November 26, 2009

Blockade, Arm and Stockade

Since he was Asian, the reported killing of the North Korean Captain of the ‘Theresa VIII’ during that ship’s hijack last week received a small fraction of the media coverage that the US crewed ship ‘Maersk Alabama’ did as she was attacked for the second time this year; the first attempt in April saw the international media going to town after Capt. Phelps dramatic rescue by US Navy snipers. The Maersk Alabama escaped this time because a security team on board fired on the pirates in self defence, killing some of them.

The New York Times quoted Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, Commander of the US Central Command after the attack: “Due to the Maersk Alabama following maritime industry’s best practices such as embarking security teams, the ship was able to prevent being successfully attacked by pirates.”

Excuse me; did he just say that the deployment of security teams was a maritime industry best practice? Somebody tell our brethren in Mumbai and their global clients quick, please. Seems like most of them are conveniently and blissfully unaware of this best practice.

Almost concurrently with the Alabama attack, the United States State Department advised Greek shipowners (who control 20 percent of global deadweight tonnage) that they should arm their crews to protect against pirate attacks. Also, the Spanish government (even as they paid a reported 3.5 million US dollars for the release of the fishing vessel Alakrana and her crew) confirmed that a) all Spanish fishing boats in the Indian Ocean would henceforth have private security guards armed with military equipment, including high velocity rifles, aboard and b) Spain was pushing for a blockade of ‘pirate ports’ in Somalia.

The Spanish initiative makes sense to me, although I will add one more essential element to it later. Since the most powerful countries in the world cannot together patrol the 68 million square kilometers of the Indian Ocean, simple logic dictates that pirates will have to be contained at one of two places they are sure to be found: either in the area where they leave their homes to hunt for ships in the open sea or at the target vessel itself. We should do both.

The Somali coastline, at 3000km, is not all that long to patrol; I remember, in 2002, when I was on a regular run (for four months) between Dar es Salaam, Mombasa, Yemen and Sudan, that coalition ships and aircraft used to patrol the Somali coast and the Gulf of Aden daily. Their purpose seemed to me the same as it is today: as a counterweight to terrorist and pirate activity. I agree that 2002 is not 2009 when piracy has grown tremendously (though ships were still being attacked regularly and taken in 2002, most such activity stopped within a hundred miles of the coast), but my point is that the Somali coastline has not grown any larger and should be as easy to patrol. Moreover, the coalition now seems to have a much more supportive government in Mogadishu that is fighting Al Qaeda linked Islamists and has often said that it will welcome help; indeed, it sometimes looks to me as if they are asking for it. Moreover, we are not talking about a blockade of the entire country; just relatively small portions of the coastline that have traditionally been pirate recruitment, infrastructure and support havens.

I also do not believe that, in a clan centred society like Somalia, pirates will be able to move up and down the coast and establish alternate havens quickly in the event of a partial blockade. Blockades can shift or be repositioned more quickly than the pirates can create new oases of support.

A partial blockade will be a good option to the alternative: a UN or NATO land based armed engagement in Somalia. Frankly, the US does not have the stomach for it at this time, though they have often expressed huge concern over the resurgence of Al Qaeda terrorist training camps in the country: a fact that should worry India too.

Such a blockade will be imperfect, which is why ships in the kill zone must have additional sufficient protection. Armed protection, at that: although crews have used everything from tomatoes to home made Molotov cocktails to deter pirates, a viable deterrent must involve small or medium firepower. Given the oft quoted reasons for not arming crews, the only alternative then left is the deployment of protective, sufficiently armed and professional security teams.

Frankly, I am puzzled why this has not become the norm after years of the piracy menace. One reason is, I suspect, that the industry is looking at this problem in its usual compartmentalised way. A shipowner may be unwilling to bear the additional cost for security teams if he can pass on sufficient risk to the charterer by an appropriate clause in the charter party; some standard charter parties have been amended to allow for this spreading of risk. Insurance companies hedge their risk similarly in specialised markets. I suspect that, in the end, it is just a dollars and cents scenario for all these people; a 'how much does this cost me?' exercise. As for the crews at risk, the question being asked in shipping and insurance boardrooms across the world must be: ‘How do we limit liability and payouts if a crewmember is killed?’ It is hardly the first time that this callous pricing of a seafarers life is done, but the practice of putting human life below that of a decimal point difference on a balance sheet bottomline is abhorrent every time.

