remember that this is not an isolated incident, that many other seafarers continue to be criminalised worldwide, and that this parody of justice will recur and probably sometime soon. We need a concerted and preplanned national response to this, else we will go through the same motions again, trying to helplessly reinvent the wheel while our colleagues are in prison. We need to fix the system, not firefight each travesty of justice.

We are all furious about the plight of Capt. Chawla and Chief Officer Chetan. Nevertheless, unless we translate this anger into meaningful long term protection of our seafarers against criminalisation, we will play out this beggar’s masquerade of wealth again tomorrow. Just the names of the innocent will change.


December 20, 2008

Barking up the wrong tree after Mumbai

A couple of weeks after the end of the carnage in Mumbai, this seafarer remains bewildered by the country’s amnesia that makes it continue to forget, simply, that oceans exist. This national blind spot, known to mariners for decades, now stands exposed.

The TRP driven, media provoked ranting of the urban middle class and the elite, rattled by the invasion of their world for once, cannot escape from this simple fact: that the 7500 mile of coastline, the 13 major and the almost two hundred minor ports, the 1200 barren Indian islands, the few hundred offshore oil installations and close to sixty mobile oil platforms and the tens of thousands of registered boats (and the equal number of unregistered ones) did not appear on the horizon overnight. Our security analysts acknowledged the threat caused by our topography, amongst others, years ago, but we all had blinkers on. This weak link of amnesia in our national consciousness has now broken, and it has cost us

Fully twenty months ago, in March 2007, two militants coming in from Karachi by sea “paid a “huge sum as a bribe” to Indian Coast Guard officials who let them go. After they were apprehended in Kashmir, the Jammu and Kashmir police "sounded more than adequate alarm about the potential of this spiralling into a bigger challenge", according to a State police official anonymously quoted in national newspapers. Abdul Majeed and Mohammad Jameel, the two Pakistanis arrested, told the J & K police that they were amongst a group of eight infiltrators coming in by sea. The Jammu and Kashmir police official regretted recently that the "input and alert by us in this regard was not paid due heed.”

RDX comes in by sea; this time too, but also at the time of the 1993 Mumbai bomb attacks; corrupt police and customs officials were involved in smuggling it in from the sea at Shekadi, Raigadh. The urban elite were not sufficiently enraged then to take to the streets, perhaps because they themselves were not the targets of those attacks.

While on the subject of RDX, will the authorities clarify what happened to the rest of the reported 70 kg of RDX (and the remainder of the up to 25 terrorists) believed to have entered the country this time?

The Mumbai terrorists used the same strategy as was used in Kargil: nonexistent policing, appalling intelligence analysis by India and the utilisation of barren lands (islands, in this case) to devastating effect. Incidentally, this maritime modus operandi is well known to the authorities, as it has always been popular with drug smugglers and gunrunners. Security experts say 70% of smuggled arms come into India by sea. Corruption undoubtedly pays a part in this, and may even have in Mumbai 2008, though we may never be told how much.

Back in 2001, the “Border Management Report” recommended an overhaul of our coastal security. A unified maritime agency was mooted, modern technology and infrastructure proposed. Various ministries approved four separate reports. Fully five years later, in 2006, a plan to protect coastal areas from incursions was finalised by the Union Government, but nobody was interested in implementing the plan at the State level, and funds were scarce. The one thousand fibreglass boats, the hundred patrol boats and an equal number of coastal checkpoints, the coastal police stations and other such infrastructure was simply not built, except, ironically, in Gujarat. One State Government even said, with a straight face, that it did not have enough land to build coastal police stations! Incompetence and lethargy at its most glorious, or maybe there were more kickbacks to be milked elsewhere.

The Central Government is now, after seven years, talking of implementing what it had decided to put in place years ago. A federal agency, nationwide coastal security, more funds, transponders and GPS systems on trawlers, digitised identity cards, beefed up intelligence networks including reports from fishermen (ignored in Mumbai before the tragedy) are now promised in a flurry by our politicians and babus closing doors after the horse has murderously bolted. Boat registration has finally been made mandatory for motorised craft. One retired Indian naval expert estimates, however, that there are up to a hundred thousand unregistered boats in the country, many of them not motorised. The Centre also decided to allow the coast guard to hire boats for patrolling as they have an acute shortage of boats; a sad reflection on the state of affairs. There is also no synergy between the coast guard and the Indian navy in search and protect operations. The gaping holes in such a system are obvious.

It has been reported in some newspapers that the nearly sixty mobile oil drilling platforms in the country have now been asked by the Directorate General of Shipping to conform to the International Ship and Port Facility regulations, which we know were rolled out after the World Trade Centre attacks to prevent exactly what occurred in Mumbai. The ISPS came into force in 2004, but many Indian operators have now informally told reporters that they do not implement the rules to save costs or, in some cases, to increase revenues. No fly zones are now to be enforced over the hundreds of permanent oil installations off both the coasts, many unmanned. Notwithstanding that the recent events off Somalia and in Mumbai have proved what was known to seafarers for a long time, that the ISPS code has failed, the fact remains that an internationally mandated statutory regulation is being wilfully ignored, even sabotaged, by an industry four years after it came into force. This, when the Oil Industry remains a prime terrorist target for economic and environmental reasons. In fact, some of these units have approached the authorities asking to be exempted from the ISPS provisions! This is shocking. This is corruption too, even if it is by big business.

While ranting at politicians is fashionable, the rattled urban middle class needs to take a long hard look in the mirror, for once. We are a part of the problem. The political class is an issue, sure. However, many of the politicians come from our ranks, and most bureaucrats do. We tend not to vent at the babus, perhaps they are ‘people like us’; some are our siblings, parents, friends or otherwise within our social circle. They are far more dangerous than the politicians are, though; they do not even have to win any elections, ever, and they almost can never be sacked. Many, crooked, callous and lethargic, continue to play the same never ending games of patronage along with politicians and criminals. Efficiency and competence is thus hostage to corruption, and inertia rules. The rot is everywhere around you; all of us who have ever given or taken a bribe or used “influence” to grease the system are part of the problem. Indian naval, coast guard, police, excise and customs officials come from within our group, and so do big businesspersons and top executives. So folks, time to stop being so self righteous. The Mumbai failure is ours as much as anybody’s is, stop blaming just the politicians alone.

I fear that an overhaul of the maritime or other security apparatus in India will not suffice; we need an overhaul of the entire culture of corruption and patronage that is the real system. A system so depraved that it has subverted entire organisations and undermined a nation’s ability to defend itself can only destroy, not protect. We need to stop lighting candles or waving catchy printouts against politicians, and use that time to start to reform ourselves. If we do not do that now, when the rising waters threaten to choke our oxygen, we should then shut up, at least, and let the television media find another cause to temporarily boost its ratings.

As events in Mumbai have proved, it is breathtakingly easy to circumvent Indian maritime security, which seems to be akin to a bunch of holes masquerading as a system. We need to force a change to our culture of corruption, lethargy, patronage and plain cussedness right now. The way things stand, I am amazed we have such few terrorist strikes. I am also fearful that the next one may be a nuclear or biological attack. It seems so easy.

Think that we have woken up after Mumbai? Consider this: As I write this, reports are coming in of at least two abandoned boats being found on our southern coastline. One is pockmarked with bullet holes; it is assumed that some LTTE fighters escaping the Sri Lankan offensive may have escaped to India. Even if this is true, I must ask, though, that given the support that has always existed in parts of the country for the LTTE, and given that the organisation assassinated a Prime Minister of the country, and given that the LTTE is a terrorist setup, why are we still so ineffectually and blissfully sanguine? Has the urban elite reached its limit of selective raving? Has the methane finally run out?

Our termite infested system is not just stopping us from greater economic growth; it now threatens our very existence. Mumbai was not just an “intelligence failure”; it was the collapse of a rotting edifice. The blind leading the blind are now barking up the wrong tree, or, at best, just one branch of the right one.

Time to look in the mirror more often, instead of television screens.

December 13, 2008

The Sitting Duck Defence

(Anti piracy measures for dummies )

I have found a way for seafarers to tackle Somali piracy and emerge winners every time. The recommended and modified Saltshaker plan (aka Sitting Duck defence, version1, copyright 2008) is reproduced below. Subject to your approval, of course. Please be gentle.

Prior to the vessel entering pirate waters, a new flag to be hoisted on the main mast: a replica of Michael Bedard’s “Sitting Ducks” (see above). Note the bullet holes behind the duck that ducked.

