March 27, 2014

Deathbed abuse

Prelude: In April this year, representatives of seafarers, shipowners and governments will meet in Geneva at an ILO organised event to vote on an amendment to the MLC 2006, which, if agreed, would make it  mandatory to safeguard the financial interests of abandoned seafarers. I am not holding my breath; remind me to publicly apologise if anything substantive comes out of that junket.

It is perhaps natural that when shipping companies- as others- go bust they should die. Whether they are fit for resurrection, however, should depend on how long and how badly seagoing employees were abused by these firms as they lay on their deathbeds.

In a first instance of its kind, the Directorate General of Shipping withdrew the operating licence of Varun Shipping this month, apparently since mandatory vessel certificates were overdue ‘for several months’ and also- we are told, although I don’t believe this- because of non-payment of arrears of crew wages.  In a suspicious turn of events that smack of cynical orchestration, the company sought a fresh licence immediately after its old one was withdrawn, seeking to operate its ships under Varun Global Ltd, a Group Shipmanagement company. This was confirmed by Yudhishthir Khatau, Varun’s Chairman and Managing Director. Varun will go the ‘normal’ other route, it appears, where ships are owned individually by separate paper companies so that liabilities of one company doesn’t hobble the entire fleet.

I could ignore all that too, if this de-facto Varun bankruptcy had not been accompanied by the seafarer abuse that is all too common in most such cases. This is not simply to do with non-payment of wages or wage arrears. On March 10, the Captain of the ‘Maharshi Vamadeva’ asked for help from the Indian Coast Guard after the health of three officers who had been on a long hunger strike deteriorated.  The ship had been anchored since January 7 off Mumbai with zero support from the company, the Captain said; the 25 crew had not been paid since September last year. We know the rest of the story- little or no food, water, medical help or fuel, seamen going crazy- because we have all seen and heard it before. To add to the crew’s misery, they were not even allowed to escape, unpaid or not- the change of crew scheduled in January did not materialise.

Varun - named after the Hindu god of the oceans- had been in financial difficulty for many months with the usual stories of abandoned ships and suffering seafarers doing the rounds. The DGS had, in October last, asked Varun to produce a financial package to cover crew wage arrears and drydocking expenses. Varun- with a debt of almost 180 million USD in September ‘13- was forced to sell a couple of its VLGCs at the behest of lenders, but that wasn’t enough. Or maybe it just wanted to start afresh.

The Maritime Labour Convention has done little on the ground to address the abuse of seafarers that is almost a given if an owner is in financial difficulty. We saw it with Pratibha Shipping earlier, when powerful interests combined to shaft the crew, some of whom died in the drama off Chennai at the time. In this case, too, the CMD of Varun is not an ordinary shipowner. A graduate from Wharton, he is or has been a President of BIMCO, Director at the Indian Register of Shipping (which presumably registered Varun’s Indian fleet) and President of the Indian National Shipowners’ Association. He has won many awards at events hosted by organisations such as Lloyd’s, Seatrade and at the India Shipping Summit. So has Varun.

The behaviour of such a company towards its crew, therefore, underlines the fact that the pedigree of the shipowning company is immaterial. Generally speaking, shipping sees no comebacks to treating its crews abysmally; shipping, as an industry, is deliberately structured to make seafarer abuse almost the first instinct of a shipowner or shipmanager whenever the chips are down.

The blinkered will say that this is the way the world turns. That employees face delayed or unpaid wages when their companies go bankrupt in other businesses too. There too, the management sometimes seems to get away scott-free while workers suffer. Why should shipping be any different?

That is a facile response, because shipping is different. Seamen are not ordinary employees (Hell, most of them are contractual workers, not employees anyway, but let us ignore that). An ordinary employee still goes home if you don’t pay him. Unless he is dead broke, he still eats, sleeps and gets medical attention if he needs it. The payment of his arrears is a higher priority for a company compared to a seaman’s, because the worker ashore has visibility. Maybe a union or a politician will support unpaid employees. Maybe they can go to court or to the company’s lenders. Maybe a hundred other things.

A seaman has nothing when he is stuck on a ship like the Vamadeva, effectively abandoned by its owners. Usually no food, no water, no electricity and no medicines. Sometimes not even- for months- the wherewithal to call his family on the phone. If in port, he survives on the kindness of charities; if at anchor, he survives by catching fish. He cannot go home, either because he can kiss his wage arrears goodbye if he does or because no such possibility exists- if the ship is outside port limits, for example. This is a guy who may be earning thousands of dollars per month on paper, by the way, not some labourer on a subsistence wage. Those ashore cannot even begin to imagine a seaman’s trauma in such a circumstance; those who compare this scenario with a bankruptcy ashore do not have a clue.

