December 01, 2011

Inside Indian shipping: A few good men

Some of the sound bites coming from India's maritime regulator in connection with marine education and training are interesting; I particularly liked the comment made some time ago by the Director General of Shipping that maritime training institutes should make a profit and not look to profiteering. Absolutely correct. The recent Directorate General of Shipping (DG) decision to issue a Continuous Discharge Certificate with a reduced two year validity to graduates of some maritime programmes suggests that there are teeth behind the bite too; with this step, the DGS wants to track better the 'placement record' of institutes, or more accurately, the lack thereof. We all know that placement is a flourishing racket in shipping.

Maritime training institutes will quite correctly point out that it is only ship owners that can provide training slots, not the institutes, and that the regulations and incentives rolled out by the DGS for Indian ship owners have failed in what they set out to do: create training slots for future officers and crews. I agree with these institutes, because things have reached such a sorry state that even officials in well known shipping companies- not just touts and middlemen- are taking bribes to 'place' youngsters, most of whom will never get a training berth aboard a ship without paying a fair amount of money to somebody or the other. The racket is an epidemic; most everybody is involved.

It is very possible that Dr. Agnihotri- the present DG- has plans that include a holistic addressing of the problems that plague the training business, and that the Directorate has just started- not ended- its cleanup move. Cynics will say that some of the DGS' initiatives are prompted by the recent ESMA visit to Mumbai or the crackdown on the MET business in the Philippines; I say that is irrelevant to the fact that the Indian MET juggernaut is in a mess and needs to be fixed- in our own interests.

But it will not be. It won't be because- in addition to deep flaws in our training setup- there are also weaknesses connected to the structure and execution of shipping's administrative and regulatory systems. Those need to be fixed too, else any clean-up exercise will be eventually incomplete and so ineffective.

The biggest weakness is in the very nature of the Director General's appointment; in line with protocol, the DG is transferred every few years and a fresh appointment made. The problem is that any person at the top of any government setup in India can only start to do good within this time; to complete a change requires time that he or she usually does not have. Changes to regulations in shipping may be mandated and quicker, but changes to a system- including the internal systems at the DGS- will take much longer.  We have to give any person of integrity, intelligence and ability enough time to perform.  We do not, so we always produce a half baked dish.

In this connection, I have never been one of those that say that only a mariner should be at the helm of affairs at the DGS. I say that the best person for the job should be appointed and retained based on performance. There have been many mariners within the DGS and MMD; at least some of those have either not delivered or have been otherwise less than suitable. The Indian system, like the British one, assumes that a transfer every few years ensures a clean system. It does not; we know that. Only an honest person at the helm - given enough time- can do that.

Coming back to the MET issues that we started with, what is likely to happen is this: The unsavoury elements that the DGS is trying to eliminate from the training space will wait it out, knowing that the next routine change at the top at the DGS will mean that a new person comes in, takes time to settle and prioritise- and that the system will then start reinventing the wheel again, more or less from scratch. Meanwhile, these elements will continue to exploit the cracks. 

I am saddened by this, because I do believe that the DG - at least with regard to maritime education- is on the right track. I agree that the MET business needs a cleanup. I believe that the on board training arm of our MET is its weakest link and a travesty. I would like to see the net cast wider than on just the DNS programmes and their 'placements' done thus far, to include all programmes for cadets, ratings and even shorter STCW courses. I believe we should not be training anyone that we cannot guarantee an on-board training berth to. 

Many in the industry often say that no education in the world guarantees a job, so why should we in shipping want to do so? They conveniently forget the fact that a training berth on a ship is not a job; by definition, it is part of the training that the industry is supposed to provide.

To be fair, the problems at the DGS are not unique; government departments throughout the country have near identical issues. Ultimately, the basic problem everywhere- including at the DGS- may be that the system does not support progress. The bad people do a lot of long lasting harm in their allotted few years and go; the good people can only start to do good in that time, not complete it. The good guys' reward may lie in walking away with integrity and with their heads held high, but imagine the change we would see if the system could exploit the full potential of these few good men and women.

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