As for the third element I promised to add, here it is: In my opinion, we must, along with placing security teams on board and a blockade of pirate haven ports, find watertight means of bringing captured pirates to justice. This is all up in the air now. Some are dumped to be prosecuted in Kenya; high profile (read Western) target hijacks result in any captured pirates being taken to those countries for trial. Some have been dumped on Yemen in the past. The coalition does not seem to be able to get its arms around jurisdictional and other such legal issues. These are thorny, we are told.

So make new international regulations that take away the thorns, good people! Find a way of keeping captured pirates in a stockade! For, if the international community cannot find a mechanism to prosecute armed marauders caught while boarding merchant ships and sometimes killing crews, often assaulting them and invariably holding them hostage for months, then it should, instead, call itself the coalition of the absurd.

I would also like the Indian Government to do more. Actually, scratch that; considering that they have done precious little, I would like them to do much more. For one, it is the Indian Ocean after all, and India has strategic geopolitical interests there. Two, we are particular victims of terrorism, and there are links between piracy and terrorism, including Al Qaeda and Pakistani links. Three, a large part of our trade, now at risk due to piracy, is through this region. And four, Indian ships and seafarers may be at particular risk, given the US warning last month that they could be targeted. With Indians working on both Indian and foreign vessels, pressure needs to be increased on foreign flags and owners as well as Indian shipowners to take the essential steps to protect Indian nationals. Security teams on any ships with any Indians on board, is what I would like to see.

Unfortunately, besides the usual expressions of concern and politicians’ vacuous promises, the Indian Government is beatifically silent on this threat. As usually happens when it comes to mariner security or welfare issues, it is sleepwalking through this one too. The Americans are protecting their citizens; it is time India did the same.



November 18, 2009

Flogging the dead horse.

There is, by now, a certain weary and blasé inevitability to the reporting of pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. Even the headlines look tired (In how many ways can one report a ship hijack anyway? And how often can one quote the same exhausted statistics?) I have a mental picture of editors across the world moaning about the fact that their readership is fatigued by piracy, and that it is time that more stuff on Megan Fox’s wardrobe, or the lack thereof, be on display instead. Enough of boring cargo ships and unknown dumb hostage sailors already!

That said, there is periodically a spark of life in the dying horse. “Pirates seize arms laden cargo ship!!” one story said recently. (The pirates on board, talking to VOA in this media savvy age, deny this. Given the links between piracy and terrorism, I would have preferred ‘Bin Laden and arms laden ship!’ instead). ‘Two ships attacked one thousand miles from Somali coastline for first time”, screams another headline. (Wait awhile, my friend, future attacks may be in the Gulf of Kutch). And so on.

In the last few weeks such headlines seem to have freshened a bit, largely because the weather has not and has, in fact, turned quite pirate friendly. However, there are other factors, too. Pirates have threatened violence with hostage crews and demanded release of pirates in Europe. NATO has warned India that our crews and shipping may be particularly targeted, given that Pakistanis have been found in control amongst a few pirate crews. A high ranking official in Europe has said the UK is not examining pirate links to terrorists adequately. Spain is contemplating calling for a blockade of Somali pirate ports: a long overdue move, in my view. All headline making stuff. However, two years ago all this would have stirred up a small storm in maritime, security and political circles. Today, it is a storm in a tea cup.

Worse, the media’s lethargy in keeping up with contemporary events on land in Somalia while simultaneously and metronomously droning on about 18 years of Somali civil war, fragile UN backed governments and the usual fillers does us another disservice. It ignores the fact that Somalia threatens, once again, to become a major terrorist training ground, with security experts expecting Afghani and Pakistani based terrorists to move to the Horn of Africa in larger numbers. With 1.5 million people driven from their homes, Somalia is well on the way to becoming another powder keg with the fuse lit and sizzling. (Maybe not so coincidentally, that arms laden ship is UAE flagged and reportedly carrying medium range missiles in contravention of the UN embargo on Somalia, reports say. The pirates deny this too.)

While we choose to ignore the issue, we could do well to remember an old tenet of terrorism: gradual escalation. There will come a time when terrorist pirates, whether in Somalia or copycats elsewhere, will kill crews or turn captured ships into weapons of cataclysmic destruction. Maybe that will finally get the world's attention.

