January 16, 2009

What Indian maritime fraternity?

Notwithstanding the clichés spewed out regularly by interested parties, it is with deep ruefulness that I allege that the ‘maritime community’ does not exist. It died before it was even born, for it is a maritime community sans the mariner.

The ostensible reasons for the lack of cohesion in the supposed fraternity are well known. A fragmented industry, globally dispersed, ridden with conflicts of interest and staffed by generations of contractual employees must have particular problems keeping the flock together. Contentious issues are difficult to address because the ‘community’ is international but agendas are commercial, national or regional. Additionally and at the national level, unions are often politicised, industry bodies are narrow in outlook and scope and powerful interests often dominate regulatory systems. We all know this; consequently, many of us consider the possibility of a cohesive national industry community with an international mindset inconceivable. And so we don’t even try.

I submit that such a posture is overstated and defeatist. I am convinced that attempts to form maritime constituencies are not made seriously enough or are made by the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Myopic stalwarts of the industry do not see the commercial advantages of cohesiveness when it comes to involving mariners in their narrow definition of ‘community’. For, let’s face it, a ‘maritime community’ without mariners is like chicken curry without the chicken: meaningless. I am equally convinced that some are even wary of promoting organised national seafarer bodies, for obvious reasons. Keeping seafarers scattered and disenfranchised, or in any event uninvolved in their own future and that of the industry, is convenient for some.

There seems to be no hesitation in associations being formed when it comes to other common commercial pursuits in the maritime industries. National and international shipmanagement, ownership, insurance, P&I and Class associations exist, however inept some may be. Many are well represented by a cross section of constituents from their narrow fraternities. Such groups represent their cause in larger industry fora; they are part of a wider maritime community, such as it is. Not so the seafarer.

This indurate rejection of mariners from the wider maritime community is worse in India than in many other countries. I further submit that this wanton exclusion of Indian mariners from all walks of maritime life not directly associated with their jobs is a reason for discontent in the profession, with the resultant fallout that such discontent inevitably induces. We need to examine this dissatisfaction closely while we ponder questions of seafarer shortages, to which, thus far, we have proposed the same hackneyed solutions.

It is quite possible that there is no big conspiracy here; that the missing mariners from the fraternity are absent because of the reasons already mentioned. It is also quite possible that many mariners themselves are not really interested in being part of a fraternity; that the cycle of contract/leave/contract is a comforting known devil to them, and alterations to this routine are not welcome. Maybe some are just lethargic.

I do not really think so. I think that at least some Indian officers would welcome the camaraderie and challenge involved in participating in a wider maritime community. Some are clearly interested; some are clearly bored with their present professional lives. Some have much more to offer the industry, which seems to be incapable of devising a mechanism in which they could do so.

The advantages of a true Indian maritime constituency, with representation from a wide cross section of marine representatives, are so obvious that they do not need to be stated. The greatest rewards such a constituency will offer is a focused and broad based approach to the many challenges and opportunities out there, and the progress that can be made when people see the big picture and pull together in one common direction. However, by pretending that this maritime fraternity exists, as we now do, we ignore our shortcomings to our own peril. In the absence of such a fraternity, the Indian maritime industry, including components that cater to foreign flag ownership, continue to be fractured instead of just fragmented. If we do not change this, we will be forced to be content with picking on the carcass, like vultures, after the lions have had their fill. We will never be major global players in the industry, just participants in the low end parts of it. Our divisions, or at least our lack of cohesiveness, will continue to weaken us.

But what if we get it right? Imagine. An industry that carries the vast majority of goods worldwide. A developing country with one of the fastest growing economies and a huge potential workforce. A major maritime powerhouse, not just in shipmanning or body shopping, but also across a wider, more lucrative spectrum. Miles ahead of China and the Philippines in quality, and constantly widening the gap. Imagine the transformation in the Indian maritime industry if we get it right.

The problem really is that there is a vacuum of leadership in Indian shipping. There is a crying need for a visionary leader who can inspire others with an executable and transformatory plan. When I look around, all I see are functionaries out there, not visionaries. Transformations do not occur with functionaries. Functionaries just soldier on.

We have many soldiers; what we really need are a few generals.