January 10, 2013

The rape of seamen- maritime immunity?

That Pratibha Shipping is near bankruptcy should come as no surprise. It should have shut shop months ago, in my opinion; at least the abuse of about a hundred and fifty seafarers under its employ would have stopped.  

It has been known for months that Pratibha was in dire financial distress. Owing dues, sometimes arrested and often without statutory or mandatory certificates, their nine tankers had been stranded- mainly in and off the Indian coast, but also in Chinese shipyards and in Bahrain. Crews on most of these ships went without proper food, water, fuel, medicines or salaries for months. 

The beaching of the Pratibha Cauvery in Chennai late last year probably smelled too much and woke everybody up. Anyhow, the Directorate General of Shipping now says, in early January, that an emergency meeting was held between the DGS, NUSI, Mr Sunil Pawar- MD of Pratibha, the Mumbai Police (at least two of Pratibha’s ships are anchored miles off the city) and the Indian Coast Guard after which the regulators are supposed to have directed the company to take immediate action to provide relief to stranded crew members who are suffering “immense hardship.. and demanding that they be rescued.” 

Rescued from the abusive shipowner, that means, for people like me who are dense. 

Shipping likes to pretend that unpaid wages are the worst-case scenario for crews working for financially strapped firms. This is a lie. Crews usually suffer crippling physical and mental severities in addition to this. Near starvation or unhygienic, sometimes putrefying food, given that there is no power because there is no fuel. Minimal water or no water if they are unlucky. No medical treatment; sometimes not even a pain killer for a headache, leave alone anything that may require a doctor’s attention. No shore leave, either because the ship is arrested or because she is anchored far away from land, away from prying eyes. No repatriation and often little communication with their families, who are themselves in financial distress at home since the seaman breadwinner’s wages have not been paid for months or more. And sometimes, crew have to put up with veiled and unveiled threats from shipowners and managers. With no respite, and no end in sight. Wanting to go home but afraid to go home without the money that is rightfully due to them. Afraid that if they go home, the chances of any wages being settled will disappear.

In the Pratibha Cauvery scandal, the ship was refloated, repaired somewhat but remained stuck in Chennai with her new crew, who suffered the same inhuman treatment that their predecessors did- no wages, no food or water and all the rest of it. They were begging for food and medical supplies in port, reliable sources tell me, and were not permitted to go ashore. In fact, it appears that paramilitary personnel were posted for a while at the foot of the gangway to ensure this. (Wonder who authorised this and why). Crew had no communication facilities aboard. Everybody wanted to go home but- and this is what I cannot understand, and where I blame the Master and crew, whose spinelessness indicates, amongst other things, that they will make poor seamen- were scared for their careers, of not finding another job, or of being blacklisted.

Another Pratibha ship anchored off Chennai has seen the DGS direct the company to relieve the Master on ‘compassionate grounds.’ Wonder what that story is. 

Two ships anchored off Mumbai have been without food or water for three months. (Why are they there? Because, if one can believe it, Pratibha could not pay port immigration fees. One of the ships has the Captain’s family aboard). These ships saw DGS and Coast Guard intervention because several of the crew were suffering from food poisoning, fever and other sicknesses. Wonder what happened there- probably the result of eating unhygienic food or drinking contaminated water. Or maybe the crew are eating whatever they can lay their hands on.  

Another Pratibha ship had a second engineer being ‘rescued’ off Goa. 

The DGS says, now, that the company is planning to sell or scrap a half dozen ships and reactivate the remaining two or three. The majority of sailors will be sent home, the DGS says, and the company will pay their wages after it disposes off the ships. A seafarers’ union-NUSI- will ‘provide’ people to man the ships that are not being sold or scrapped, and will be reimbursed similarly, post the sale of the rest.

Reports say that Pawar has assured the DG that the crew on stranded ships would be ‘rescued’ within 7 to 10 days. Meanwhile, families of the crewmembers are running around, as usual, from pillar to post. Other reports say the DG has said that ‘rescue’ operations would commence soon off Mumbai to bring back many ailing sailors, in need of urgent medical attention.

Note the repeated use of the word ‘rescue’. In an industry that uses the word in connection with dire emergency, distress and abandonment, its usage here says it all. Abandoned sailors now have to be rescued from shipowners, it appears. 

I will not ask why the Pratibha crew on so many ships had to spend months in appalling conditions before action could be taken, or why they agreed to join a company with a reputation like that. I will not ask how the Cauvery was allowed to sail from an Indian port apparently unseaworthy and uncertified. I will not ask why it is assumed that paying earned salaries months after they are due- if, indeed, they are paid at all, there being many a slip between shipping’s cup and lip- is deemed to be fair compensation for abuse. I will not ask why the crew are not to be compensated for months of misery, near starvation, and other conditions that the shipowner is bound, by law, to guarantee are kosher. I will not even ask why the Pratibha story is not unusual, in India and elsewhere.

I will only make one comment. At a time when so many in the country are clamouring for the death penalty for rape, the rape of seamen should be punishable by a decent jail term, at least. No maritime immunity should apply.



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