August 30, 2012

Damned statistics

I suggest that the self congratulatory pats on the back- by the IMO, IMB, UKMTO, Western naval forces, ship owning nations and labour supplying countries- start becoming a little more muted and a lot less hearty than they have been for the last couple of months, because that time of the year is upon us once again: the South West monsoons are nearing the end.

These monsoons are an annual event, as we all know, as is the smug drum beating of that part of the maritime establishment that has accomplished little in the war against piracy and its associated terrorist groups. That does not stop them from letting the world know that they are winning the war against piracy every year; buttressed by statistics of reduced attacks, they have used the high winds and rough seas of the monsoons to propagate the big lie- that it is mainly their actions that are responsible for the improved situation. All kinds of statistics are used to try to prove a non-existent point every year; this year has been no exception.

Even so, this year has been slightly different, because the drum-beating brigade has no longer been able to ignore the main reason why pirate attacks have reduced- armed guards on ships. They have been forced, therefore, to grudgingly give these escorts a little credit without conceding that their own thunder should be stolen. 

It is quite possible that Somali piracy may be on the decline for other reasons. Military actions on land have created setbacks for the Al Shabaab, the terrorist group linked to pirate warlords. Pirates may have themselves moved on to other lucrative businesses like kidnapping. Those armed guards mentioned earlier have certainly played a huge role- much bigger than publicly acknowledged by the priggish brigade- in making many a khat charged wannabe pirate rethink his options. And the UKMTO and its forces have played a part too- albeit a much smaller one than they give themselves complacent credit for. 

In the end, though, whether Somali piracy has reduced or not will be known over a much longer time, not over a selected monsoon bad weather period that keeps the pirates in their villages or busy attacking dhows close to land, facts that are used to distort statistics and promote falsehoods by the mutual back-slappers.

With a little respect, I suggest that the pompous brigade take action on other statistics instead of wasting their time on the monsoon piracy numbers. For example, the statistic that one in five hostage seafarers today (44 out of 218) is being held not aboard his ships but on unknown locations and in unknown conditions on land. They should be more concerned about the bloody developments connected with the boxship Albedo- taken in late 2010- that confirm that pirates are becoming more virulent and violent.  

The Albedo affair has, in fact, many implications that the entire industry has chosen to ignore.  Taken with 23 crew almost two years ago, Indians amongst them, 7 Pakistani crewmembers- including the Captain- were released in July this year after family members and civil society groups in Pakistan negotiated and collected a $1.2 million ransom- a first, and a disturbing development: the Malaysian owners simply had no money. One Indian crewmember died during captivity- the Captain confirmed, after his release, that he was shot dead to pressurise the owners.

“He was a new seaman. None of us will ever forget how easy it was for them (pirates) to kill,” Captain Jawaid Khan said. “They then told me, ‘The countdown has begun. We will start killing one by one.’” 

At one point, sixty-year-old Khan was trussed up with rope and lowered into the sea as trigger-happy pirates sprayed bullets around him. At other times, they would fire just above his head. The entire crew lived in an empty swimming pool, sometimes for 72 hours without food, water or sanitation. 

"Sailors were beaten with pipes and gun butts, and locked in containers. The pirates tore at the skin of their palms with pliers," says Abu Dhabi's 'The National', after talking to Khan after his release.
Fourteen crewmembers are still hostage as I write this, including one Indian. 

And, while all this was happening, nations in the West were pushing to stop ransom payments or make them illegal. Does this brigade really intend to encourage pirates to sell crews back to their own families, one by one, piece by piece? Do we really want to torture seamen's mothers and wives as well, forcing them to listen to their loved ones being tortured over a phone call?

“I want to cry every time I think about him tied up and shot at,” Captain Khan's daughter Nareman says. “ And he hasn’t even told us everything that happened". 

By the way, the released Pakistanis brought back a letter from their 15 colleagues still hostage on the Albedo. "Help us, please save us," the letter says. "If you are not able to do so, we will die automatically ... we are malnourished and are facing many other difficulties. We are drinking contaminated water and don't have anything proper to wear. It is very hot in the day and cold in the night. It is so cold we cannot sleep at night. Many of us are getting sick."

My colleagues, many of us ashore would be getting sick too; it is just that we are busy patting ourselves on the back when we should be kicking ourselves a little lower down. 


