Bangalore: India has relaxed staffing requirements for vessels operating along the country’s coast as fleet owners struggle to hire officers in the face of a severe shortage of qualified manpower.
The country’s maritime regulator, the Directorate General of Shipping, last week issued guidelines relaxing staffing rules for coastal vessels including cargo, passenger and offshore ships, and dredgers. The extent of relaxation varies according to ship sizes and types.
The local shipping industry—clamouring for such a relaxation—says the move will help the country promote this neglected mode of transport, also known as short-sea shipping. “Attracting and retaining officers were the biggest stumbling block as far as popularizing coastal shipping was concerned,” said S.S. Kulkarni, secretary general of industry body Indian National Shipowners Association.
Smooth sail: Shipping vessels docked at Jawaharlal Nehru Port in Mumbai. The extent of relaxation of staffing regulations by the Directorate General of Shipping varies according to ship sizes and types. Ashesh Shah/Mint
Vessels engaged in coastal trade are smaller than ships that ply international waters. But, the same provisions of India’s Merchant Shipping Act, as applicable to ocean-going vessels relating to construction, equipment, operation, certification and safety, also apply to coastal ships.
“Hiring officers to operate coastal ships had become extremely difficult because crew on coastal ships pay income tax while those on foreign-going ships are exempted under local tax laws,” said S.K. Gupta, joint president, ports and shipping, at cement maker Ambuja Cements Ltd, which owns seven ships that transport about 200,000 tonnes of cement a month between Gujarat and Maharashtra.
Moving cement along the coast was cheaper for Ambuja Cements compared with rail and road, Gupta said. In the absence of tax benefits, the industry had difficulty hiring officers. Those already working on coastal ships opt for foreign-going vessels at the first opportunity, Kulkarni said.
The global shortage of marine officers is estimated to nearly treble to 27,000 by 2015 from about 10,000 now, according to the Baltic and International Maritime Council, or Bimco, the world’s largest private shipping organization. India alone has some 1,000 officers less than it needs, Bimco says.
“Even the reduction of one officer per ship will help us fulfil requirements and operate our vessels without compromising on safety,” said M.V.R Murthy, general manager operations, at state-run Dredging Corp. of India Ltd, or DCI. “Because of the acute shortage, DCI was not able to maintain the manpower required to operate dredgers.”
The maritime regulator said it was relaxing the norms to boost coastal shipping. Taxation and regulatory issues have curbed growth of coastal shipping. Coastal shipping accounts for just 7% of total domestic cargo moved despite a coastline of 7,517km with more than 200 ports.
In the European Union, coastal shipping carries 43% of cargo, while in a share that is still rising. In the US, coastal shipping accounts for 15% of the cargo moved by rail, road and air.
A report on coastal shipping prepared by technology services firm Tata Consultancy Services Ltd said about 4 million tonnes (mt) of cargo a year can be diverted to coastal shipping from road and rail without any increase in transportation costs. The diversion could be as high as 10mt a year by 2012 if adequate incentives were given, the report said.
The maritime regulator has separately flagged off a plan to exempt ships engaged in coastal trade from some of the stringent provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act. The regulator had earlier this year relaxed staffing norms for ocean-going bulk carriers to tackle the shortage of officers. In July, it also allowed local ship owners to hire foreign nationals as officers to run ships on a case-to-case basis.