December 10, 2009

Poor Ratings

Those were the days of old ships with union purchases, preventer guys, hatch boards and manual non powered steering: labour intensive rack and pinion stuff. Ropework and splicing were weekly affairs. Crew complements were around 55 then, when I was a cadet: there were so many people on board that we had, sometimes, three galleys: one each for officers, deck and engine crew.

We learnt almost all our seamanship from the old salts in Scindias, the company I was apprenticed to: Sukhanis, Cassabs, Serangs and Seamen/Helmsmen. Many were Gujaratis; most did not speak much English but were, I now realise, excellent seamen. I particularly remember one Ramesh Tandel, and one Mukhtar, both of whom taught me a lot, and did so unselfishly. Later, I completed my sea time, moved on and forget all these seamen who had imparted skills to me that must have been learnt by their ancestors thousands of years ago, before the era of Lothal not far from their homes.

We officers failed those seamen, because we clambered on to higher things on their shoulders and forgot about them. The industry failed these seamen, because it did not take enough pride in their heritage and support them; some would have made excellent officers. Even worse, all of us fail their descendents even today, as we fail the thousands of new entrants who train as Ratings in our many training institutes across the country.

There are two main reasons for this. One, we are fixated on officer shortages, for some reason, and ignore the ratings market. And two, we have taken for granted that Indian ratings will never be able to compete with Filipinos: the reasons given are many, but the main ones, as we all know, are to do with the English language, work attitudes and the fact that the Filipino seaman is willing to be exploited more in comparison to the Indian one, whether it be in terms of living conditions or duration of contracts.  

Pardon my French, but the second reason is pure hogwash. I have sailed with many, many Filipinos right through my professional life, and, like any other nationality, there are, amongst them, good workers and bad workers, troublemakers and excellent professionals. They may have longer contracts but many sit through them placidly and with low initiative, the same as many Indians do.  As for salaries, coastal ships and dhows from India to the Middle East are replete with Indian ratings earning a fraction of what a Filipino earns on an ocean going merchant ship. The canard that Indian ratings have priced themselves out of the market must be killed once and for all.  As for the exploitation thing, are we seriously saying that unless Indian seamen are willing to be exploited there is no future for them? Because if we are, I say let us shut down our shops and go home: at least I do not need to make a living sucking other seafarers’ blood.

The fact is that we have done precious little for any seafarers, whether officers or ratings. However, officers have slowly carved a place out for themselves in the global market, and body shopping agencies flourished as soon as this was seen to be happening. This did not really occur on quite the same scale in the case of ratings, for many reasons.

Familiarity with English is another matter altogether, and I agree that largely the Filipino is much more familiar with basic English, including basic marine vocabulary, than is the Indian seaman. However, I submit that this is an issue that can be fixed quite easily, by simply increasing the weightage of the language at the Pre Sea selection level and adding an English language examination at the end of the Pre Sea course conducted by the Board of Examinations for Seafarers Trust. Let there be a minimum standard of English for freshers (actually, there is one but the system is very imperfectly followed for commercial reasons by institutes).

After admission to the course, the onus of ensuring a decent standard of English in our trainees should fall on both the training institute and the BES. This is hardly difficult; after all, we are a country producing a zillion call centre ready employees a year complete with accents to order. Surely we can ensure basic English skills in our seafarers?

Talking to a class of GP Ratings the other day, I found that there are children of pan shop owners in the batch. Also those of farmers and fishermen, small tailors and shopkeepers, army jawans and government clerks and everything in between.  It is worthwhile keeping these profiles in mind while we ponder exactly what kind of English teaching may be required. We in India have a habit of teaching Shakespeare when all we require is Chetan Bhagat.   

From figures given out by BES, India produces more than 4600 GP Ratings annually from 34 DGS approved institutes.  The Board says the main concern is the employment of trainees that pass out, and is trying to compile data from industry inputs. Although the BES effort is laudable, the fact that we do not have these figures easily available is in itself indicative of the neglected state of our ratings; I bet the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) has these figures a mouse click away. I bet China has a more focused manpower plan when it comes to its growing fleet. 

It is another national shame that many of our ratings who want to get ahead will go abroad to get their certificates of competency. There is something pathetic about us allowing this to happen; the fact that, English language skills or not, our seamen are forced to go abroad and spend a fortune there instead of appearing cheaply at home is appalling in itself. A comprehensive solution is urgently required.

In any case, there is no point in training seafarers if we cannot provide them decent jobs. The government and the industry are really doing nothing about this, barring one or two exceptions. Inertia, lethargy, callousness- call it what you will, but unless the administration and the industry can persuade Indian and foreign shipping to employ Indian ratings in greater numbers, we should feel morally bound to reduce the capacity of Maritime Training Institutes, not increase it. As things stand today, Indian ratings are hostage to a foreign language, unsupported by everybody that matters and more or less standing and falling on their own. It is time we changed that. Maritime training is a business, sure, but it doesn’t have to be only business.

Changing things is hardly impossible. Get the best people you can and train them properly (including in English language skills. Perhaps institutes should be asked to arrange extra language classes during the Pre Sea training course for those that require them). Provide them jobs at the end of the training. Make policies that encourage personal growth, competency certification in India included.  Let these ratings go out to sea and make a name for themselves and India, as we officers started doing not all that long ago.

Just do this much, and you will have a sustainable model. Do not do even this, and you will produce many more Mukhtars: excellent seamen with no future, all of them staring into the abyss.