January 20, 2011

Ozymandias at Match Point

`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away'.
                                               - Shelley

On the 13th of January, the Indian Shipping Minister unveiled the “Maritime Agenda 2010-2020”. The sweeping maritime plan for the decade sets goals that-on paper- promise to transform the ports, waterways, shipbuilding, cargo handling and shipbuilding industries in the country with an estimated investment of $110 billion. Amongst the stated goals- and I am quoting from the press release here, are ‘Collaboration of IMU (Indian Maritime University) with top global academic institutions in the maritime sector’, and to ‘Increase India’s share of seafarers to 9% of the global strength by 2015.’

I don’t know if the Shipping Minister will appreciate the irony, but on the same January 13- and perhaps even as he was launching his grandiose Agenda- his own Government’s Central Bureau of Investigation was raiding the same said IMU in Chennai- and its Vice Chancellor Dr. P Vijayan’s residence- on suspicion of corruption and malpractice. The CBI claims that Vijayan has taken money from maritime institutes for approvals and affiliations for running MET courses and has bought ‘several immovable properties in and around Chennai city,’ according to press reports. It also claims to have recovered incriminating property documents from Vijayan’s office and home that indicate- in a phrase that is alas, very well known to us Indians, that Vijayan has ‘assets in his possession beyond known sources of income’.

A CBI raid, instigated or not, is not a small thing, but at least I have no intention of presuming Mr. Vijayan’s guilt here- or indeed proclaiming his innocence. That story will play itself out one way or another; the truth will, hopefully, set us free.

My point is separate, and part of it is that, even ignoring the IMU raid, corruption in the MET business- and, indeed, in all spheres of maritime life, as Capt. Rath so eloquently points out often in this same publication- is so commonplace that it is routine. For example, there is little in the training and education business that is clean, particularly when bureaucracy is involved. This rot is a pan Indian phenomenon; it is hardly confined to one city or institution. The corruption is universal and, after decades, unsurprising. In the words of Ghalib, ‘hota hai shab-o-roz tamaasha mere aage’- the spectacle plays out every day before me. Before us.

My point is not even that our maritime institutions- including, it must be said, many international ones, are firmly entrenched in promotion of this bloc or that or beholden to this group or another, and so are ill equipped to do too much overall good. It is not even that our domestic maritime institutions- from regulators to industry bodies to professional and trade associations to the unions to the educational institutions- have often been bought or sold or otherwise compromised in one form or another.

My point is not to descend into our usual mourning and self-flagellation that we seem to reserve to times such as this, although I do feel that generations of Indians post 1947- including Indians in shipping like me- have failed their children: they have either tolerated breathtaking corruption or sometimes actively participated in it.

My point is not even that we should feel ashamed, although I wonder what the young Cadet or Rating training anywhere in the country will think of our industry when he reads in the news that the head of the IMU is being investigated for corruption. Will he or she- already exposed to the touts, shady training institutes, corrupt babus and middlemen in the business-be disillusioned further? Forever?

My point is simply this: There is no point in making pretentious and extravagant plans or decade long agendas unless we root out corruption in the Indian maritime space. There is no point in trying to erect an edifice until the pillars of the foundation, hollowed out by termites, have been treated and strengthened. There is no point in hoping that things will get cleaner along the way any longer. There is no point in just ‘waiting and seeing’ anymore: all we will see is a percentage of that $110 billion siphoned away and a much larger percentage of it being diverted to iffy projects of little merit but that are politically or otherwise expedient. The money will, in all probability, go to fatten the oligarchy and not to infuse lifeblood into the industry.

I will be the first to admit that our industry’s corruption is part of the wider corruption that has hollowed every institution in the country, and that it cannot be tackled- leave alone eliminated- in isolation. I would love to be convinced that cleaning up the rot will be easy. I would be thrilled to be told that the Shipping Ministry, in concert with the industry, has decided, as part of the grand Maritime Agenda 2010-2020, that no bribes will be paid or received from today in any maritime related business, and that business will be conducted for business reasons alone. I will be happy even if many individuals amongst us made that decision independently and implemented it in our day to day lives.

Unless all that begins to happen, I think we should stop wasting time and resources spewing out those decade long agendas or the 9 percent or 110 billion or whatever numbers. We should stop the tamaasha, please.


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