January 22, 2015

Money for nothing

Although I disagree with some of the specifics of the Modi government’s initiatives on shipping, I happily concede that the newfound focus on Indian ports, shipping, inland waterways and maritime legislation was something that was long overdue. It is early days yet and many of these plans will take years to bear fruit; nonetheless, a beginning has been made.

Having said that, I can only express my extreme dismay at a report that appeared in the middle of this month that said that the Indian Shipping ministry was planning to arrange bank loans and make each cadet going out to sea pay, to shipping companies, three hundred thousand rupees for on-board training. This will apply, we are told, to about 4000 cadets who graduated in the last three years and who did not secure on-board training slots. It is not clear to me whether this will also apply to all future graduates.

The report comes in a reputed newspaper, is written by a well-known shipping journalist and quotes government sources. Nonetheless, I hope the report is not true. And if it is, I wonder who in the government thought up this hare-brained scheme first.

A spokesman from the Ministry is quoted as saying, “The Rs. 3 lakh per cadet grant will be given to the ship owners who train cadets and will be disbursed at the rate of Rs. 1 lakh for each semester backed by a tripartite agreement between the Directorate General of Shipping and MASSA and FOSMA.”  (The acronyms are industry bodies of shipowners, managers, agents etc. I)

The intention is probably noble. Thousands of pre-sea trained cadets are without shipboard training slots in the country, critically needed to complete their sea time for their competency certificates. These numbers are increasing every day. No training slot is available today unless you pay people in shipping companies- through touts- or if the cadet knows somebody in shipping really well. The only exception to this is if the youngster undergoes pre-sea training from an institute run by a reputed management company; those usually absorb their trainees on their own ships.

Yes, the intention is probably good- but as they say, the road to hell is paved with those. This solution to the problem is ill advised and ill thought. If pursued, it will be a disaster.

 Forget the fact that this plan directly seeks to institutionalise corruption. The three lakhs each student will pay a company is suspiciously close to the corrupt ‘market rate’ paid for an on-board training slot today. Forget even the fact that this plan does nothing to address the real issues of poor calibre of intake, mis-selling of a career at sea, poor training and poor motivation from all involved in the exercise. Forget the fact that students are already taking loans to cover their training and the euphemistically named ‘placement fee.’ 

Ignoring all that, two big financial reasons why this plan will not work: One, nothing changes for a trainee. His costs remain the same; the only difference is that he is paying companies directly instead of through touts. In fact, should the government enforce this notion in future, those trainees at management company run institutes who were not paying any ‘placement’ fees may find that their costs have now gone up. And two, three hundred thousand rupees is not a sum large enough to entice a shipowner or manager to take in cadets. Some cannot anyway- their ships do not have accommodation or lifeboat capacities that allow this. Moreover, those that intend to survive on this measly sum are not shipowners I would want to sail with anyway- many are crooks.

Mr Modi and Shipping Minister Gadkari have said much about reviving the Indian maritime sector. As they start doing things to do this, they must realise that all their plans- port development, inland waterway development, the Gujarat maritime cluster et al- will come to naught unless Indian maritime expertise is strengthened and widened. The backbone of this expertise has usually been, around the world, managers with seagoing experience. Frankly, I do not see, in the present state of affairs, the possibility that we will have, ten years down the line, people of sufficient calibre and competence to make these dreams a reality. Not with ideas like this planned money-for-nothing plan, we will not.

This plan is no solution. The government needs to get real. And it needs to stop consulting people who have their own axes to grind when it looks for solutions.



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