At the first sign of the pirates closing in, alarm bells to be rung and crew mustered on the bridge. The new ‘pirate attack contingency plan’ to involve one selected athletic crewmember who is an excellent swimmer standing by with walkie talkie.

Meanwhile, the Master tries his rusty and shaking hand at evasive manoeuvres; he may even attempt a Williamson’s turn and log it down in triplicate as per the relevant manuals. (Be careful when coming on to the reciprocal course, though, as you may hit a pirate boat, which is against good seamanship). Another officer sends out the appropriate distress signal (and logs it down for fear of being hauled up for a non conformity later. Come what may, the paperwork must always be in order.)

After sufficient time has elapsed to dispel pirate suspicion that this attack is too easy, suitable lee to be made for the pirate boat and said athletic crewmember to be sent on deck to receive the gentlemen. Engines to be simultaneously set for maximum speed, autopilot engaged, after which the Master and the rest of the crew go into stealth mode and make their way to preplanned locations simultaneously as per the stamped and approved ISPS anti piracy contingency plan (more later, unfortunately).

The athletic crewmember welcomes the pirates on board and reports on the walkie talkie, “Bridge, pirates aboard” to keep up appearances and look seamanlike. He then escorts them to the bridge from inside the accommodation.

The pirates are not too puzzled at finding the bridge empty; they should be used to people disappearing from their sight in fear. In any case, they start fanning out everywhere as per their own approved and stamped ISM manuals, while our sole crewmember goes to the bridge wing and looks around and up as if trying to find the Officer of the Watch (OOW) on the monkey island. He can’t see him easily, so he goes right to the extremity of the bridge wing.

He then jumps into the water and swims like hell away from the ship.

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew have abandoned the ship by liferaft or lifeboat or similarly jumped overboard even as athletic crew was escorting the pirates. Note: It is preferable that at least survival craft is in the water (of sufficient capacity blah blah and complying with all the irrelevant regulations in this case) else, things can get slightly hairy, especially for non swimmers. It is also recommended that due care be taken while abandoning the vessel at her maximum speed, which is not normally recommended. However, beggars cannot be choosers, especially if they are sitting ducks).

Anyway, the ship is now proceeding at flank speed with confused pirates on board searching hither and thither for the crew. Somewhat like those ‘Speed’ movies which are so popular. Shall we call this one Speed 6?

Remember that the crew (and at least one survival craft) is in the water. Crew are picked up by, or make their way to, this craft, where they wait to be rescued by one of the numerous navies cluttering the seas in the region who should be able to do something simple, like receiving a distress message and acting on it. If they take too long, the crew polishes off the survival rations (and logs it down). Athletic crewmember gets double rations on the quiet.

It now gets interesting. In case there are any pirate boats with armed pirates in the water along with our survival craft, what can they do?

a) Kill the crew? What for? The ransom they get is for the ship, which seems to be, literally, on its own trip. Might as well save the AK47 ammo.
b) Rescue the crew? Likewise. Like the dog that chases a car, what will they do with the crew after they have caught them?
c) Try to chase and board the ship themselves? Let them.

As for the pirates on board the hijacked ship, well, either they have the expertise to navigate and work the engines or they do not. If they can navigate, they lower the duck flag, proceed to Eyl remembering to go astern before dropping anchor as per their ISM manual, and make their usual demands (Easier on the owners, too, they don’t have to pretend they are paying ransom for the crew, or handle pesky relatives demanding the return of seafarers in one piece).

If the pirates can’t manoeuvre the ship, they leave the duck flag up and wait for the fuel to run out, or the ship to hit something or, alternatively, they jump into the water themselves. By the time they figure out that nobody is on board, they should be miles away from the crew anyway. Meanwhile, coalition navies make plans to rappel down dramatically from helicopters or otherwise board the ship to apprehend the pirates: the usual commando stuff they love to do but don’t seem to do enough.

Wait a minute! Hey, maybe the navies cannot do that at all! Because, is the ship technically hijacked or is it abandoned now? If the latter case, are the pirates salvors? And if so, is salvage likely to be higher than ransom? And if so, the plot has really thickened, has it not? (Note to myself: Consult maritime legal experts. Consider alternative career path in Somalia. Remember to take all safety precautions while boarding ships at high speed. Remember you are not young anymore.)

Flash of inspiration again. What if I modify the plan and have the Master and crew abandon ship even before the hijackers come aboard? What would happen if crew abandoned ship whenever they saw a suspected pirate boat approaching? And why are the Rules of the Road silent on the critical subject of ‘Responsibilities between lifeboats being lowered and pirate boats coming hell for leather for you?’ (I hope they keep short rapid blasts out of this rule, we are all jittery enough as it is)

The possibilities are endless.

In conclusion and after repeatedly going over this plan, I do believe that it is foolproof and workable. I am now going to take it to the relevant authorities for necessary approval. I request the IMO to pause in making their usual rules and resolutions, dig up their dusty ISPS regulations (there they are, at the bottom of that dusty pile!), and start modifying the ISPS code asap and accordingly, incorporating my practicable plan.

Let us have something that works, for a change. Nothing else has.


December 10, 2008

Hubris and the Passion to Inertia index

(Authors foreword: Once upon a time, the kind of thinking put forward in this article was used by me in a software company I was responsible for, in India. In one particularly good period of four months, using these strategies, revenues at one office quadrupled as a result. Yes, four times)

We often talk about a lot of critical changes we need to make within the shipping universe to make it work far better. We talk of workable industry and seafaring bodies, practical regulation, government support, protecting seafarer’s welfare and enhancing their working conditions, officer shortages, criminalisation and the need to improve the maritime world’s profile in the eyes of the world. We talk about new ways of increasing profitability. We make grandiose plans and hold eloquent seminars and think we are furthering our cause.

In my considered opinion, we are banging our heads against the wall here, because what we do not do is address the one issue that is fundamental to making any of our initiatives work. That issue is, simply, the two contrasting attitudes of inertia and arrogance that simultaneously exist across the industry.

Most of us are bad actors in stereotyped roles here, hamming it up as we go along. Like the actor, we strike the right attitude, but it is often the weary attitude of surrender and inertia, or, if we are senior managers, arrogance bordering on hubris. Until we overcome these attitudes, we risk running into the same brick wall time and again. We see programmes and initiatives fall by the wayside of short attention spans and lack of spirit on one hand and a mandated authoritarian thinking on the other. We still persevere, though, because we are the salt of the earth, or at least of the sea. What we don’t realise is that doing the same thing again and again while expecting a different result is folly.

The participants in this endless drama are many, and I will be the first to say that most of them are well meaning. Unfortunately there are too many who are not: we have our share of the fly by night ship owners hidden behind flags of convenience and post box addresses and managers stripping maintenance budgets bare to help project lower annual budgets and increase their fleet sizes. We have the usual suspects, including mariners who are satisfied working badly in poor organisations because they are birds of a feather, flocking together in mediocrity and disinterest. Let’s leave these folk aside; the taste of wine is never in the dregs.

Let us address the majority of interested professionals instead. Why do we see so many initiatives peter out into mediocrity at their hands? Excellent beginnings are made and fall by the wayside. Agendas are born, nurtured into plans and murdered during implementation.
It is obviously not due to lack of hard work, for many work long hours at sea and ashore. Oddly enough, though, the flesh seems willing but the spirit seems weak. There is no passion at the workplace.

This weakness of spirit plagues us in our working lives and eats away at our souls. Aboard ships, it translates into bored watch keeping, poorly motivated crews and sloppy maintenance. Ashore, it translates into uncaring attitudes, uninterested managers and short term blinkered thinking. Like the actor, we are going through the motions. We are choosing mediocrity over vision, even over greatness.

I am convinced that part of the reason for poor motivation and dreary attitudes at sea is, simply, diminishing pride in seafaring as a career. The clear attitude among many seafarers is that no longer is there much to be said in favour of a seagoing career except the wages; shore leave bans, fatigue and criminalisation have seen to that. This feeling is across nationalities and is reinforced by the fact that company structures and managerial disdain ensure that a seafarer feels excluded from the organisation he is working for. Clearly, the seafarer is looking for something more than wages; something is missing from his life, and that something is passion.