The numbing regularity of the hijacks and attacks has the air of kismet about it. Like it has happened in the case of terrorist attacks in Kashmir (or elsewhere) earlier, the world expects ships to be attacked in the Indian Ocean today. Coalition forces do not have to repeat, any longer, that they cannot guarantee seafarer safety: we have bought that argument already. We have accepted what seems to be inevitable.

Meanwhile, Lloyds List tells me that pirate hijack success rates have risen to fifty percent post monsoon. Half the ships being attacked are now captured.

This fatigue means that we are no longer, as an industry or a society, looking at the problem with anything else except stupor; we are certainly not looking at solutions. The problem is perceived as insurmountable and so everybody is working around it without finding a way out of it. Used to attacks, much like a soldier with war fatigue, the maritime world does not expect any improvement anytime soon. We look to the usual suspects in the West for solutions; they will not solve the problem, because they are as war fatigued elsewhere and looking for ways out of present quagmires in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq; they certainly don't want to add another region to this hoary list. Moreover, many of the hijacked crews are Asian, and therefore do not matter all that much.
Piracy, therefore, is fait accompli, and will remain so. No maritime unions are screaming for justice, no shipowners are threatening a boycott, no countries are threatening a blockade of Somalia, no governments are finding solutions, no seafarers are refusing to sail.

Let’s face it, the West has no stomach for fighting the war in Somalia. The Indian government, in its time honoured tradition, does not care two hoots for the fate of seafarers, hostage or not, although the manure will hit the fan should Indians start getting killed regularly by terrorists amongst the pirates, as they probably and chillingly will. (I can see Arnab Goswami going to town with his patented self righteous look then, at least until the ratings drop).

Therefore, the pirates, criminals and terrorists will continue to thrive, both on land and at sea. Shipowners and managers will continue to bemoan rising insurance costs in ‘these tough times’ while doing nothing. Security consultants will continue to laugh all the way to the bank while their employees jump off ships at the first sign of trouble. Bankers and others as far apart as the UAE and London will continue to celebrate rising pirate money flows. Governments will dither. The IMO will pass resolutions until we all pass out.

And seafarers will continue to remain exposed: unarmed, uncared and unsung at the front lines of this new war zone, they will remain the innocents of the apocalypse. Like most innocents, they will bleed and die. Just give them some time.


November 12, 2009

Heart of the matter

I watch the kids’ frenzied dancing; pent up release, no doubt, after three months of a controlled and disciplined existence. Their Pre Sea training is complete today; their farewell speeches were simultaneously hopeful and nostalgic and could not really mask the excited anticipation of going out to sea for the first time: a feeling we jaded old timers have long forgotten.

Until a day or two ago, we complained that many were of low academic calibre, unable to understand even school level mathematics and physics. We said that most were not committed and many were lazy. The instructors got angry when students could not answer, in weekly tests, stuff that they had repeatedly taught them. We told ourselves that they would be in for a rude shock when they stepped on board their first ships.

We should have, instead, asked this question much more frequently: Did the faculty do their best for them? Did they teach with heart?

To exhaust the faculty’s other excuses, the syllabus mandated was incomplete, ill conceived and generally not fit enough for purpose. Commercial constraints and unavailability of appropriately experienced personnel meant that the institute had to teach some subjects with second best faculty. The institute’s administrative systems were not strong enough, resulting in delays in dissemination of course material. Some infrastructure and power problems meant that they could not use computer based training to the extent desirable. There was an outbreak of flu. There were too many changes with visiting faculty in one important subject.

Pardon my French, but all these excuses are bull. Of course, they make a difference, in the end, to quality of education; I am not denying that. Of course infrastructure or other such issues can jar continuity of teaching, be major irritants and generally make the process of training more difficult and less palatable; I am not denying that either. Nevertheless, these reasons ignore the fact that faculty must, periodically, introspect and determine how committed they are and how much of themselves they put into what they teach. If they are not committed enough, all these other reasons are chaff; worse, these red herrings will ensure that the quality of education will stagnate and not improve in the future, for they are good excuses.

“Are we putting our hearts into the training?” is a good question for any educational institution to ask; it may even be the most important one. The query forces the trainers to accept responsibility for training. It weeds out educators that phone their lectures in. It discourages the acceptance of lacklustre commitment and semi retired mindsets of some permanent faculty or the unprepared ramblings of some visiting faculty. It forces the organisation to find solutions to its other problems that degrade training. It satisfies the immediate customer, the student, who can very well tell an average faculty from a dedicated one. Moreover, the question implies a critical ongoing drive towards excellence. It demands a response.

