March 25, 2010

The Conspiracy of Silence.

Foreword: If there is one thing that strikes me as I compare the two maps above (the second one depicts the existence of Al Qaeda linked cells), it is that almost all the choke points for shipping are next door to countries that have a proven- and considerable- Al Qaeda franchise, including in North Africa, the Malacca Straits and Yemen. Amongst these, the Gibraltar and Malacca Straits and the entire Red Sea and Mediterranean region- from Gibraltar to Bab el Mandab and beyond- must be the easiest places in the world for any terrorist group to blow up passing, anchored or berthed ships.

A crude oil tanker is not all that simple to blow up. A bulk carrier carrying fertiliser is easier.

On the morning of April 16, 1947, a fire broke out on board the French SS Grandcamp at the Port of Texas. The blaze caused the detonation of about 2300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, created a 5 metre high tidal wave that swept through the town (and a hundred miles around), killing almost 600 people and destroying half a thousand homes- and blowing two smallish planes out of the sky when their wings sheared off. Windows were shattered in Houston 60 miles away, the Grandcamp’s anchors, (and about six thousand tonnes of her steel) were blown up into the sky; one two tonne anchor landed a mile and a half away. The Monsanto Chemical Company plant near this ground zero was totalled, refineries and chemical tanks caught fire and the shock wave was felt 250 miles away in Louisiana. The total number of victims was almost eight and a half thousand; identifiable body parts of some of the dead were never found. Witnesses compared the carnage to Nagasaki, where the Bomb had been dropped just a couple of years earlier.

Just 2300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. Handy size bulk carriers today routinely carry six to ten times that amount; larger ships may carry much more. Imagine what a bunch of terrorists could do with one of those. The technology needed to detonate the nitrate is simple; every truck bomber uses a mix of ammonium nitrate and some fuel, besides other easily available goodies. One can make it at home, actually, from material bought from the neighbourhood market, if one has those kinds of wet dreams. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, did just that at a total cost of only 5000 USD all inclusive.

Actually, the friendly neighbourhood terrorist doesn’t even have to take this much trouble any longer. The Triton report recently quotes sources in the British intelligence agency MI6 as saying that North Korea is supplying limpet mines with underwater capability to Al Qaeda. Particularly at risk are the five hundred or so ships that have been laid up in and around Singapore, a joint MI6/SAS investigation says.

The pieces of the puzzle now fall into place: the recent warning by Japan- relayed through Singapore, for some reason- of planned terrorist strikes on ships in the Malacca Straits have got every analyst out of the woodwork, crunching numbers and calculating the cost of disruption to a narrow strip of water that hosts more than fifty thousand ship’s annually. As is customary with these gentlemen, cost is always (and only) measured in terms of money. These folk are alarmed at our economic vulnerability to maritime terrorism, what with (as they say) the ‘just in time’ logistical chains of today (one analyst says, suspiciously gleefully and as an example, that the cost of semiconductors almost doubled after a natural calamity struck Taiwan not so long ago), not to speak of the fact that a huge majority of Chinese and Japanese oil and cargo pass through the straits. What these gentlemen do not mention, perhaps because their calculators are amoral, is the sheer human and ecological impact of such carnage, should it occur. Multiply Grandcamp by ten or twenty, at least, and I am still not talking nuclear.

As for the rest of the industry and the international community, there is a conspiracy of silence. Silence while security and insurance firms rake in much, much more moolah from terrorism than the Somalis make in ransoms. Silence in fear of insurance premia skyrocketing. Silence while everybody ignores the fact that ships are probably the easiest of targets of anything that size in the world, and more so when they are laid up with skeleton crews and minimal security. Silence at the possibility of terrorists buying ships and converting them into floating mega bombs (In 2003, Al Qaeda allegedly had a dozen cargo ships. They have aircraft too today, by the way, that fly drugs from South America to West Africa to finance global mayhem. In any case, almost every reader here knows how easy it is to buy a ship and hide ownership; hundreds of shipowners have been doing this for decades). Silence at the proven links between Pakistani based jihadi setups, Al Qaeda linked organisations in Africa and Somali pirates. Silence even after a high ranking captured Al Qaeda operative Abd al Rahmen al Nashiri told Western agencies about the organisation’s plans to target ships way back in 2002. Silence even while knowing that the USS Cole and the tanker Lindberg were devastated by Al Qaeda suicide boats, and that suicide IED rigged water craft have killed US and British soldiers in Iraq more recently. And today, continuing silence at Al Qaeda links with North Korea.

