August 28, 2014

The mercenary position

Private Maritime Security Companies- as middlemen using mercenaries for ship security are somewhat grandly called- are in bad financial shape; they are victims of their own success. Armed guards on ships have meant that Somali piracy has collapsed, even if temporarily, since many warn that pirates are biding their time until guards are taken off from ships leaving them defenceless once again. Anyway, since armed guards cannot be legally employed in much of the other piracy hotspot on the Western side of Africa- they are illegal in Nigeria- PMSC business has been drastically hit. The Gulf of Aden Group Transits, one of the largest PMSC operators, collapsed spectacularly a few weeks ago, leaving a million dollars in unpaid salaries and abandoning a hundred British and East European mercenaries on ships as if they were third world crew. (That somebody else is looking after these mercenaries now, repatriating and paying them, reinforces the value of the right skin colour). Other operators are also said to be in dire straits.

Unfortunately, the reality is that armed guards are the only proven way to protect ships from armed criminals of any hue- pirates, thieves, terrorists or whatever. The reality is, also, that attacks on ships are here to stay. The theatre may change; Somalia yesterday, West Africa and parts of South East Asia today and somewhere else tomorrow, but the play will remain the same. Ships are easy targets and the world is ill equipped to tackle attacks on ships; everybody knows that.

A shipowner’s default setting veers towards a ‘no armed guards’ scenario; the industry sees the high expense (a big multiple of the crew wages it loves to crib about) as justified only after an area has become very dangerous to sail through. Armed guards were put on ships around Somalia years after some of us were screaming about that being the only way. Hardnosed owners and insurers obviously do not want to pay thousands of dollars a day for armed guards unless they feel the risk-reward ratio justifies the large expense.

So the questions remain unanswered. How do PMSC’s survive when demand fluctuates wildly? Does the business model across industry factor in the use of armed guards in trouble spots, whether occasional or regular (on ships that spend most of their time in these war zones?). And of course, does shipping really want to protect their crews from armed criminals and terrorists by paying for mercenaries?

I only know the answer to the last of those questions- no. I can also see which way the answers to the others are likely to go. PMSC’s will have to make their business model more flexible; perhaps maritime security will be just one of a bouquet of security services they will offer to broader industry, pulling out people to place on ships when asked to do so. Or maybe by employing mercenaries only when and if required.

Shipowners and cargo interests will have to get used to putting armed guards on ships and offshore installations as a first or second resort, not the last. Their financial models will have to be tweaked accordingly. Maybe a time will even come, if this menace spreads or persists, when the industry and its regulators will consider arming crews instead. Maybe.

That is for the future. But even today, bodies like the IMO should be using their parent, the United Nations, to pressurise countries into accepting PMSC’s – and guns on ships- as a legitimate need essential to protecting the billions of dollars of ships and cargo that move across dangerous seas. We know that the alternative- refusing to sail ships off West Africa today, for example, or in other hotspots tomorrow- is just not going to happen.

Making maritime security financially, legally and operationally viable is something nobody is looking at, but that is exactly what needs to be done. Today.



August 21, 2014

Boat people from India? Who cares?

There has been very little media coverage in India on the story of the 157 asylum-seekers in Australia who left the Indian port of Pondicherry on an Indian vessel around the beginning of June that was intercepted by an Australian custom’s boat at the end of that month. Most of these refugees are Sri Lankan Tamils and had been living as illegals in India for many years. 

In Australia, used as it is now to the contentious official policy- rolled out last year- that transfers asylum seekers for ‘processing’ to, amongst others, Manus Island, Nauru and Papua New Guinea, human rights groups have been appalled by the treatment meted out to these boat people: Illegal detention at sea on the boat for almost a month in windowless cabins and threats made to the refugees, many of whom were separated from their families, that they would be put in three lifeboats and would have to navigate their way back to India. They were then transferred to Cocos Islands, a remote Australian atoll, before being brought to a detention centre in Western Australia- and then secretly flown to a detention camp in Nauru earlier this month. The youngest refugee is one year old.

The Australian government must be happy that its hard-line policies against asylum seekers’ seem to be working; this is the first boat that has made it close to the Australian mainland in seven months. The country was inundated with boat people a couple of years ago, when asylum seekers from a handful of countries, including Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, were put out to sea by smugglers from Indonesia and Sri Lanka.  