That same query, in the end, will differentiate an exceptional Maritime Education and Training institute from an average one. The answer to this question will give you the winning edge.

I want to ask the question of the institution as I have a celebratory drink with everybody after the formal passing out, but I postpone my inquiry. Some questions are better asked stone cold sober.

A couple of lakhs does not seem like a lot of money to many of us. Two hundred thousand rupees will probably not even buy you a cheap car barring the Nano. At less than a month’s wages, it certainly is not a lot of money for many at sea and in many jobs ashore these days.

However, to an aspiring Cadet whose parents have taken a loan in an attempt to guarantee his future, two hundred thousand is far from peanuts. And, if he has signed up for a foreign Certificate of Competency, this is probably a fraction of what he will finally spend before he gets his Second Mates certificate. He will save some money out of his stipend at sea, but it will not be enough; more loans are in the offing.

There is this cash crunch with many trainees. There is supposed to be an officer crunch too, with the industry reeling out statistics of projected shortfalls of officers over the next few years. If these are indeed genuine numbers (I reserve judgement), owners and managers should be looking to sponsor cadets in far greater numbers than they are doing at present. This patronage can come along with a legally binding surety that the cadet will work for them for a certain period after his Certificate of Competency. Instead, we have at least one major shipping company announcing that it cannot guarantee placement of its own trainees after their graduation.

In the mid seventies, when even a lakh meant something, my parents spent ten thousand rupees or so on eleven months of my training. My examinations were all in India, and like many, I too managed those with no further financial demands on my folks. However, I had to sign a three year bond with Scindia’s, agreeing that I would work there for a couple of years after my apprenticeship. I left anyway as soon as I got my Second Mates. It wasn’t the money; somehow, I knew that an Indian ship culture was not for me.

Companies who fear that this scenario will repeat itself with present day Cadets may do well to remember this: out of about twenty Cadets in Scindia’s, just two of us left, and I believe the other person did so because his family was migrating to Australia. The owners were therefore ahead of the game. These statistics favour the shipowner even today.

Investing for the future does not mean buying office space when real estate prices are low. People are the differentiating factor, not infrastructure. I dare the industry to boldly go where they have never gone before, and spend some time thinking about their future human needs, both at sea and ashore.


November 05, 2009

Turning Turtle

Olive Ridley Turtle, Orissa beach (courtesy Kalinga Times)

We protest loudly enough at the unfair criminalisation of mariners and the acidic nature of PSC inspections; it is only fair that we should applaud authorities equally loudly when they get it right.

In the first prosecution under the Nonindigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act, the US recently sentenced Capt. Panageotis Lekkas of the ‘Theotokos’ to ten months: six months in jail followed by four months of community confinement. His crime? Failing to inform the US Coast Guard of a broken rudder and illegal discharge of oily waste. Lekkas will also pay a $4000 fine, be deported immediately after release and is banned from calling the US for three years thereafter. Twenty ships of the Greek ship manager Polembros Shipping have been similarly banned from calling at any US ports for the next three years. Polembros has also agreed to pay a $2.7 million dollar fine and another USD 100,000 community service payment to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. The fate of the Chief Engineer and the Chief Officer will probably be similar; both have pleaded guilty to violating environmental laws and making false statements to the USCG.

Sometime early last year, the Theotokos crew discovered a two foot long crack in the rudder on the 1984 built ship and reported it verbally to the Owners. Not only was ballast water from the Afterpeak tank leaking out of this crack, oil from a fuel tank was found leaking into the Afterpeak as well, with obvious implications. Stupidly but not unusually, Lekkas ordered that the Afterpeak, and therefore indirectly the oil from the leaking fuel tank, be pumped overboard at sea. He didn’t stop there, though. He had the Chief Officer obstruct the sounding pipe to the Afterpeak so that water would show on the sounding line and not oil in case of an inspection.

Meanwhile, Chief Engineer Stamou was doing his bit for the cause. The Oily Water Separator had stopped working sometime ago; after reporting it to the Superintendent on the phone, the Chief pumped the bilges directly overboard without (obviously) recording anything in the Oil Record Book. Again, stupid but not unusual.