Death is silence too. And ignoring a problem pretending that it doesn’t exist or will go away is stupidity.

Besides looking the other way, we downplay or underreport facts even when we surface them at all. For example, there is a veil of mystery surrounding the alleged pirate attack on the Greek bulk carrier ‘Melina I’ just 200 miles off Lakshadweep two weeks ago. The Indian navy claimed that it sent in marine commandos and an attack helicopter after receiving a distress call. “The hijacking attempt was successfully thwarted and we escorted the ship for awhile and she is now safe," Commander Roy Francis of the Indian navy then said. Media reports later seemed to wonder if this was really a pirate attack. The story was suspiciously quashed, it seemed to me, just as similar reports of an attack on an Indian merchant ship “Maharaj Agrasen” less than 400 miles off Ratnagiri last Christmas eve were. Earlier reports in the mainstream Indian media had the Agrasen being attacked with RPGs and machine guns and the Captain trying to ram the pirate boats. What really happened in both these cases? Are maritime terrorists on our coast? Why is there no hue and cry? Don’t we need to know?

There will be many countermeasures that will require to be taken to combat maritime terrorism. The disbanding of the present useless ISPS regime (the IMO needs to do this today before breakfast) and a realisation that an alternate working mechanism has to be speedily put into place to protect lives, the environment and commerce (in that order, please) from the ravages of an event that can be easily cataclysmic- and equally easy to orchestrate- are two starting points. But before we do all that we must get our heads out and see the light.

Ships are extremely easy to buy or hijack and easy to convert, one way or another, into floating mega bombs: that is the simple and unvarnished truth. The fact that nothing has happened so far means zilch, since a basic tenet of terrorism is the gradual escalation of violence; perhaps we just haven’t reached that level of escalation, in the minds of terrorists, where ships need to be regularly blown up- with staggering casualties, devastated port cities and environmental and economic disasters-just yet. I will wager, however, that anarchic groups around the world have maritime terrorism on their to-do list, if they didn’t have it already. Somali piracy and related terrorism has taught them how easy it can be.

Meanwhile, it would help if the industry and its managers would look beyond balance sheets, for once. One should stop wasting time counting the money in one’s wallet when one’s bottom is in danger of conflagration.


March 18, 2010

Harami Nala

(Green line: Boundary claimed by Pakistan. Red line: boundary claimed by India, source wikipedia)

Locals call it the ‘Harami Nala’ (‘Bastard Channel’ is my closest translation); the rest of the world knows this area, formed by the estuaries of the Indus, as Sir Creek. This hundred kilometer stretch of the Rann of Kutch is disputed; claimed by India and Pakistan for over forty years, the fracas goes back to Partition. The reasons are political, historical and economic: parts of the creek may be rich in oil and gas, and the brackish water makes for good fishing grounds.

It is the arena of fishermen, criminals, smugglers and Pakistani backed infiltration: the terrorists that attacked Mumbai from the sea are thought to have taken the Indian fishing boat ‘Kuber’ in Sir Creek, and Indian Border Security Force officials say that this is a regular infiltration zone with Pakistani terrorists trying to enter India disguised as fishermen. The creek is also the setting of much anguish and despair: hundreds of fishermen are detained every year by both India and Pakistan in a continuing war of attrition that is against all international norms and in contravention of the UN Law of the Sea convention, which bars detention of fishermen even if they stray into hostile borders.

The fishermen are instead kept in Indian and Pakistani jails for years without even any pretence of human rights. Their families only know that they are missing: neither side will often not even release the names of those that it has detained. Not that things are better when the Indians or Pakistanis formally convict these fishermen: as things stand today, an estimated 480 Indian and 100 Pakistani fishermen have completed terms of their imprisonment but have not been released, And, although each side claims that these detainees were fishing illegally in their waters, the fact is that most of the fishermen were on small fishing boats in a disputed area and with no access to modern navigational position fixing systems: they did not know exactly where they were when they were arrested. And of course, there are no lines drawn in the sea or in estuaries that mark marine borders anyway, and the borders in this case are hazy and disputed to begin with.