But those in shipping can and do. That they do not choose to pay their crews- that they feel they can treat, with impunity, seamen like they are animals on a dung heap- is why shipping is where it is today. And this is why smart seamen do not trust an average shipowner or shipmanager further than they can throw him.


March 20, 2014

The Indian Navy- is poor training an issue?

Navies have always held a special place within the armed forces. They have forever been an extension of military power, their dominance usually- as during the British colonial heydays-acting as a force multiplier presaging economic and political ascendance. Navies take the war to the enemy. They have also been seen as crucial to a nation’s ability to defend itself against more powerful forces. Witness India’s thrust in the last decade to try to counter China by allocating more to its navy out of its defence budget. Witness Iran sending its navy to US shores to try to make a point.

That said, the last few weeks have been a nightmare for the Indian Navy; it seemed, for a time, that it was reporting almost an accident a day even after the resignation of the Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Joshi, who quit owning ‘moral responsibility’ after the Sindhuratna incident. The media was quick to highlight the navy’s poor safety record over the last year, with a spate of accidents- at sea, in harbour, while manoeuvring and at its shipbuilding centre at Visakhapatnam that is home to the country’s ambitious nuclear submarine programme.

The Indian armed forces in general, and the Indian Navy in particular, have been reported often enough to be suffering from poor procurement policies and decisions, a lack of strategic vision by the country’s politicians and myriad issues that have hit them ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. We are led to believe that the country’s defence preparedness is in a mess and that the navy suffers from an ageing fleet that is falling apart.

I will be the first to admit that it would be unusual if the paralysis in governance we have seen in India over the last few years had not hit the armed forces. In fact, it would have hit them first and harder than it has hit governance in general and the economy in particular. Indeed, the comatose behaviour of the Defence Ministry has come under fire after the recent naval accidents, with senior journalists calling Defence Minister AK Antony inert, in a stupor, and worse. So, yes, indecision in governance is a factor here, as is the fact of widespread corruption and kickbacks connected with defence deals in the world’s largest international procurer of weaponry, a position India has held for the last few years.

However, many of the accidents that have happened in the last year in the naval fleet have not been on old ships but on relatively new ones- the Talwar, Tarkash and Airawat incidents, for example. Moreover, few of these incidents were due to machinery breakdowns or some such, but appeared to be navigational errors- the Sindhughosh grounding in a harbour channel, for example. Age or poor refurbishment was not a factor in the Sindhuratna fire either, which started due to a short circuit elsewhere and had nothing to do with old batteries not replaced, as first reported.

To add to the list of human error probables are other incidents to do with safety- a CO2 valve blowout on a destroyer at the Mazgaon docks, for example, that killed a naval Commander and injured another worker. The naval officer suffocated when CO2 was inadvertently released after the valve blowout, which begs the question as to what kind of procedures were in place on the largest Class of destroyer in the Indian Navy. Also worrying is the possibility that Indian naval yards are not much better than the government owned commercial shipyards of yesteryears when it comes to safety. Or their quality of construction- something that would be really alarming given that we are talking, here, about fighting ships that need to be built absolutely reliably.

A question begs to be asked, therefore: does the Indian Navy- like its merchant naval counterpart- suffer from poor training? 

Because, all in all, the impression I get is of a critical defence arm- the Indian Navy- suffering from low morale, high human error, poor training and political and bureaucratic paralysis. I do not get the impression that ageing ships or poor procurement are the causes of the accidents that seem to be happening with embarrassing regularity.


March 13, 2014


The commercial maritime industry does itself a disservice when it complains, as it does from time to time, that the world is seablind. It also misquotes; the term was first coined a few years ago by Sir Jonathon Band, First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy, who was talking about Britain’s defence capabilities and cuts in military- particularly naval- spending. The mercantile marine, for want of a better term, has taken Sir Band’s term to heart but out of context. They think seablindness is supposed to mean that the general public everywhere is unknowing and uncaring about merchant ships and their crews and is ignorant of the fact that these carry, as everybody loves to say, 90 percent of everything.