They were caught by the Coast Guard in New Orleans in October last year. Everybody, including Palembros, pleaded guilty to mostly everything; easy to do once you are caught with your pants down.

The Theotokos story played itself out over the last two years. Meanwhile, just this year, in iron ore related casualties off the coast of India, both the Asian Forest and the Black Rose went down. The Asian Forest sank off Mangalore in July and had leaked oil twice, the last time in September. Officials pooh poohed the quantity of the oil that leaked out, but the fact remains that the ship was carrying almost 400 tonnes of bunkers when she sank. Even with plugged leaks, as authorities claim, she still poses a pollution risk.

The Black Rose, on the other hand, sank off Paradip on September 9. A month later, after finding that insurance and other documents related to the ship were fraudulent and that Paradip port would probably have to foot the cleanup bill, port authorities were still ‘preparing’ to appoint an agency to pump out almost a thousand tonnes of bunkers off the ship. "We are at present examining several tenders submitted for the purpose," one official said. As officials examined tenders and contemplated their navels, fishermen and others reported seeing thousands of dead fish at sea after the incident. Thousands more were reportedly washed ashore in Paradip. Greenpeace and others warned of ‘a devastating impact’ on the Gahirmata Marine Sanctuary just 30 miles away, home of the endangered Olive Ridley Turtles and at the Bitharkanika National Park, India’s second largest mangrove ecosystem.

Salvage work at the site finally started on Oct 23, a month and a half after the accident and after a US salvage company was appointed. As if this delay was not criminal enough, work was suspended for a while almost immediately because of paperwork and bureaucratic delays at the Paradip Port Trust and because Customs refused to permit the transportation of the salvaged oil by road. Only in India.

And, as is usual in indifferent India, this story is nowhere in the collective psyche of a nation used to littering, drinking milk made out of detergent and urea and throwing its industrial and household garbage out in the street. Par for the course.

The Black Rose incident highlights to me, once again, how ill prepared we are for development. At a time when infrastructure is the latest buzzword and port projects seem to be announced on a weekly basis, we have essentially no coherent environmental policy or disaster management infrastructure in place. We have many things to learn. For one, there is no evidence of India having access to, leave alone using, the GM bacteria and other advanced technology used elsewhere to fight oil spills. Secondly, as the Paradip incident demonstrates, we seem to have no domestic setup in place; we need companies from abroad to come and clean up our coast. As when other disasters strike, we have no plan, no training, no equipment, no allocations, no personnel, no will and, therefore, no clue. Thirdly, even though Jairam Ramesh’s Ministry of Environment and Forests is making appropriate noises and feeding titillating sound bytes to the media regularly, precious little timely progress is made after any incident, when babudom indulges in its favourite sport: buck passing.

I believe that the pathetic (and apathetic) response of our government, its regulators, the shipping industry in particular and civil society at large, coupled with the almost fated corruption in our public and private systems, will collectively ensure that our coastline will be environmentally decimated by blinkered development within a lifetime.

To continue with the spotlight on Orissa, there are ten more ports being planned in the next decade along its 487 km coastline. Ironically, on the same day that the Black Rose salvage finally commenced, the Orissa government signed a MoU with the Aditya Birla Group for the setting up of a Rs 1500 crore port at Chudamani. This, despite a Public Interest Litigation that raises serious concerns about the impact of this development on the Olive Ridley Turtle in particular and the broader marine environment in general.

Other questions are being raised about single hulled tankers being dumped to trade on Indian coastlines and radioactive ships being sent to be broken up at Alang. I am confident that these interrogations will remain unanswered; the historical evidence is not encouraging here at all. (Can you imagine the Black Rose or Platinum II incident playing out similarly elsewhere, barring in a few underdeveloped African countries? I can’t)

Therefore, for a change, I applaud the US for doing the right thing even as I hold the Indian response, preparedness and will to protect its environment in contempt. It is not enough, any longer, to cry (as we do at International Climate Change conventions) that the West must pay for cleaning up the environment proportionally to its contribution to the destruction of nature. It is not enough, any longer, for India to ape the turtle and stay within its shell, smug and blinkered on the path of extinction. Our policies, preparedness and infrastructure to protect our coastline must radically change. Critically, so must our will. We are not Somalia. The maritime industry, in particular, must stand up and be counted. We must stick our necks out; that is a precondition to any turtle making progress.

Of course, we have another option. We could always, and along with our oceans and seas, turn turtle and die.