Guess what? I think that things are going to get even worse for the fishermen.

I say this despite the release, in one of those periodic confidence building measures that both countries seem to love but which accomplish little, of a hundred Indian fishermen by Pakistan in December and around thirty Pakistani fishermen by India in January. I say this despite India and Pakistan both claiming that they will not imprison the other’s fishermen any longer: this is periodic rhetoric that fools nobody (the Pakistanis have subsequently arrested other Indian fishermen). I say this despite other feel good (but, eventually impotent) initiatives like the ‘Aman Ki Aasha (Hope for Peace)- a joint effort by the Times of India and the Pakistani Jang newspapers, one that some hope will address the plight of fishermen as well. I agree with Muhammad Ali Shah, Chairman of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, when he says that both countries are playing a numbers game and nothing more.

I say things will get worse for the main reason that the security situation in the waters of the Arabian Sea is deteriorating and threat perceptions must therefore be raised. For one, the by now infamous ‘Karachi Project’- where Indian nationals are being trained by the Pakistanis as sleepers for future terrorist strikes in India- requires a fair level of illegal cross border movement from Pakistan. The other favourite hunting ground, Kashmir, is far away, and Sir Creek is a logical and tested infiltration theatre; I am sure that Karachi was chosen as the centre for command and control for this reason.

In the broader context, the movement of fighters from Afghanistan and regions of Pakistan where things have got a little hot in the glare of American scrutiny is old news. Amorphous organisations and official elements from within the State of Pakistan are again sending their jehadi foot soldiers out, this time into Yemen, Somalia (including, in some cases, to Somali pirates) and the like: much of this traffic will, again logically, move through Karachi, as it always has. This is nothing new: many of us who sailed in the region a year or two after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US will recall Western naval vessels and aircraft keeping a strict (and unofficial) traffic control system in place in the Western Arabian Sea and southwards. Chatter on the VHF made it obvious that they were particularly interested in ships departing Pakistan- that usually means Karachi. We were regularly requested to report details of our ship and its ownership, cargo, crew and particularly of any stowaways to these navies. German military planes used to buzz us often- and once, when I was ahead of schedule and had stopped engines briefly for a boat drill (but also to enjoy the sight of the hundreds of dolphins that gambol in the warm waters of the ocean), I found a French naval vessel curious enough about my shenanigans to approach within half a mile of me.

There are enough signs already that life will be getting even more complicated for our fisherfolk. Post Mumbai attacks, the Indian Government has, amongst its other sometimes painfully slow anti-terrorist countermeasures, started installing ISRO developed tracking devices on the country’s trawlers; boats can also use these to send out alerts in emergencies, including, I presume, if they are boarded by Pakistani agencies as a prelude to detention. In addition, a census of Gujarati fishermen has been taken and a database is to be setup. In addition to other such actions, and in a move that had the fishermen’s lobby protesting outside Parliament in New Delhi, a new Marine Fisheries Bill is proposed. It gives the Centre greater powers to regulate fisheries in the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The proposed legislation intends to effectively amend the Constitution that gives the States the right to govern such activity up to 12 miles from land. Fishermen are particularly angry about the requirement that will make them get a special permit from the central administration for undertaking any fishing activity outside territorial waters.

It is a given that any counter-terrorism measures a country takes will encroach upon the life and freedoms of its citizens; fishermen should be no exception. However, the tit for tat arrest of fishermen that has been accepted as normal in Sir Creek for decades is reprehensible- and illegal in international law. This, too, is criminalisation of those that go to sea to make a living. These fishermen are sailors, like so many of us. Their detention- and sometimes alleged torture- should not be summarily ignored by most citizens of their own countries, as it is today. They should no longer spend years in jail on trumped up charges- or even none. Their families should not have to live in torment, not knowing whether their husbands and fathers have drowned or are alive and being tortured.

This travesty has gone on for far too long already. It must stop at once, before more people start wondering whether it is more than just the nala that is harami.


March 11, 2010

Who's the Boss?