Shore establishments display similar fault lines too often. I can’t recall when I last saw a shore setup which was passionate about the firm or the industry they were working for. Whether in booms or busts, most of us are efficient at best. We are usually not enthusiastic, though, and rarely are we ablaze and impassioned about our jobs. Seamen may come and seamen may go, but ship management and owners go on, sometimes lethargically, forever. Thoughts limited to salaries, bottomlines, profits and efficiencies do not transform businesses; they just squeeze out more dollars and cents from the existing ones. To transform a business one has to think beyond the mundane and execute beyond the ordinary. Where are the organisations which will transcend the routine and leapfrog into the future? After a few decades connected with shipping, I can’t see many.

It is my clear belief that organisations should involve their personnel, ashore or afloat, in transforming themselves. Shipping, perhaps because many of its managers are ex seafarers, tends to operate in rigid hierarchies, although there is some improvement at sea in this regard. Officers and crew are much more involved, perhaps because of often threadbare manning and overregulation, in what was earlier, traditionally, a Master’s domain. Mess, management and safety committees have democratised ships, though they don’t work well as often as I would like them to. The need to disseminate voyage, technical and administrative information coming in from shore (often too much of it) means that a Master risks going crazy trying to do it all himself. More people are involved in decision making than ever before. This process is in its infancy, sure, and is not half as strengthened as all of us need to make it. However, imperfect as it is, it is well underway.

Unfortunately, democratisation has not really taken off ashore in a big way. Too many managements are too top heavy in structures and in thinking. With regard to ship/shore affairs, too many of them separate ‘the ship’ from ‘the office’, (unfortunately, seafarers do this too) ignoring the fact that the organisation is nothing without the ship and shooting themselves in the foot because they ignore the hundred odd years of collective seagoing experience that the crew of each of their ships can bring to the table, if seafarers opinions were only asked. They discourage a Master’s suggestions for systemic changes. They ignore their own shortcomings, a potentially suicidal trait in any manager, by tuning out the fact that many of them have no recent seagoing experience. Finally and critically, they ignore the concomitant advantages a more involved relationship with seagoing staff would yield.

In the relatively short experience I have within maritime shore establishments, and in the many I have additionally seen at close quarters, this despotic attitude is not unusual. Scattered offices across many continents is really no excuse as our industry is hardly unique in this regard. The fact is that most other industries are much more inclusive today, except perhaps some old time labour intensive manufacturing ones. Many encourage employees, even relatively lower ranking ones, to come up with big ideas. Not just the ‘we could save money by switching off alternate lights’ ones, but much bigger, entrepreneurial ones. In fact, some of the more forward thinking companies even fund in house mentoring programmes towards this end, encouraging employees to branch off on their own. Our industry is light years behind in comparison.

If I were sitting in my old fictional office as CEO of the fictional Differentship Pvt. Ltd., I would be spending a fair amount of time trying to involve my employees in the company. I would be particularly thinking of ways I could involve my contractual employees at sea, but I would pay almost equal stress to my shore colleagues, even if they were permanently employed. I would encourage passion and discourage inertia above all else.

I would not demand loyalty, or even call bonuses ‘Loyalty Bonuses’; in any case, how can one have loyalty when one’s employees do not even feel attached to the company and even sometimes feel alienated from it? I would invite seagoing staff in their off times to act as ‘short time consultants’, encouraging them to come up with ideas, big and small, to transform Differentship economically and otherwise. I would invite all my employees ashore to do likewise. I would pay for the ideas that raise profit and profile; in fact, I would involve people in the execution of their own ideas.

I would involve those without big ideas in smaller ones or the ideas of their colleagues; nobody should feel excluded and everybody would get ample opportunity to get passionate about their work. Promoting employee growth would be high on my agenda; with it would come the collateral advantages of employee satisfaction, higher company profile and excellent word of mouth. I bet a lot of people would be talking about us. I bet the word would be out that if you are a ‘business as usual’ person, Differentship is not the place for you.

And I daresay each one of us at Differentship would be making more money. Ideas, passion and the efficiencies thrown up by employee involvement would see to that. After all, and especially if I gave them stock options to boot, it is their company. I bet employees would think twice about leaving the company; after all, they are having more fun here, and they are growing, personally and otherwise.

That, folks, is loyalty. It is not the subservient loyalty peddled by our industry today; this is much stronger. Other companies demand loyalty and are mocked. Differentship invites it and displays, without a shadow of doubt, that it values its people. Because it does so, it commands loyalty.

No improvements will take place in Shipping unless many of us have passion and a vision. Vision can be shared but the passion must emerge from within. It will emerge when senior managers encourage it instead of stifling it. It will emerge only when some of us dismount from our high horses and listen to our employees. It will emerge when employees grow in ways beyond just economic. And it will flourish when the vast majority of employees, whether ashore or afloat, discard their old snake skins of inertia and bored efficiency and come to work with a spark in their eyes. We will win when the passion to inertia ratio is high in each one of us.

Plodding along is not an option. We are already perceived as a backward industry; if we continue to trudge on the same beaten path we risk continued stagnation and being shut out from the consciousness of the rest of the world, with all the resultant disadvantages that we see already.

Although pride can be constructive, arrogance is self destructive. Arrogance bordering on Hubris, as the Greeks will tell you, leads to downfall.

And mixing inertia with hubris is a fatal cocktail.

November 29, 2008

Bigger Pictures

Just a few days ago, on November 12 this year, Islamic fighters seized control of the strategic Somali port city of Merka, just fifty five miles from Mogadishu. Al Shabaab militia chanted "Allahu Akbar" ("God is great") as they entered the city. Most of the UN relief enters the famine stricken country from this area.

Al Shabaab has been banned by the United States as a terrorist group with ties to Al Qaeda. The US has, till last year, bombed targets within Somalia claiming they were Al Qaeda camps. A proportion of the ransoms paid for hijacked ships are believed to finance Al Shabaab operations. This outfit already controls the port of Kismayo, Somalia’s third largest city, which it took in August. It has recently taken control of two other towns near Merka, Bulo Marer and Quryoley. One could successfully argue that it controls large strategic areas in Southern and Central Somalia, and will threaten Mogadishu and the Horn next.

Al Shabaab and the remnants of the Islamic Courts Union seem to have successfully overcome the two year old US backed Ethiopian ‘invasion’ of Somalia after rejecting a UN proposal for sharing power. The battle is now getting bloodier, and the war in Somalia seems to be now getting out of control.

I am sure that the intelligence agencies of the world are following these developments closely, particularly in the US; after all, they have been around in Somalia even before the well known ‘Black Hawk down’ incident of 1993. Unfortunately, the financial crisis, elections and two larger wars elsewhere will not allow a lame duck US President run very far to handle this crisis. In any case, the US sees the piracy problem as a European one more than anything else.

Additionally, I fear that we in the industry are buying the feel good naval presence as the big fix. Maybe we need reminding of Yemen’s links with Al Qaeda, and that Bin Laden’s father come from there. A reminder, too, of the explosive dingy laden ramming of the USS Cole in Aden harbour in 2000 and the tanker Limburg off Yemen in 2002. That region is a dangerous neck of the woods, and Yemen having done a Pakistan act in the war on terror does not change that.

How is all this pertinent to a shipping magazine, you may ask. Well, for one, if the maritime fraternity thinks that the menace of seajackings in the region is going to be solved by coalition navies alone, it is breaking wind against thunder. The problem is not just at sea. The problem, as is usual with many issues we seafarers face, is to be found on land.

Notice that there have been remarkably (and thankfully) few mariner casualties over the years of ship hijackings. I am convinced this is not a coincidence; pirates and terrorists have continued to amass ransoms knowing full well that spilling seafarer blood regularly may force even the usually uncaring international community to rattle some sabre. Notice, too, that coalition navy patrol and recon military aircraft don’t seem to have made much dent in the frequency of pirate attacks and even hijackings. Reports are coming in as I write this on the weekend of the Stolt Valor being released. However, another Stolt vessel was hijacked recently, besides others. These pirates are not some cowboys robbing a liquor store. These are trained militia with a plan. That plan is honed ashore.

The genesis of the problem is decades old and is protracted. India, with much of its cargoes flowing in and out of the area cannot but press for a final resolution to the Somali problem. The Government of India must, without any further delay, push the IMO, the UN and the international community to address the root cause of the problem, which is the state of civil war in Somalia. Warlords have been in control for almost two decades, and the Transitional Government has been transitional for too long out there.

