July 05, 2012

Burying the ass in the well

Every year, the first working day of July- today, as it turns out- is when the second batch of the six-month GP Ratings Pre-Sea course commences for the year across India. Unfortunately, the run up to the last two batches- including the present one, where the story still has to play out- has been anything but smooth. The acrimony, confusion and finger pointing between the regulators on one hand- the Directorate General of Shipping and its authorised body, the Board of Examinations for Seafarers Trust (BES) - and maritime training institutes on the other seems to be increasing, the largest bone of contention being a shortfall- through a BES controlled All India Common Entrance Test (CET) - in intake. The situation is complicated by the fact that the MET institutes cannot afford to antagonise the DGS beyond a point, subject as they are to the approval and audit regime of the regulator.  This didn't stop some of them from going to court last time, though.

The smaller problem is that everybody- including seemingly secondary players like managers and shipowners- is right, in their narrow-minded way; one has sadly come to expect such self-centred killing of the golden egg laying goose as a given in the industry. The bigger problem is that everything everybody- without exception- is doing is guaranteed, unless things are changed quickly, to destroy the seafaring profession. Because they are looking at numbers instead of quality of graduates- the only thing that will make Indians preferred employees with shipowners. Because they are looking at short-term profit instead of sustainable growth.  Because corruption and middlemen have taken over the game.

The last DG, Mr Agnihotri, made no secret about his opinion- valid, in my view- that too many in the MET establishment were profiteering instead of making a profit. The MET establishment- somewhat understandably- says that the infrastructure and faculty conditions of the DGS are such that costs are high. The first CET  last year (a series of CETs, actually) did not produce enough numbers to fill all the DGS approved seats across the country; this resulted in great confusion around the new year, with some institutes going to court and, based on the ruling (later reversed), taking in trainees all on their own. The DGS came down on this practice later. In any case, many institutes blamed the BES for the poor calibre of entrants- including some CET failures who were allowed to join. They also claimed- somewhat disingenuously, considering that touts were feeding the institutes, which they still do, through the CET apparatus- that they were able to get much better calibre of students earlier, and much higher numbers too. Other abrasive issues included high fees being charged by some institutes, which the BES claimed make them automatically less preferred. Some institutes said that a CET was not necessary, given that the BES was already controlling standards through the Exit Examination - written, practical and oral- being conducted by them for every graduating batch.

Of course, the elephant in the room was always the 'placement' issue- the organisation of the first on-board berth for graduates- which brings us to the story of the present batch. At the time of writing this, indications are that many institutes are up in arms because many of their seats remain unfilled after the CET. Indications are - though I can hardly be sure- that CET failures will not be accommodated this time around, and the last batch resultant 'management quota' is not an option, given court rulings and the hesitance from MET setups to go against the DGS wishes.

The placement issue is an old story; the twist today is that the regulatory and commercial arms of the industry are openly acknowledging what everybody has known for years- that graduates, even toppers from the Exit Examinations, are simply not finding any jobs without paying people sitting in shipowners' or shipmanagers' offices. These include more than a few Master Mariners, by the way, who seem to have graduated to becoming professional touts today. The bogey of 'agents' or middlemen that many of us raise is a red herring, therefore; after all, those agents are bribing people in those offices to give graduates a job.

While Indian shipowners refuse to fulfil their statutory responsibility (in some cases), training institutes are being held responsible for the no-job scenario. On the street, nobody is talking about raising standards of Indian seafarers or excellence at the MET level; training institutes just want to fill up their seats. Nobody is talking anymore about raising Indian seafarer market share to 9 percent- a figure some clueless management consultancy outfit threw at the shipping establishment a couple of years ago, and which was quickly digested without a single thing being done to make it happen. Instead, the commercial industry and the regulators are both clamouring for a reduction in intake- even zero intake, some of them are saying.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the shortfall in the present batch of GP Ratings is a managed affair. Somebody may have decided, in the corridors of power, that it is better to have some MET institutes shut down instead of producing people who do not get jobs. Unfortunately, this is the wrong end of the stick. It is also a vicious circle that will result in a further downward spiral in standards- squeezing the training establishment may well result in a fee war that will eventually guarantee this, as institutes bleed, some of them to death.

Right now everybody is covering their behinds. The blame game is on; everybody is protecting their own interests. Everybody is behaving like the farmer whose donkey fell in the well and who decided that it wasn't worthwhile getting the ass out since he was old and useless, and so decided to bury him there instead- alive. That is what the industry is doing to the profession, make no mistake.

Anyway, if I can complete the parable about the donkey. The farmer, having made the decision to bury the guy, grabbed a shovel and began to throw dirt onto the donkey in the well. After howling for sometime, the donkey became quiet, desperately thinking about survival. What he then started doing was simple- he would shake off each shovel of dirt and- as it built up in the well- take a step up. The farmer, shovelling away, was amazed when the donkey, having reached the edge of the well, happily trotted off.

The simple minded will say that there is a moral to this- when life shovels dirt on you, shake it off and take a step up- never ever give up. I am sure the preachers- of which they are many in our fraternity- will advertise this course of action as the best in our present predicament. They will point to the donkey for inspiration without doing anything else.

Actually, I like a different ending to the story. In that parable, the donkey, after trotting away from the well, becomes very angry at the farmer's betrayal. Enraged, he runs back and bites the farmer- no prizes for guessing where. The bite gets infected and the farmer dies of sepsis.

Moral of the alternative story? When you do something stupid, and then try to cover your ass, it always comes back to bite you.


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