August 23, 2012

Crying wolf

Funny things are happening out there. For some reason, marine officer shortage stories have started circulating once again. No numbers are being pulled out of the hat so far, except tentatively- unlike the rubbish we heard up to two or three years ago- but the game is afoot again. You know, the old one where the shipping industry slyly cries wolf to swell the ranks of contractually paid seafarers, most of whom remain underemployed or unemployed. The industry doesn't have to pay these daily wage earners, so bloating the pool has always been to its advantage. Foxy, and I do not mean Megan Foxy.

So we are retold the old shibboleths once again with a straight face. The Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO), says one tale, "sees an annual increase of 2.3 percent in the number of ships of the world’s fleet. This means a steady annual increase in the demand for seafarers to man these ships".

Another story from the Philippines says, half accurately, "The Philippine manning sector must step up its recruitment of competent Filipino officers, as the global maritime community is still reeling for officer shortage." From where I stand, the only people doing any reeling are the community of jobless or underemployed first-time seafarers. 

"The manning sector estimates that the Philippines will need to produce about 24,206 new officers by 2015 or an equivalent of 4,841 per year." the story continues.

Even China, the country that I think will benefit the most from the global economic shakedown in the long run, with shipowners and shipyards both growing enormously- never mind the present dreary situation - does not seem to be able to resist the game. "Senior officer shortages in China have become serious, numbering more than 50,000 vacancies," we are told, because- surprise, surprise- the social status of seamen is not high and the career is still believed not to be safe.

I don't take these fairy tales seriously, because I doubt the integrity and motives of the cry wolf brigade. They speak with a forked tongue even when they speak the truth. For example, the issue of seafarer competence is a good one to raise, and I whole-heartedly agree with anybody who says that there is a shortage of competent officers today and that it will worsen with time, unaddressed as it is. The problem is that many of those who raise it today- administrators and regulators, in particular- were tasked with implementing or overseeing maritime training in the first place. That they now obliquely bring up their own incompetence is bad enough; what is worse is that they have no plans to change themselves in the future. The problem is always somewhere else.

Some countries are thinking the right thoughts, at least. Nini Lanto of the Pre-employment Services of Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) wants to replace retiring European and Japanese seafarers with his compatriots. Philippines has already, thanks to some European pressure, begun to do something about the competence of its seafarers and the problems with its MET assembly line. Overall, it appears to be well positioned with seafaring still an attractive proposition for many.

Besides the Philippines, seafarer numbers have grown in the last six or seven years in regions as diverse as China, Indonesia, Canada and Scandinavia, although some of this growth is insignificant in terms of numbers that are not large enough to make a decent dent in global industry requirements. Maersk is looking at Angolan seafarers, and many are looking at greater numbers out of Africa or Eastern Europe- maybe even parts of Southern and Western Europe too, given the job pressures there today. Some are talking once again of luring women into the profession; call me chauvinistic, but I would hate the women in my family working in a profession that is hostile enough for us men.

The Indian MET setup is in singular disarray in all this. Much hand wringing and soul searching goes on but the systemic paralysis continues. Consequently, India is making it easy for others to take away from its global seafarer market share, low as it is; it has not even begun to address the issues that caused the crisis. For the life of me, I cannot see how India can produce- unless it overhauls the entire system- sufficient numbers of competent officers for the future. Jobs for Indian junior officers are rapidly dwindling. It is just a question of time before good senior Indian officers are threatened with extinction, for where will the experienced come from if junior officers are throttled?

Meanwhile, let us forget about spewing out creative seafarer shortage numbers. In any case, shipping does not have the competence to produce believable numbers without ending up with egg on its face- one has to just look at the figures that were bandied about five years ago to know that. Even for the serious analyst, there are simply too many variables here - demolition activity, overtonnaging, high order books and individual company plans are just some of them. Shipping has never played the numbers game with any accuracy- the last forty years bear testimony to that.

Instead, the game will go the way it always has- based on short-term supply and demand. Individual companies will factor in planned growth and look to meet their requirements a year or two down the line. A few owners from China may flag out if the manpower shortage gets too bad. Seafarer competence will become a bigger and bigger issue -bigger and more complex ships, overregulation and increasing environmental concerns will ensure that. The global economy will recover in one year or ten- or it will find a new level at which to stagnate. More people will want to join and sail or not, and that will determine wages in part. Decisions will be made, as they always have been - on short term considerations.