One could argue successfully that Yemen is not a big problem at present. However, we must engage that region diplomatically and otherwise before it becomes so again. India has a huge stake in keeping the sea lanes safely open in the region. And so does commercial shipping worldwide, which is why it must make every effort to push Governments to do more to tackle the Somali crisis on the ground. It won’t do that, unfortunately, because it almost never sees the big picture. It just reacts to snapshots.

India declares itself an economic powerhouse in the making, but it fails one litmus test, which is the protection of its seafarer citizens abroad. Whether in Somalia or elsewhere, this wannabe giant has failed its mariners. Equally importantly, its economic lifeblood is now being choked in its own extended backyard and the movement of its cargoes is threatened by criminals with terrorist links. It cannot sit idly by, fiddling and displaying weakness, much longer. Sending in a frigate is not even the beginning of a resolution to the crisis.

Having said that, two events this week gave me some hope. Both of these- the landmark defence and security cooperation agreements that the GOI signed with Qatar, and India’s call on Thursday at the UN for a maritime peacekeeping force under a unified UN command- are small steps in the right direction. We have to pursue such initiatives relentlessly. Will the government and the industry display some stamina this time around for a change?

Emails flew thick and fast into my inbox last week as a well known magazine erroneously reported that Capt. Chawla and Chief Officer Chetan had been sentenced to three years in a South Korean prison in the notorious ‘Hebei Spirit’ case. The error was corrected quickly; although prosecutors had demanded the sentence, judgement was expected only in December. Meanwhile and before the correction, seafaring friends and colleagues were up in arms; one could see from the tone of their emails that they were furious.

Calls for action started with the boycott of all South Korean products sold in India and went on to bigger things. Widespread strikes by sailors refusing to sail. Street protests outside Parliament. A call to stop all trade links with South Korea. Other sanctions. Union pressure. The call to arms seemed to be limited only by imagination and the level of latent anger in each of my friends.

I have to admit that, having seen such periodic outbursts from seafarers and ship managers often, their entire reaction looked to me quite like that of a man going into a coma. I have seen one such person display remarkable lucidity for a few minutes before nodding off into comatose slumber again. He would repeatedly and instantaneously wake up when tapped on the knee, converse with absolute clarity for a minute or so and then doze off. I remembered that gentleman as I read the emails, wondering when my colleagues would complete their ranting and nod off again, waiting for the next wake up call. Sadly, that is often what we mariners do: get briefly outraged and then get on with our lives till the next outrageous incident occurs. Deja Vu.

Anyway, after the magazine report was corrected and the dust (and the enthusiasm) settled, I sent a short email back, reminding the gentlemen concerned that I had been seeking their support unsuccessfully towards an honest and effective seafaring representative body for quite awhile now. I also informed them, moderately facetiously, that I had very recently decided against purchasing a Samsung microwave oven in favour of a non South Korean brand. A small blow for the Hebei Duo, I had thought, even as I paid two thousand smackeroos more over my wife’s protests.

Finally, I hit the ‘reply all’ button and told the guys that I was a little weary of these sporadic militant childish outbursts which I had seen too often. We never did anything, I told them, which was exasperating. I said I believed that it was time for all of us in the shipping industry to either put up or shut up. (Aside: I don’t think that made me very popular, although like Wilde, popularity is the one insult I have never suffered).

Towards the end, I ask you to forget that aside for a moment. What I really want to ask you is this: when I told my friends all that, did I lie?

November 18, 2008

Performance Anxiety

IMO Secretary General Efthimios Mitropoulos said a week or two ago that his organisation was about to launch a global campaign to enhance the image of the industry. He also said that the crewing crisis could be much worse than earlier forecasted. Some other industry bigwigs have expressed this view as well, that the shortage of officers worldwide will remain even as all economic indicators fall through the floor.

I don’t buy this argument too easily. I believe that analysts and administrators are either putting on a brave face in response to the crisis or trying to stem panic. The dry bulk cargo market has collapsed and bulk and container vessels are already beginning to be laid up. Job loss and consumption figures from the world’s largest consumer, the US, are alarming. Downstream heat is being felt worldwide, including in India and China; in fact, the heat was just turned up. My feeling is that the scale of this crisis may well be unprecedented. Even if it is not, it is safer to assume a worse than expected scenario.

This will not happen tomorrow; the cycle of industry contraction, mothballing of ships, cancellation of shipbuilding and shrinking tonnages has to play out first, but some signs are clearly visible already.

The purpose of this article is twofold. One, I am here to warn seafarers that the days of easy jobs and quarterly upward revisions to salaries is over, and that many of us may well find that jobs are getting scarce. Two, I am here to remind the wider maritime world that this is the time to, amongst other things, re-evaluate performance evaluation systems.

To the seafarers: What those industry bigwigs do not tell you is this: long term projections of industry work force requirements have really nothing to do with short terms ones. This is especially true of a cyclical industry, which is clearly overtonnaged for the next couple of years at the very minimum. Seafarers have contractual jobs, and existing officers have to look at their earnings in the next couple of years as closely as they look at those beyond far horizons. The industry does not really care about seafarer employment prospects in the short term; it simply doesn’t pay them if it does not employ them. In the longer term, however, it cares, and cares deeply. Because, you see, if there is a shortage of qualified personnel, it has to pay higher wages. Shortage of officers is not good for owners; a surplus is much more preferable. They would like officer supply to exceed demand forever.

This is the invidiousness of the contract system. What is sauce for the goose is not always sauce for the gander here.

Incidentally, this is a good time for firms to begin demanding better performance from its employees at sea. Many seafarers have got away with mediocre professional competence and performance for too long. I have seen too many mariners in foreign companies whose only motivation is obtained by multiplying their salaries by 45 or the latest exchange rate. Worse, too many seem to perform at a minimum level required to retain their jobs. I could make a case for why poor attitudes, inexperience and a tendency to sit out contracts is unwarranted even in boom times; in times of slowdown and uncertain revenues, this is critical and should not be tolerated. The situation, by all accounts, is even worse in Indian companies. I know senior officers who do not want to sail in some only because of the poor quality of officers and crews. This industry tolerance for mediocrity extends across nationalities. Quick promotions hardly help.

Our system of retention must be overhauled right now. On the one hand, mariners in many countries are let go when their ships are sold or mothballed, or, in the Indian context, they are not recalled for future contracts. This is absurd, because it does not compare the competency of the mariner being fired with other mariners who have been retained simply because they happen to be on vessels that have not been taken out of service. A little logistical juggling is all that is needed to ensure that the right person is retained regardless of which ship he happens to be sailing on.

On the other hand, performance evaluation parameters, in my experience, are often vague and arbitrary. There needs to be much more stress on professional competence in these evaluations, which are often skewed towards subjective assessments with headings to match: assessment of a mariners ‘team player’ abilities or his ‘ability to get on with contemporaries or shore personnel’ are important, sure, but professional competency and personal integrity is critical. It is not always weighted as such.

(Frankly, I do not like the ‘team player’ term. Although it is obvious that teamwork is critical in running a ship, that phrase is used far too often to indicate and reward subservient yes men or to promote obsequiousness. A ship is run by individualistic professionals coming together as a team and not by persons servile to anybody on board or ashore. Sycophancy is not professional, and neither is a ‘team player’ the way that term is used today. ‘Don’t rock the boat but you can be mediocre’ is a poor message to send. Sometimes the boat must be rocked for it to remain steady; professional disagreements which improve overall performance are preferable to smooth sycophantic agreements that do not.)

Adding to the evaluation mess, senior officers at sea usually fill in a dozen evaluation forms in half an hour; the ‘fit for re employment’ box seems to be the only important tick in the entire sheet.

Importantly, performance evaluation of Masters usually falls through the cracks in the system. Superintendents are normally engineers and unqualified to evaluate the Master’s navigational, ship handling or leadership skills. Senior Masters ashore do not come into contact on a day to day basis with sailing Masters; in any case and in many instances, people ashore have not sailed for years and their experience is dated. Funnily, companies sometimes lay great store by what even lower ranking office staff say anecdotally about senior officers; I was irate once when the word of a glorified electrical engineer working in the office were taken over mine on navigational matters.

This hole can only be filled when updated shoreside Masters are directly and regularly involved with each ship in the fleet. A DPA looking after a dozen ships will not do. The inaccurate and inappropriate methods of evaluating a Master’s performance currently used need an urgent overhaul.

