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.


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