I suspect that the public is not half as ignorant about shipping as we believe it to be. True, they may not know much about how a ship works or how many million tonnes of cargo is moved daily across the seas, or details about what a ship’s crew actually does. They may still not know that we carry 90 percent of everything. However, anybody living in coastal areas anywhere in the world would have to be physically blind not to notice the sea and the ships that sail on it. Or, indeed, the huge amounts of cargo- containers or bulk or oil- that nearby ports seem to handle. In many parts of the world, much recreational activity is centred around the water.  Inland seas, waterways and rivers, particularly in Europe, Japan and the Americas, are the much visible arteries of commerce in those countries. The economic and strategic importance of the Suez or the Panama canals to these countries is well known to their citizens.

Entire civilisations have been born right next to the water. The biggest and most important cities of the world, almost without exception, have been born where the ocean has met land. To say, then, that John Q Public is blind to the maritime world is a trifle disingenuous.

Actually, turning the accusation on its head makes more sense. A case can well be made that it is shipping that keeps its distance from Mr Public. The industry is structured to do exactly that: It is secretive to the extreme- what can one expect when the ownership of a ship is often hidden from even Masters and crews?

But that is not all. Shipping does not engage with the general population in any way whatsoever; it does not apparently feel the need to do so. There are no outreach initiatives and no advertising of the critical importance of what it does. Across the world, there is little attempt at any public relations. It would seem that shipping likes to live in its small, incestuous world. The same old members of the same old industry bodies talk to each other and do business with each other, often complaining, as in India, that the politicians do not give shipping its due. That the general public is blind to their importance.

Nobody says that it seems to suit shipping to keep the general public in the dark, or that it chooses for things to be this way. And nobody says that it is shipping that appears to be the blind one here. Also, dumb. For, if it made sure that the general public was educated enough to understand the importance, in their daily lives, of ships and shipping, then it would not need to pressure politicians all that much to make those policies or to support those initiatives that would make the industry thrive.

But shipping does not want to realise that. It is shoreblind.


March 06, 2014

Milking the Agenda

One would think that some new policy decisions had been made or some new truths revealed, when President Pranab Mukherjee and Shipping Minister GK Vasan spoke at the first convocation function at the Indian Maritime University recently. The President, referring to the country’s 7500 km long coastline and the dismal numbers associated with Indian ships carrying Indian cargoes, said what everybody else has already said- that India had to boost the quality of its maritime personnel and  also increase its shipbuilding capacity.  Vasan, on the other hand, repeated, almost verbatim, what had been put out in the Maritime Agenda rolled out by his government almost three years ago, saying that the aspiration was to ‘substantially increase the strength of our seafarers to 9 per cent of the world share’ from the present 6 or 7 per cent. 

I will leave aside the fact that I am deeply suspicious of the ability of the IMU, an institution mired in all sorts of unsavoury scandals and controversies almost since its inception, to deliver any kind of quality.  Even so, all that Mukherjee and Vasan said at its convocation is old hat. These clichés have been repeated too often by commercial managers, bureaucrats and politicians alike over the years and sound terribly anaemic by now. Because experience has shown us that they are just words backed up by little or no action. 

The fact is that the Maritime Agenda 2020, rolled out in 2011, said that the 9 per cent number was to be accomplished by 2015, which is next year. I don’t know if anybody has compiled statistics recently, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that 6 per cent number has fallen instead of rising, but then I can’t think of a single cohesive policy that has been implemented, in the last three years, to make the 9 per cent number even remotely possible. Grand declarations of intent achieve zilch without will and action. A vision on its own is nothing.

Which is why I am also sceptical about another grand plan- the formation of an Indian Maritime Service. The National Shipping Board, the highest advisory body to the Ministry of Shipping, recommended last week that the Government constitute a committee or appoint a consultant to work out the modalities for this administrative service that would be on the lines of the Indian Administrative Service or the Indian Police Service. Shipping has suffered much, we are told, from the dearth of professional maritime administrators; the IMS will change that.

Now I am not saying that the IMS is a bad idea. For the life of me, however, I can’t imagine how an organisation modelled along the lines of the almost incredibly corrupt and compromised IAS and IPS will effectively deliver anything.  Chances are it will just add another layer of new infirmity to old decrepitude.

It appears that we in India will do many things to solve shipping’s problems. We will conjure up grand visions and produce eloquent clichés. We will deliberate and advise. We will produce statistics and pay consultants to find solutions to problems that they know little about and will never face. We will expand clerical fiefdoms and pretend that administration is the purpose of the exercise, and the dubious panacea that this will solve much.  We will even repeat old, tired platitudes while pretending that they are brand new.

But we will not act. And we will not clean up our act.