Incidentally, I disagree with the idea of an ‘open’ evaluation system at sea. I disagreed twenty odd years ago when I was a junior officer (even though the British Master in question had given me a good report and subsequently promoted me, I tore up my copy in his cabin before leaving. I disagreed with the concept on principle.) It would be much better if reporting officers were debriefed after signing off and their opinions on officers or crews recorded. Junior officers and crews could well be debriefed similarly on their next call to the office and their views formally taken.

This, to me, is a more workable system, but it implies a properly functioning Human Resource element within the organisation. The problem is that most shipping companies do not have HR in their scheme of things. This needs to be fixed today; do not get me started on this again!

Seems simple, doesn’t it? Fix HR, revamp evaluation system and push for performance. And, do I need to say this? Make it an integral part of retention and promotion. Discard the notion that we seem to work with too often: the notion that a seafarer’s main qualification is just being at the right place at the right time.

Women across the world would undoubtedly agree with me when I say that the wrong man at the right place at the right time stinks.


November 13, 2008

Systemic failures

It is precisely because the collapse of the world financial markets has been so vicious that it has astounded everybody. As under regulated financial institutions and systems have fallen as dominoes, countries and industries have had to firefight with their backs to the wall. Nobody has had the time to look beyond the immediate. The maritime industry has been no exception; plummeting demand for cargo space at a time of a meltdown in oil and commodity prices could have been well forecast, but I doubt that there were many who forecast the ferocity of the catastrophe or the speed of the elevator on the way down.

For future consumption, this is one predominant factor we would do well to digest well; that the seductive twins of globalisation and the revolution in communications have an unintended fallout which is this: markets, including freight and charter markets, will now usually move faster than you and I can react to them. Add to this the fact that the international nature of shipping makes it immediately vulnerable to events half a world away and it becomes obvious that foreknowledge, foresight and nimbleness will be the key to growth, or even survival, going forward. The alternative, that is placidly reacting to events, is becoming an increasingly expensive exercise; not only that, shortcomings of this course of action now become fatal flaws as far as any commercial firm is concerned.

The cyclical nature of our industry gives us another morsel for thought: projecting demand for ships and freight assuming unending booming markets is a no brainer. However, projecting demand when the world can go from boom to bust in a few months is, as they say across the Atlantic, the big enchilada. Those who can do this exercise well, and have an exit strategy if things go downhill suddenly, are those who will thrive. Owners and other commercial interests would do well to set up their businesses keeping this new critical requirement of “informed nimbleness” foremost in mind.

The fact that we have a reported 300 billion US dollars required for committed shipbuilding over the next three or four years at a time when we are facing a recession is proof of a failed system. Payment defaults, distress sales and mothballing of ships will surely be on the cards somewhere down the line.

While I hope that things will not get as bad as they did in the eighties, I fear that they just might. The last few years have seen all of us in shipping, whether countries or corporations or individuals, greedy participants in what many thought was a one way boom in everything. The simultaneous rise in stock markets, real estate, commodities and precious metals was abnormal, and made the simultaneous collapse of all the bubbles in all these markets inevitable. Derivate market greed and the leveraging of junk paper was just the icing on the cake that decimated liquidity and credit and precipitated the inevitable, albeit with steeper falls. (The falls are still underway as we speak; I am sure I can think of a risqué joke the next time somebody asks me, ‘where is the bottom of this market?’)

More importantly, I think that the worldwide slowdown led by the US now will be severe. The financial numbers coming out of all the countries do not look good. The West is looking to China and India to lead by consumption; India, at least, is looking for money it does not have for infrastructure spending which it hopes will spur growth. The money is not going to come easily in present market conditions; a classic Catch 22 scenario. Shipping remains at the centre of the storm by the very nature of its operations.

Besides, if we are calling it the biggest mess since the Great Depression, then by definition, it has to be worse than the eighties as far as the maritime world is concerned. Fortunately, I am not an economist; I only know that it does not look good, and hope that we recover soon.

I also hope to hell that I am being unduly apprehensive.


The aftermath of the ‘Hebei Spirit’ and ‘Stolt Valor’ incidents has left me with mixed feelings so far. One reason is that both these dramas have not yet played out their last acts. There is another reason, and that is partly borne out of my ignorance; I do not know how much of the industry support, anemic that it has been, is cheap talk or filibuster.

Take the piracy issue. On one hand, the United Nations has done its usual resolution act and can now claim, as usual, that it reflects the collective will of member states and cannot act on its own. It has therefore passed the buck to mainly Western countries, who, represented by the coalition naval task force in the Gulf of Aden, have passed the buck to the owners by asking them to employ private security measures after expressing inability to guarantee safe passage for ships in that area. Owners cannot pass the buck anywhere except to insurance, so I suspect the status will remain quo there.

On the other hand, NATO and the Indian Navy are now a presence in the area and the French have, for the first time, captured suspected pirates off a boat before an attack actually took place. Maybe at least the French are serious. Their previous actions in that area make me optimistic. Maybe France will show us the way.

In India, at least one seafarer’s union has upped the ante by boarding a few Indian ships and persuading (or instigating, depending on your point of view) the crew to threaten refusal to sail. This has met with the usual alarm from owners’ and managers’ organisations, citing mainly economic reasons. Interestingly, these same organisations also claim to represent seafarer interests, which dichotomy I have always found ridiculous. Running with the hare and hunting with the hounds must be leaving them breathless!

The reality is that these organisations represent owners and managers and nobody else, and they should stop claiming otherwise. Besides and unless I am mistaken, they do not have a single sailing seafarer involved anywhere in all these organisations put together.

However, as I said, my jury is still out on the Somali hijackings issue. I am not too hopeful that seafarer interests will be protected, though. Owners really ransom ships and expensive cargoes, with seafarers being collateral damage either way. I have a feeling that sailors are dependent on the actions of the coalition navies more than anything else on this one.

Meanwhile, what the Somali hijackings issue has shown, with crystal clarity, is that the ISPS code, conceived in haste and delivered in panic after a short term pregnancy, is not worth the paper is return on. It is time to abort that mentally challenged baby; it is time to close that ignominious chapter in our history and throw that code away, at least in its present form. No need to send it to the Recycle Bin either.

The Hebei Spirit case seems to have even less traction than the Stolt Valor issue, maybe because it hasn’t really got the same response from the idiot box in India. Surprisingly, there has been very little coverage anywhere on the legal outcomes of the appeals process well underway in Korea. Industry support for the two officers seems to have stopped with appeals to the governments of India and South Korea. One hopes that, like in cricket, there is no penalty for excessive appealing, particularly when nothing else is being done. Even more disheartening is the fact that there seems to be no real move (besides a slow moving/stonewalling IMO convention) to address the systemic issue of wanton criminalisation of seafarers worldwide; one would have thought that the ‘Spirit’ detentions would force that debate.

For an industry which loves the term ‘root causes’ when it investigates casualties, maybe it is time to look at the root causes of the abysmally weak responses to the twin issues of criminalisation of seafarers and hijackings at sea.

Actually, strike that. There is no need to waste time and money on investigations when the answer is well known. Incidentally, the root cause is the same, whether in the case of the global financial meltdown or the Hebei Spirit/Stolt Valor issues with their wider implications.

The contributory causes may be greed and lack of concern for seafarers, but the root cause is systemic failure.


November 06, 2008

Nuts before winter

Call it a slowdown or a recession, financial meltdown or a depression. Petty arguments about semantics aside, the crash in the Baltic Dry Index, coupled with the drying up of credit including for shipbuilding and letters of credit as well as the worldwide collapse of commodity prices, has hit the maritime world with the same sledgehammer that has hit everything else in the financial markets. Along with plummeting freight and hire rates, the few hundred billion dollars required over the next few years to service existing shipbuilding order books will not be available too easily to an industry long considered a bellwether for the state of the world economy and trade.

The convenient year old theme of the ‘Indian economy decoupled from the world economy’ has now been confined to the dustbin of hype and nonsense; crudely put, it may be decoupled, but it still got rogered, and will continue to go up and down along with the rest of the world. Thanks to the RBI’s last governor Mr. Reddy, our banking institutions may be in better shape, but the days of easy credit are over.

We in the shipping industry have had a poor formula for tackling recession thus far. I should say, right off, that when I say ‘we’, I exclude the fly by night operators who crawl out of the woodwork at the first sign of a boom and invest hot money in shipping like they would invest in pork belly futures; as far as I am concerned, they can live and die with the fluctuations of the marketplace.