Litigation in India is a pernicious affair; interminable and strength sapping, a dispute assumes a life of its own once it reaches the hallowed portals of our judicial system; huge court delays and appeals can often stretch the process -and the litigants' patience along with it- to the hilt. Even so, difficulties are compounded manifold when the conflict involves an arm or two of the government. In such a case, legal disputes can additionally have far-reaching and long-term consequences, not only for both the sides that are in court but also for the public and industry at large.

The hullabaloo over who has ultimate authority as regards to the training of seafarers has been public knowledge ever since the matter was taken to the courts in Chennai. An earlier ruling was made by the courts there, and I for one have no idea whether this judgement is being appealed or not, or how seriously. I only know that there still seems to be a lack of lucidity as to who will eventually be responsible for both pre-sea and post-sea training as well as the multitude of other courses that seafarers have to endure in India: the Directorate General of Shipping or the Indian Maritime University. I may be wrong or maybe I am not in the loop; perhaps the matter has been decided already. Even if that is so, there is a lack of clarity in the public domain about the immediate future of maritime training; this is a diffuseness that sits poorly in the era of transparency and the Right to Information Act. As with many matters related to the Government, we seem to be in a ‘wait and see’ period.

The problem with just waiting and seeing is, of course, that there is a price to be paid for the enforced procrastination. I am sure that many MET institutes have had to put their expansion plans on hold pending a final resolution of the mini crisis; questions are already being asked about whether the Board of Examinations for Seafarers Trust (the body that has been doing a good job of conducting exit examinations for Ratings across India) would now come under the purview of the IMU. What will happen to approvals pending with authorities? What about audit schedules, both internal and external? How long will we not know?

I am sure that it is difficult for any organisations to issue any clarification since the matter is subjudice; unfortunately, the uncertainty has bred rumour, speculation and discontent, none of which are positive developments. Alas, politics and parochial interests seem to have entrenched themselves within our shipping establishments across the country. I am particularly pained at this, because I have often told outsiders that what you do is more important than whom you know or where you come from in shipping: I was evidently wrong. I think that it is particularly regrettable that a profession that is truly multicultural and multiethnic should be victim to regional and other such interests that should have no place in a meritocracy. To add to my discomfort is the fact that all this is happening in the arena of training and certification; what would the youngsters we are teaching think of all this and of the industry, if only they knew the details?

The issue needs to be resolved as soon as possible, and with crystal clarity too; I am hopeful that the courts and the government realise this. We are ‘waiting and seeing’ at a time when we should be busy increasing capacities, inducting and training those thousands of officers the industry is reportedly (and soon) going to be short of. The entire industry should be debating the new STCW convention and modifying its requirements; the government should be busy deciding how to support the career of seafaring; owners, managers and MET institutes should be working on how to improve the calibre of entrants and the standards of training and we all should, in cohesion, be examining ways of improving Indian seafarers and producing even better officers and crews.

We have stopped instead. We have been put on hold, and the music at the other end of the line is beginning to sound a little less melodious with each passing day.


March 06, 2010

Cat amongst the pigeons

Not many sailors realise that there is nothing personal about management blaming them for events leading to an incident. Bluntly put, a manager (and shipowner) can limit or escape liability if he can get away with pinning the blame tail on the mariner donkey. I am certain that I am far from the only Master around who can say, with bitter experience, that investigations conducted by many shipmanagers into any untoward incident at sea are frequently a travesty: they are partisan, corrupted with the overwhelming desire to protect those ashore and are so a farce, as can be expected when any interested party conducts an investigation when it has an inherent conflict of interest. The first (and sometimes only) instinct of any shipmanagement company is to protect itself against blame and liability.

How much is two and two is far less important than how much do the managers want it to be. So blame the crew and the Master (or Chief Engineer), if possible. Whisper “Command Failure”: not too loudly, because somebody on board may spill the beans, but in hushed tones heard only by owners, insurers and regulators. Quietly sign off the Master or involved crew, if you can, without giving them any opportunity to defend the slur on their reputations and without giving any authorities access to them and therefore to the truth. Use innuendo later to degrade the Master or crew. Nothing personal. Just business.