Australian rights groups have once again lambasted the Australian government, saying that the treatment of these refugees makes a complete mockery of the government’s claims to care for their wellbeing and for safety at sea. It is an affront to human decency, they say, to terrify a couple of hundred refugees, many of whom did not speak English, with threats to dump them in the ocean in lifeboats. 

Hugh de Kretser, Executive Director of Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre, says, “Secret detention on the high seas, trying to dump families in lifeboats in the ocean, secret overnight transfers, misleading the public, frustrating access to lawyers and to the courts – such behaviour from the government is trashing the foundations of Australia’s democracy. Respect for the rule of law, open and transparent democracy and fundamental human rights are some of the things that have made Australia the great country it is, but this government is seemingly willing to trash them all for a few cheap political points in the opinion polls.”

All that in Australia. In India, nothing. 

Nobody has denied that the vessel took on the boat people in Pondicherry. Besides a stray, casual reference to the Indian connection, no newspaper, to my knowledge, has stressed the fact that these illegals were in India for years, unable to work or live legally. Nobody addresses, as usual, the fact that in Tamilnadu, much political and public sentiment puts perceived ethnic interests above national interests. Nobody has wondered, after this first instance of a vessel leaving India carrying refugees to Australia that I know of, if this is the start of a new trend. Nobody has explained how many Indians were on board. 

And nobody- not even in one article that I have read, and I have searched for them- has pointed out that this story- of people smugglers loading human cargo in Pondicherry, a stone’s throw away from the major city and port of Chennai- is a major breach of Indian coastal security. That the measures that were supposed to be taken after the Mumbai attacks have once again found to be wanting in the extreme, as they were after Somalis started swimming ashore on to our mainland beaches in Gujarat and on to the Minicoy Islands further south. 

No government statement. No media coverage. No TV talking head expressing concern. Nothing. The seablindness is complete.

Whatever one might think of the Australian official policy, at least they don’t have their heads buried in the sand. 


August 14, 2014

Stop digging

We have been here before.

Shipowners and shipmanagers in India are getting slightly alarmed, once again, at the shortage of officers in senior officer- particularly senior engineer officer- ranks. And, much like the blind men with the elephant, they single out one reason or the other as the main dish and hold it responsible. Managers say that maritime institutes are churning out people that are professionally unfit. That the Indian seamen of today are  unprofessional. That the passing percentage for officers and engineers who appear at the Certificate of Competency exams is very low because the system and its examiners are outdated, and that more people should be passed. And so on.

Unfortunately, much like the same blind men with the same elephant, they are all individually right but collectively wrong; they choose to ignore the forest for the trees. Everybody- politicians, regulators, MET setups and shipmanagers all- choose to ignore the fact that their own segments of the industry, that-with some exceptions- do little to solve the problem has no business pointing fingers anywhere except at themselves. That luring the unfit innocent or poaching the trained- both the main methods to meet manpower resources today - are tactics that are not sustainable, and never were. An industry that collectively does very little to address a problem should not whine when the chickens come home to roost.

In any case, I am not convinced that there is a dearth of officers out there, although there certainly may be a shortage of experienced and competent ones. This differentiation is important; it is actually key to understanding the problem and finding solutions, assuming, of course, that everybody wants to find these and is not just grandstanding.

Incidentally, trying to pressurise the Mercantile Marine Department’s surveyors to pass incompetent people is a recipe for further disaster. Tweak the examination system, by all means, because there are some things that need improving, but make the system stronger, not weaker.

We all have collectively dug the hole. We have individually contributed to the communal cesspool. With corruption- bureaucratic, political and in the private sector, where manning touts and corrupt executives thrive. With the STCW convention itself, and then with its motivated interpretation. With substandard- even useless- training and courses. With debauched manpower related practices in shipmanagement and by shipowners. With bent oversight or blinkered policies from the regulators. Almost every organisation, private or public, connected with the training and examination of seafarers has failed; most have failed spectacularly. The MMD, which is under fire today for not passing enough people, has probably failed the least of all.