That aside, it would be good for the rest of us, professionals and companies in it for the long haul, to examine what needs to be done (and, indeed, done differently this time) to ensure minimum present damage while positioning ourselves for long term advantage. We are fortunate, in a way, that we have not yet been overrun by Business school graduates and consultancy companies, both of whom have often never even run a tea stall down the road but try to advise long standing corporations on how to run their businesses. Jargon aside, they often do not have much to offer, have been complicit and sometimes criminal, and, indeed, have been the ones largely responsible for the present self made worldwide financial mess.

HRD aside (more on this later), we are fortunate that we are staffed by professionals with a lot of experience in the industry; knowledgeable people who understand what it will take and what needs to be done to distinguish the professionals from the amateurs. I will ignore the present credit crisis as it pertains to letters of credit and short term finance for now. This is really a crisis of confidence; countries worldwide are trying to address it in different ways and the immediate liquidity problem will probably sort themselves out sooner rather than later. The longer term credit problems we will face as regards to shipbuilding activity will almost certainly not be easy, though. Smaller companies have already started cancelling build orders worldwide, though the bigger Indian boys are saying that they are sticking to their expansion plans. So far.

Incidentally, it will be interesting to see how the regulatory and ownership legs of the industry marry the double hulled tanker requirements with difficulties in shipbuilding costs and credit in a changed scenario. It may well be that many companies cannot digest these costs at a time of plummeting revenues.

Anyway and all that aside, here is a short list of what we need to do differently this time. I have avoided some stuff that is a given: as examples, salaries ashore and at sea respond to the market and business models are reworked anyway. Instead, I have concentrated on the ‘differently this time’ initiatives, keeping in mind that some of our responses to the last recession were long term disastrous in many ways. Many of the measures I recommend should have be taken anyway; a slowdown is not a bad time to begin, as many of these promote efficiency and therefore raise revenues or cut costs.

· Form a working an efficient industry body (aka NASSCOM) to coordinate with and pressurise the Government to address industry issues. I restress the ‘working and efficient’, which would rule out most existing ones.
· Reorganise shore and support establishments. Consider leaner organisations with consequently smaller commercial real estate requirements. Consider relocation to smaller or less expensive locations.
· Do not cut back on essential or long term shipboard maintenance.
· Owners should always keep in mind that ship management companies will look at their own interests before that of the owners, and that keeping it cheap is not always synonymous with keeping it efficient. In many areas of maintenance and machinery longevity, keeping it cheap harms owners’ long term interests directly and sometimes irreparably.
· Reduce needless administration. Reduce supervisory functions unless necessary.
· Reduce needless communication. Besides being useless, it costs money in terms of time and energy and shipboard communication costs. It also contributes to overworked and fatigued crews.
· Avoid brainless cost cutting on ships; it is counterproductive in the long haul. (Yes, in the long haul we are all dead, but not necessarily our companies!). Attack wastages, leakages, overstoring and cosmetic expenses instead.
· Consider outsourcing payroll and similar functions to promote efficiency.
· Cut down on expenses on feel good exercises like useless seminars and such. They do not fool too many.
· Keep the organisational chin up. Downturns usually sap initiative and morale. Ironically, a slowdown is the time when these are needed the most; booms are heady in themselves.

Recruitment and Human Resource Development:

It is critical that this ignored but essential component of our industry be strengthened immediately; history proves that we have usually been wrong footed and clueless here. With analysts projecting a slowdown across all sectors of the Indian economy, the impact of which will be greater in the FY09/10, we have an excellent opportunity to attract suitable fresh talent. The slowdown will affect jobs across the board in India, giving us access to youngsters who may well contemplate a career in a profession they disregarded earlier.

However, to take advantage of this opportunity, we must be smart and focused. We have probably breathing space of a year or two, but we must, right now and even as we tighten our belts elsewhere, fund recruitment programmes. The money required is not huge, and it can well be smart money that gets maximum bang for the buck, but it is critical that we do not fall into the well known trap of across the board cost cutting and thereby decimate our future workforce before it is born.

In my opinion, the following needs to be done yesterday:

· Project company seagoing requirements for the next year, for the next three years and for the next five. This should be a rolling exercise. The advantages are obvious.
· Recruit an excellent and experienced HRD person and ask him/her to budget for HRD after explaining your requirements. Factor this budget into your business model. Revamp the entire HRD function to exclude ticketing and other functions of seafarers joining ships; these are administrative issues and have no place in HRD. The HRD department should be, additionally, lean, focused and concentrating only on the recruitment, retention and development of persons both at sea and ashore. This should including incentives, career paths and professional evaluations. Sorry to burst the bubble here, but a Master Mariner sitting in an office releasing some advertising is not HRD.
· Treat people professionally even when you ask them to go. Keep in mind that the goodwill lost by many companies in the last recession has still not been regained.
· Recruit fresh and smart trainees keeping projections in mind. They do not cost as much and you will be better positioned to deal with future demand.

Most importantly, rack your brains and HRD expertise to come up with a workable proposition, in this contract infested industry, wherein these fresh trainees end up as long term employees. Get out of the contract rut with this first batch. Great thought will be required here, because to do this long term the proposition has to should work for both the employee and the employer. Tough one, yes. However, all critical issues are never easy, and just because it hasn’t been done before is not a good enough excuse.

Our HRD policies, so far, have been a joke. There has been an automatic assumption that spending here is money wasted, while spending on seminars and five star get togethers somehow raises the profile of the company. This, in my view, is shortsighted and may even be erroneous. We may be surprised to find, after the cessation of stupidity, that we are now able to recruit and retain seafarers of our choosing at a similar or comparable cost to what we did earlier.

We have a little time to set things up. There will be a time lag before the winter of discontent hits us fully. What we need to remember, however and above all else, that this winter, like all others, will be followed by spring. We must act now to set ourselves up to maximise the next harvest.

Time to be creative, folks. As Einstein said, you can never solve a problem on the level that it was created.


October 28, 2008

Delusions of Grandeur

Soon after reading the latest United Nations Security Council resolution 1838 (urging States to “commit naval and air assets to the fight against rampant piracy off lawless Somalia”), I suffered, once again, my occasional delusions of grandeur. I get these sometimes, when I think that I am invincible.

And so I imagined myself as a mover, shaker, stirrer, general stalwart and, for added good measure, a pillar in the international maritime community. With unlimited power. These are a megalomaniac’s delusions; what can I say?

But, what if? What if I were in a position to pass just one resolution in that increasingly irrelevant body, or one in its poor cousin, the IMO? If I had that authority, what would that resolution be?

After the usual padding of grave concerns, notings, reaffirmations, recalls, reiterations, urgings and being seized of the matter (or is it seized by the matter?), this is what the meat of my resolution would say.

The (Saltshaker) IMO Resolution 420 (or, in brief, SIMO)

The SIMO resolves that all ex seafarers under the age of 55 working ashore in all shipowning and shipmanagement companies, shall, with immediate effect, sail for one month of every calendar year on one of the company ships in the rank that they last held at sea. At least three port calls must be made during this one month period.

The SIMO further resolves that, with immediate effect, one senior representative (a non seafarer who must be one of the top three honchos in the Owners’ or Managers’ Head Offices ashore) shall sail on board all owned or managed vessels which transit the Gulf of Aden or the waters off Somalia.

The SIMO will extend Resolution 420 to all regulatory bodies next year, including the IMO, making it mandatory for its officials to sail in Somali waters. A suitable mechanism is being devised; input is solicited from interested parties.

A certificate, (similar to the DOC of the ISPS and renewable annually), will be issued to each ownership and management company’s Head Office by Flag States for this purpose. Without this certificate, any ship owned or managed by them would be unable to proceed to sea. For now, we are calling it the ‘SIMO Eureka Certificate’.


One request now, before we go any further with this. Please stop laughing (or shaking, depending on whether you are at sea or ashore) and read my resolution again as if it were a serious piece of legislation and not horse manure.

First of all, let me congratulate myself on this: the plan requiring officials from the IMO and other regulatory bodies to sail annually (through the worst areas of the world, wherever they may be) seems to be an excellent. Gentlemen, put your money where your mouth is. Put your rears on the line.