This is a fluid game, not a static one. This is a chess game with many opponents instead of one. The way shipping is organised now, it is an exercise in futility to try to produce seafarer shortage numbers for even five years down the line. That is a job for the bored or the idle. Or the manipulative.


August 09, 2012

Death before dishonour

Disclosure: I derive a part of my income from the maritime education and training industry. Nevertheless.

When something is unsustainable, it falls apart eventually. Like the crony capitalist economic system that is today imploding across the world. Or, more pertinently to shipping, the present maritime training setup in India that has been going downhill ever since the STCW95 fiasco and the diarrhoeic deluge of third rate Maritime Education and Training(MET) establishments in this country (and others too, but let us stick to us). The resultant plunging MET spiral was inevitable and has been in process for close to two decades by now, underscored by blatant, rampant and unbridled corruption in administration and industry, greed, callous neglect, tumefied egoism and simple cussedness shown by all involved stakeholders.

The MET assembly line is now falling apart- it is dying, actually. There are few takers for its substandard product, and, while the pimps that proliferate in the street and in shipping offices will continue to ensnare the gullible for some more time, the priest should be called in, because it will soon be time for the reading of the last rites. New STCW conventions will not do anything. There is only so much rouge one can put on a syphilitic streetwalker; there comes a point when the disease cannot be hidden any longer. That point has arrived for MET. 

The impending death of the present maritime education circus will be a good thing; I shall not mourn its passing, because I believe that we need to destroy the diseased system first in order to rebuild. There is a risk, of course, that we may not get order out of the resultant chaos once we destroy. But if we don't destroy, there is an absolute certainty of the lingering death of the patient with no chance of resurrection.

While everybody has their own differing thoughts on overhauling MET, all recipes have three recommendations in common- a) Dramatically improve structure and delivery of all maritime education- and, thereby, quality of product; b) Guarantee on-board training and c) Do not promote distance learning programmes (DLPs- or KLPDs, as I uncharitably and crudely call them) at the expense of seatime.   

(There are some other common thoughts that resonate in addition, but they are broadly covered by these three basics. For example, a) would cover making pre sea education practical and relevant as well as re-examining useless STCW courses, b) would cover the tonnage tax regime and the need to take in only those trainees that the industry can place, c) would cover the primacy of experience over an academic certificate, and so on.) 

By the way, I welcome death of the present MET patient over the option of its 'treatment' for another reason- I believe that corruption and greed will ensure that treatment will never work. The training institute will always want to just fill its seats, hang employment or on board training of its graduates. The touts - whether in government or private industry- will always want to protect their commissions. The egotistic in national and international administrations will always want to expand their fiefdoms and justify their existence, such as it is.  The (somewhat grandiosely called) shipmanagement chop shop will usually want to get trained people free. 

It will require mortal struggle by a handful of intrepid visionaries just to knock down the present rotting edifice; to change it from within will require years of single-minded effort, with the existing gang fighting you every step of the way with every weapon in their arsenal - legal, political, industrial and even criminal. Therefore 'treatment' cannot be done.  Actually I am not even sure that we have, within the diseased system, enough integrity left to let the present seafarer factory die, or enough fortitude left to withstand screaming MET establishments, disgruntled pimps or the sound of the explosion of punctured egos if the system is dismantled.

But die it must, so we can protect five thousand years of maritime heritage, not to speak of times more recent when Indian seafarers built, brick by brick, a reputation that is now being cast to the wind. Not to speak of jobs for Indians or other spin off benefits to India, its economy, its industry and its people. 

So there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the present MET assembly line must die so it can be reborn and restart afresh. Along with this must die the touts, the indurate, the obstructionists, the out-of-date and the egotists, for the dishonour they bring down upon all of us is worse than death.


August 02, 2012

Is Barkis Willing?