And most will continue to fail, although a few of the top shipowners or shipmanagers that have started MET institutes are doing a decent job of it. They choose their trainees better, train them better and to their own specs and place them aboard their own ships. But the vast majority of MET institutions are taking their intake for a ride. The large majority of shipowners and shipmanagers still hope that their officer requirements will be met by somebody else who has invested time and money in training people that have now qualified. The vast majority of governments have, until recently, treated the Ministry of Shipping as a payoff- hence the mess that is the Indian Maritime University. And elements in regulatory bodies and the Ministry of Shipping have been unwilling or unable to stem the rot; we all know why.

Since shipowners will be the main beneficiaries of any enhanced officer quality, more have to become drivers of change. The regulators must clean up their act- and that of other private sector players that need to be cleaned up (or should that be cleaned out?). These two entities can, together, force change. I can’t think of anybody else who can.

I am not optimistic, though, because the system has become so corrupt (and I do not refer only to bribery) and dysfunctional that a complete overhaul is required. The finger pointing game will not get us anywhere, and neither will tweaking a stray element here and there. The problem is too big to be solved this way. The first step to a solution probably lies in returning to a system that promotes high quality of output- which means increasing the value of the Indian Certificate of Competency to what is used to be. This is the first duck that needs to be put in the row.

The mess is complete today and everyone is culpable, so everyone will have to contribute to cleaning it up. Since most will have to be forced- or persuaded at regulatory gunpoint- to clean it up, this will take some doing.

If and until that happens, can we at least stop pressurising the MMD examiners to pass more people, please? Devaluing the Indian COC further must be the daftest thing one can do at this stage. When you are in a hole, you should at least stop digging. 


August 08, 2014

All at sea

There was a time was when giving advice to youngsters wanting to go out to sea was simpler. Tell them, realistically, enough about the life, make them realise the pluses and minuses of the profession and they were ready to make a decision. However, although the same framework could be used today too, the process is not so simple any longer.

For one, and surprisingly in this internet age, many wannabe seamen know very little about a mariners working life even after they seem to have decided to sail. They come to me for advice sometimes, already misled by family or touts or both.  What I tell them is that they do not know enough to make a decision yet. I then tell them the reality of what their working life will be for the next five or ten years; I do not pull any punches and I don’t sugar coat anything. And, because most of these kids do not really want to be at sea, and since most of these kids look at seafaring only after they have failed to get admissions to other professional colleges and the like, they are discouraged easily. Which is just as well; the ocean is no place for the half-hearted. 

Every once in a long while, though, a potentially ideal seafarer of the future comes to me. He is well educated, erudite and clear about what he wants. He may not be well informed about the seafaring life- which is why he sought me out- but he is smart and a quick learner. Invariably, he wants a working life different from what the majority of his peers seek, and he likes the idea of being at sea. He is also, usually, the type of cadet we should be looking for- good language and mathematics skills, the right attitude and temperament and with potential. He should be encouraged to join the profession.

But I don’t do that either. 

What I do instead is to take extra time and care to explain the life to him, much more time than I take with somebody from the first group. To make him understand that the money is not great any longer- not if you have the ability to excel ashore, it isn’t. To explain to him that another advantage of sailing- seeing the world - has eroded considerably. That a generation used to being in constant contact with family and friends online or otherwise may find the lack of communication facilities on most ships a special irritant. That the good life has been largely eaten away by the system and its lackeys.

On the other hand, I tell him, the sea has the ability to give you, exactly, the different kind of life you are looking for. It can be exciting and will make a man out of you in a way that you will enjoy. That, if this kind of life is the attraction, he should seriously consider signing up. Provided, of course, that he joins a maritime training setup that can guarantee him on board placement without tout charges or extortion. I tell him of the few institutes that are worthwhile.  I tell him if he doesn’t get into one of those he should scrap the idea of going out to sea. I tell him why.

I also tell him, finally, that he should be willing to spend the best part of the next decade at sea. And that he should, after a few years, look at whether he wants to move ashore at the end of this decade, and to start preparing for that eventuality. He probably will want to, anyway. If I were from his generation, I would too.

Life at sea is not that great any longer, I tell him. But it is still good enough.  Just be clear that it has the potential to give you what you are looking for, is all.