All that aside, even the most cynical amongst us must admit there are some other advantages with SIMO 420:

A deepening of understanding of all seafarer related work issues, brought home by the fact that, periodically at least, the suits ashore will be one of them.
Give many ashore the golden opportunity to walk the talk and make improvements.
Address the severe shortage of Officers at sea.
Shore operations and technical personnel will keep in touch with the situation on the ground, machinery and operational issues and the impact of administrative policies.
Give shore managers firsthand knowledge of competencies of seafarers employed
Put pressure on industry in general and hopefully through them, on nations in particular, to solve the issue of seajackings off Somalia.
In future, deeper understanding of the impact of commercial interests, loadlines and fuel stemming and their effect on safety in general in bad weather.
Faster time to market with company related operational decisions. The manager is on board, after all.
Ditto with government and international regulations. I daresay one Director of a major shipowning setup or an IMO representative held hostage in Somalia will be worth a thousand seamen with this one. No diplomatic immunity either.

Against this, the disadvantages are few. Problems in implementation, for one. For example, I can see managers ashore choosing new ships on less troublesome runs for themselves. But what the hell. Imperfect as it is, I believe it is still worth it.

And for those who say that this will give rise to disruption in offices ashore, I propose SIMO 421: “Officers on leave will fill in for those managers and IMO personnel presently at sea”.

That should set the cat amongst the pigeons.

Having solved the immediate issues of the industry in one fell swoop, my mind then graduated to other interesting things. Top of that list was the recent report by P Manoj and P.R. Sanjai in Livemint that Indian crew on a Mercator owned tanker (bound from Kuwait to Europe) had refused to sail through the Gulf of Aden. In fact, Livemint says that the crew threatened to throw themselves overboard instead, whereupon the Master anchored the vessel.

Later, the Hindu Business Line reported that “After prolonged talks between the owners of the ship, the crew and the seafarers union, the ship finally lifted anchor and continued on its course.”

I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during those prolonged talks, but that is not why I mention the incident. I salute that crew, even though I think the tail wagged the dog on the Mercator ship; the decision should have been the Master’s.

Quite apart from this one incident of which I have incomplete knowledge, I will say this. It is a sign of the times and a condemnation of many Masters at sea that we have let commercial interests override the imperatives of Command with respect to the safety of our crews.

Think about this. The international community has admitted unwillingness and incapability in addressing the seajackings issue; statements have been issued saying that the naval coalition is not capable of guaranteeing safety and that owners should take their own security measures. Statements have also been issued that the coalition’s primary task is fighting terrorism, quite ignoring the fact that a portion of the ransoms being paid is going precisely to those terrorists these guys say they are fighting. Although the European Union and NATO are sabre rattling and sending in more naval ships into the area, it will not help merchant mariners if they claim, once again, that their mandate is not primarily to protect us.

International Industry Owner’s bodies have ruled out arming crews for obvious reasons: undermanned ships with untrained civilian crews are hardly a match for trained and heavily armed pirates, whether the crews are armed or not. The industry is not even talking seriously of either arming its crews and training them (once again, nobody has asked the seafarer his preferences) or outsourcing security to professional organisations; one problem is that mercenaries in Africa are suspect, and may well be snakes in the grass. But surely there are European or other such outfits? Other industries employ them to protect employees in high risk countries, don’t they?

Yep, but they cost money.

It seems to me that all and any in a position to do anything about seajackings are running around like headless chickens pointing fingers at each other. Which means that it is up to Masters at sea, now more than ever before, to use the authority which is theirs by right and by statute to protect their crews.

Use that overriding authority, gentlemen. Refuse to sail through dangerous waters, for your life and the lives of your crews are more important than your job. Use that authority, because nobody else is using theirs.

Oh, before I forget. The international community has acted at least once. Security Council resolution 1838; the one I started off with. Urging member States to take action and so on.

More than once, actually. Since February 2008, the United Nations Security Council has adopted the following resolutions on Somalia or the waters around it: Resolutions 1801, 1811, 1814, 1816, 1831 and 1838. Six resolutions in eight or nine months or a resolution every forty days, on an average. One of these (1816 in June) authorised use of force against pirates at sea, same as 1838 passed now.

To make this clearer, six months ago in June, the UNSC adopted 1816, which “urged States to be vigilant to acts of piracy and armed robbery around Somalia and, encouraged them to increase and coordinate their efforts to deter acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea.” (Paraphrased)

And now, in October, the UNSC adopts another one. Resolution 1838 which again “urges States to commit naval and air assets to the fight against rampant piracy off lawless Somalia.” (Paraphrased again)

Like Angelina Jolie or Madonna adopting orphans worldwide, they seem to be adopting resolutions all the time. Bravo!

The UNSC seems to think a resolution and some urgings, like clockwork and every month, is the cornerstone of a solution to both seajackings and their root cause, the two decade old anarchy in Somalia. Diplomats in their Armani suits who probably do not even go to a public rest room without armed security show remarkable resolve on seafarer hostages again! They really seem to think that they have the situation in and around Somalia well under control.

Maybe the next Resolution will urge all the pirates and the industry that thrives around them in Somalia to surrender. That should do it. The UNSC said so.

As you can see, not all delusions of grandeur are mine.


October 23, 2008

Indecent Exposure

About three months ago, when hijackings of ships off Somalia was becoming a matter of grave concern (long before the Stolt Valor incident) and when the international outcry with the Hebei Spirit’s detained officers seemed to be getting some traction, and when the hoohaa on seafarer issues and related officer shortages was at its peak, I wrote an article on the shipping industry and the particular problems we face today. My target was a mainstream newspaper or magazine. This was in line with my held belief that unless we take the profession of seafaring beyond industry publications and websites, we can kiss what little remains of our profile goodbye.

We all know that there are issues as grave but not as sensational which threaten our growth and well being, so my piece included some of those. I then sent what I thought was a reasonably written analysis (in fact, I did think it was almost as good as one I had recently read on Katrina Kaif being voted the sexiest woman in Borivli, or something like that) and sent it across to more than a half dozen mainstream newspapers and magazines in India in turn.

Not one of those newspapers even bothered to acknowledge receipt.

Disappointed but not too surprised, I sat down with a drink and tried to figure out just what I was missing, and why there was obvious disinterest in an industry without which India just cannot thrive, even survive.

The answers, as is usual when it comes to shipping, were alarming, because they indicated just why seafaring is considered a third rate profession today, and why, unless we do something about the crisis of profile beyond advertising toll free numbers and conducting esoteric road shows, it will remain so.

Consider this. Infosys started in 1981 with 250 dollars. Twenty five years later, it has a huge profile. Its expansion plans are front page headlines. Its management comments on national and international issues, is on the board of premier educational institutions and threatens to move to other cities when infrastructure is found wanting in one. It advises State and Central governments and is in fact part of many joint initiatives far beyond the IT world. Hell, there was even a move to make Mr. Narayanmurthy the President of the country.

It does not do all this just because it has revenues of four billion dollars today, or because it employs thousands. It does so because it markets its profile (and so does, critically importantly, the entire software industry spend time and money to do so), it makes a conscious effort to be part of society, it uses industry organisations like NASSCOM to further its interests, it treats its employees better than most (word of mouth being much more effective than a toll free number) and it is conscious of its sense of self worth in a million small ways.

In short, the software industry manages media, with numerous spin off advantages. Just one advantage is that it is now firmly established in a young Indian’s psyche that the software industry is the place to be, even though there are better paying and more interesting jobs out there. But, as I said, the media has been managed.

In contrast, we in shipping do almost nothing.

Please don’t tell me, once again, when I compare the software industry to ours, that we are fragmented. The software industry did not exist when I came out to sea; they compete with each other too. Please acknowledge, for once, that a big reason why Indian shipping has not been able to make a substantial dent at any national or international arena is that we have no leaders in the industry to compare with the Premjis and the Narayanmurthys out there. Worse, we have nobody who is interested in the profile of the industry as a whole; all we are interested is in XYZ Shipmanagement, Mumbai. We think the job is done by making the ‘wages last revised on’ blurb in our advertising a little bigger.

If we do not have an apex industry body worth the name, we should not be surprised when governments in particular and society in general treat us with the disdain we have benchmarked for ourselves by having substandard acronyms represent us.

If the only time India hears of seafarers is when the Stolt Valor is hijacked or the Hebei Spirit officers’ are incarcerated after being found innocent or when there is an ecological incident, we should not be surprised then that no youngster wants to come out to sea. That is all he knows about the industry; we have not told him any different.

After India sees Mrs.Seema Goyal running from pillar to post in Delhi to try to get the Stolt Valor crew released in Somalia, and after India sees that there are no industry representatives to give her any support whatsoever, nothing more needs to be said. Those pictures annul a thousand toll free numbers, college presentations and road shows as far as industry profile is concerned.