The irony is not lost on me; the UN's IMO spent years promoting Best Management Practices as the way to contain Somali piracy, when some of us were saying - sometimes to the point of exasperation, as my column will testify- that armed guards were the only short term solution. Owners and insurers eventually sidestepped the IMO, employing armed escorts of varying integrity in increasing numbers. Then, when it became clear that what we were saying was right all along- the numbers of successful hijacks plunged because of armed escorts - the IMO suddenly appeared to rediscover some old apprehensions about the whole business, and started examining the process of regulating the security industry. The United Nations led BMP bandwagon- propagated, cynics say, at the behest of Western commercial interests- was rolled back; the IMO could not justify the charade any longer, so it stopped trying to regulate BMPs and started on security companies instead.

Today, a few years later, the wheel is coming back full circle with a delicious quirk. The Asian Shipowners’ Forum has now submitted a detailed plan asking for UN armed personnel to board and escort merchant ships through the Somali pirate kill zone. The ASF's  'Blue Beret' solution involves floating bases- converted containerships stationed strategically in the Indian Ocean- that will become the embarkation and disembarkation points for a total of about 800 UN soldiers working in four-man escort teams. The ASF represents shipowners’ associations from Australia, China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, South Korea, and other ASEAN countries; oddly, their proposal would cover only 30 ships- 40% of the 80 vessels pass through the high-risk area- every day. The cost for the 40%? 12 million dollars for purchasing the containerships and another 12 million a year for operations. 

Anyway, here is the sting, intended or not. The ASF says that it prefers the UN route but, as an alternative, seems to propose that a few like minded countries get together to form an armed force if the UN plan doesn't materialise. And, although I am sure that the safety of crews is not the ASF's highest priority, some of its members do represent a part of the world that produces a huge number of seafarers, not to speak of Indian fishermen who seem to be a favoured target of trigger-happy soldiers these days- not least the Italians and the Americans. 

The ASF plan seems very logical on the face of it. After all, the United Nations Security Council does have the power and responsibility- under the UN Charter- to take collective action to maintain international peace and security. The protection of international trade must surely rank high on the list by this definition alone. As for the money, ongoing US peacekeeping operations (8 in Africa alone) cost the world 5 billion dollars annually; what is another piffling 24 million?

So why hasn't this been done so far? - is the first question that begs to be asked. It is not as if the ASF proposal is one that has been mooted for the first time: far from it. This question goes to the heart of the matter of the manner of the UN's functioning, even its relevance. Over the years, how much of the UN filibustering on piracy was at the behest of countries with their special interest groups in the insurance, kidnap and ransom and maritime security companies?  How much of the flimflamming is attributable to bureaucracy and how much to malice? How many diplomats fiddled while sailors burned? 

In any event, the ASF plan is embarrassing for the UN and the IMO. Here they were, years ago, discouraging armed guards and producing 'new improved' versions of the BMP almost every other month. Nothing was working. Later, they grudgingly accepted armed guards but continued to attribute the improved situation to the 'success' of BMPs and navies. The industry knew different. It voted with its feet, putting more and more military escorts aboard its vessels. 

So, embarrassment for the UN if it accepts ASF's recommendations. Why didn't you go this way earlier? Many told you to get involved long ago. You could have sidestepped the entire BMP circus and the private armed guards issue- the quality of many security companies was suspect right from the start, and you knew it. Your member States knew it. Some of them even counted on it. 

Alternatively, if the UNSC disregards the ASF recommendations, of course, the industry will continue the 'private armed guards' route- whenever and wherever its assets are threatened in future- the dangers of which are well known and do not require repetition here.  

Of course, the ASF figures on costs will have to be reworked if the UN gets involved. For one, these cover just 40% of effected ships. What happens to the other 60? For another, the UN and its bodies do not do anything cheaply. I am sure those Blue Berets will get their rest periods, even if crews on the ships they protect do not. More connected questions: Why restrict this to Somalia? What about growing West African piracy? 

I don't know what will happen with all this, but the odds are not in favour of the ASF proposal. Will some of its member countries balk at the thought of Blue Beret interference in the territorial waters of sovereign nations? Will the UN and its bodies be pressurised by special interest groups through their host States again? Will bureaucratic lassitude continue? Will the charade be orchestrated again? Will everybody finally see the light? Will the fear of setting a precedent- that would require UN peacekeeping Blue Beret solutions for future security threats at sea- make the UN and the IMO back off the ASF proposal? 

Is Barkis willing?