The judgement in the United States against Fleet Management, the managers of the ship that hit the San Francisco Bay Bridge in November 2007, assumes particular significance in this common backdrop. I do not know whether Fleet tried to blame the ship in the immediate aftermath of the incident; I know that many managers would have. Ten million dollars is not a small penalty, but what will send a shudder down many a shipmanager’s spine is not just this number but the use of the term ‘significant management failures’ leading up to the ruling in court. No doubt the severity of the fine is linked partly to attempts to cover up, but as happens periodically, the lid of the Pandora’s Box has been cracked open once again, this time in the US. The court has clearly blamed the management as well as the Master and the pilot (sentenced to ten months in jail earlier) for the crash, and not in hushed tones either. A precedent has been set in a high profile case, and the industry should be concerned that the precedent will become the norm. The cat may be among the pigeons: Imagine if a ship Superintendent were jailed in the US for contributory negligence or forgery.

Equally interestingly for me and surely alarmingly for shipmanagers are some of the failures listed by the court in the Busan affair: at the manager’s behest and with the Master’s knowledge, these involved concealing records, falsifying documents and charts after the event, creating passage plans and entering backdated positions in an attempt to try to show proper planning and monitoring by the ship on departure from the berth. What is interesting is that this kind of behaviour, on the part of either the managers, Masters or crews, is not unusual at all. Once again, it is an attempt to show blamelessness and mitigate or reduce liability. Once again, it is just business.

The Cosco Busan judgement will force shipmanagers in general into a bit of a corner: everybody knows that some of the reasons for the Busan accident were language difficulties, almost zero Master/Pilot information exchange, poor bridge team performance, pressures that had the Busan sailing in thick fog when many other ships did not, a failure to interpret electronic chart information correctly and, finally, good old fashioned poor navigation.

All these lacunae are commonplace on many ships that sail today. English language difficulties are commonplace in an age of multinational crews. Pilots are as guilty of poor or nonexistent English language skills as anybody else is in many parts of the world, including sometimes in Europe. Concepts learnt in BTM courses conducted in a classroom atmosphere translate poorly to short manned ships where anything more than Pidgin English is subject to misinterpretation and navigational skills are lacklustre.

hen, bridge checklists are often filled in after the event and therefore become a paper exercise. Monitoring a ship’s passage during pilotage (and even maneuvering to pilotage) often becomes something that the Master does alone. All this is not only because Masters and crews perform badly, though many do: the issue is more complex than that. Factors such as shortmanning, calibre of officers, fatigue, a system that is paralysed with checklists written in a language many crew are unfamiliar with and commercial pressures all contribute.

So where do we go from here? Well, even given the issues of calibre and language (which are insolvable in the short term), I think there are a couple of things we can do immediately.

If I were a shipmanager, I would first take a hard look at my in house training programme and concentrate hard on navigational safety. I would do whatever it took to improve this in a practical manner: paper be damned. The Busan crashed into the bridge because of poor navigation. That problem, if it exists, has to be fixed first.

I would then take a good hard look at my ISM manuals and modify them with an eye to practicality: slash and burn everything else. I would then go over the ‘new’ manual again, with an eye to the language this time, making it as close to Pidgin English as possible. (Sounds ridiculous, I know, but the alternative is to get more educated and language literate crews). I would then schedule an annual ‘paperwork audit’ to knock off everything except the bare minimum required to comply with international regulations as far as paperwork is concerned. The rest goes into the bin. Objective: Sufficient compliance on paper and much higher compliance in practice. Right now, it is often the other way around.

This course of action has two advantages: One, the manuals and the checklists derived from those may actually get useful as they are simplified. Two, more people may actually understand the damn things, so they are more likely to be followed. Right now, anybody can beat us over the head with our own ISM systems, cumbersome and ill followed that they often are.

We must simplify procedures to make them more effective. Unlike shore establishments, we do not have the luxury of time or clerical manpower available for filling in less than useful (or required) checklists and other such paperwork. As things stand, non compliance with our own ill thought out systems is easy- and, in the context of the Busan judgement, when the term ‘significant management failure’ has been brought out of the closet- can be very expensive.

As for doing away the commonplace post-incident attempts to protect ourselves by subterfuge, fraud and deceit, well, that requires nothing less than a whole new culture.

Postscript: Besides hoping that a certain (and alleged) ship Superintendent in the US I had to deal with has taken note of the Busan ruling, a stray thought: should poor shipmanagers be tried and judged in court, in the aftermath of an incident, before Masters, crews or pilots are?