If we are not engaged with the media, then we cannot really complain that the coverage of the situation in the Gulf of Aden or Somalia is amateurish, incorrect and rubbish. Just one example, a retired admiral or somesuch from the Indian Navy was paraded on one premier news channel, saying that the crew should ‘try to find out where they were, at anchor or at sea’. And they tell me satellites can pinpoint what soap I am using in the shower!
A well informed and erudite representative from the Industry would have been so much better. Besides other things, he could have projected a professionalism that would have done wonders for our image.

If, in normal times, there is no profile cultivated by the industry, then the only press it gets will be during adversity, and by definition, sensationalist. Ignorance is not bliss; sometimes it is oblivion.

If we are content to be the frog in a small well, we should not assume that the well is the ocean. And if we do assume that, we should not then assume that the whole world believes it too.

If we want to shun the public eye, whether by design or ineptitude, we must realise that the price we pay is in low awareness amongst young recruitable talent. The price is also paid when legislation treats us as a shadowy industry and poorly or when society ignores us in a hundred ways. Small wonder that, in the words of Espinoza Ferrey of the IMO, “The public have a view of shipping, when they have one at all, which is all about a dirty, accident prone industry”.

Media is managed by industries much more insignificant than ours. It is managed in good times and bad and it is managed by professional organisations. The problem is that our industry is not professionally managed. An ex Master or Chief Engineer is not trained to manage media. Surprisingly, very few hire the plethora of professional public relations outfits available out there. Perhaps they don’t care enough to do so. Perhaps they think that a press release once in a while is enough.

This is the information age. Any serious industry has to manage this information, and, by extension, the electronic media. Your future employees and clients are looking for this information, offline and online. By not providing it to them, you are leaving them free to get it by innuendo, half truths and through a thin mist of confusion. They will move on to an industry that treats them with more respect by giving them the information they are looking for. The loss is yours.

It is clear to me now that this is another area in which we have failed. We can curse circumstances for the low profile of the industry. We can cry fragmentation and step motherly treatment. We can bemoan the fact that Ministries, Governments and Port States treat us badly.

However, the fact is that we have made no effort to raise the profile of the industry or of seafaring as a profession. We are content to be buried underground, unnoticed and unknown. By omission or commission, with lethargy or with wanton disregard, we have assumed that the mountain will always come to Mohammad, and that we do not have to do anything differently, or better. XYZ Ship management, Mumbai, has twenty more ships this year. That is all that matters, even though it doesn’t really have competent people to operate them.

The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars, but in ourselves.


October 15, 2008

Single-handed sailor. (An open letter to the unconcerned.)

Greetings from the three quarters of our planet that you will never see! Welcome to the world of the forgotten Indian mariner!!

We are the tens of thousands of Indian Captains, officers engineers and crew at sea. We move the ships that carry your oil, steel, grain, fertiliser and a million other goods. Whenever you tank up your car, shop at the supermarket, move into a house or otherwise live your daily lives, we have made a lot of it possible.

You see us only sometimes, though, either on stock photographs holding sextants and gazing at the horizon or on TV being blamed for pollution and other environmental disasters.
We are here to tell you that neither of these pictures tells the truth.

The countries of the world call us, the merchant navy, their 'second line of defense', yet they weaken our own defenses every day. As I write this, three hundred seafarers are held hostage by armed hijackers in Somalia. Mrs. Goyal, the wife of an Indian Master held hostage, is doing the rounds in Delhi alone and unsupported to try to get her husband and his crew released in Somalia. Industry organisations are conspicuous by their absence at her side. The Government is dithering as usual. Three weeks have passed.

This is not a new threat, by the way, as many would have you believe by implication. This is years, even decades old. The hijackers have known terrorist links. Ransoms have been paid by ship owners for years encouraging this lawlessness while the international community has stood by, impotent and uncaring. Western naval coalitions have admitted they cannot guarantee our safety. They have asked owners to take steps to protect themselves. Owners place their financial interests above our survival, so don’t hold your breath.
Meanwhile, we continue to look for protection, but realise that we are abandoned. Some of us even say out loud that the emperor has no clothes. Most don’t see that, most choose the blinkers they put on; most should hang their heads in shame.

Meanwhile, the shipping recruitment industry in India and abroad continues to serve us platitudes and hogwash on how they support seafarers. When we are held hostage, the buck is passed from owners to managers to recruiters. The Government does little. The industry continues to want to hide the true state of affairs from new talent for fear of discouraging them. It continues to want to do nothing except body shop.

India is one of the largest pools of qualified manpower in the maritime world, yet it accepts the reduction of workers on ships to dangerous levels without second thought. It has recently even encouraged further short manning on Indian ships. Everybody is jumping around to show that they are more loyal than the king on this one.

The world admits that it overworks us to the point that fatigue impairs our judgment. It even makes regulations similar to those in the aviation industry mandating rest for us, and then blatantly ignores its own rules. In fact, it systematically delays, ignores or otherwise undermines any efforts at improving our working conditions, because such improvements cost money.

It worries about the projected shortfall of tens of thousands of seafarers over the next few years and the fact that few youngsters want to sail today, yet governments, national and international organisations and the Industry do precious little to address this issue in any systematic manner.

Some countries trust us to bring massive ships into their ports, and then treat us like criminals and terrorists once we are there. They violate our human rights in many ways, denying us shore leave, arresting us for accidents, sometimes even detaining us after we have been proved innocent in their own courts. Moreover, they do this despite the international industry wide outcry against all norms of civilised behaviour.
(Two innocent Indian Officers are detained in South Korea as I write this; both were exonerated by the Korean courts. Hang your heads in shame again.)

Our own sound byte hit media ignores us. We don’t seem to sell anything, so advertisers and news anchors move on. They feed on us rarely, though, like vultures, with screaming headlines and concerned voices, which mean nothing beyond today’s ratings. (Case in point, the recent hijack of the Stolt Valor with 18 Indians. One or two news channels carry this story, which is sensationalist, inaccurate, ill conceived and will be canned as soon as ratings drop. Hostages released or not. Welcome to the jungle.)

Our own governments sideline our petitions; we are not vote banks. Our society takes us for granted.

The country grows fat on back of the oil and material we bring in, yet does nothing for our welfare.

Our fellow citizens do not know what we do; they stereotype us as dumb sailors. They do not want their children to work with us. They want to enjoy the benefits we provide and yet do nothing to make us stronger. They are worse than spectators to our plight, because they do not even know what our plight is.

Indian Officers are acknowledged as the finest in the maritime world, and have been for decades. Yet we are unsung and undefended at home. Worse, we are ignored.

We spend months away from our families at a time trying to make an honest living. Yet drowned seamen never get media attention, though dead seagulls after an accidental oil spill do.

We contribute substantially to the Indian economy. Tens of thousands of Indian seafarers work abroad, earning good foreign salaries, most of which are remitted back home. This has been going on for decades. Yet, and although Shipping carries the vast majority of goods into and out of India and is a vital element of a growing economy, Industry demands for a level playing field are brushed aside.

Members of our fragmented industry do not look beyond their own individual self interest. Headhunters call themselves managers. Small accountants with big calculators compromise safety at sea. We watch, spectators with no say in matters of life and death. Ours.

We have no national seafarer organisations worth the name. We have no lobbying groups. Therefore and consequently, we have no voice and no say in anything, including in our own working conditions. We have, though, self appointed guardians of ‘seafarer interests’, most useless, many with their own axes to grind, many with huge conflicts of interest and some even downright and proven corrupt. The list of their acronyms covers all the letters of the alphabet; their usefulness covers nothing.

The industry reacts to every change and every threat very predictably; part of it regulates and most of it rubs its hands at new revenue streams being generated in training us poorly and in our own time. It then adds the workload of this regulation to our overworked working life. It does so without consultation, thought or empathy, all the while ignoring with cynicism old regulations that mandate minimum rest for us. It does so in the complete absence of any HRD policies or oversight on existing workloads. And then it is surprised when it gets the reputation of being a backward industry!

Some of us started working when barely out of our teens. We do our jobs to make a honest living. We do not expect gratitude but we do not expect ridicule either. We do not expect to be ignored and marginalised and held hostage by either armed terrorists or unarmed managers and bureaucrats. And we do not accept being treated as criminals by your world any more.

We were always the forgotten people, but now we are being ground into the dust.

The irony is that tomorrow your world will need more of us.