Bangalore: Fulmati Devi was eight months pregnant when her husband Hriday Narayan Ramjee Chauhan, a technician from Wadala in Mumbai, went missing on 18 February in the Black Sea with 24 other Indians working aboard cargo ship MV Rezzak.
The missing crew
Fulmati was informed about the missing ship only after she gave birth to a girl on 8 April. The daughter, yet to be named, may never get to see her father.
Further away in Andheri, a western suburb of Mumbai, Poonam Afroz Ahmed, a Maharashtrian Hindu, is inconsolable. After courting 29-year-old Afroz for almost a decade, the two tied the knot 16 months ago.
Poonam, 23, married Afroz, 29, on 5 September 2006 after he popped the question on Valentine’s Day a year earlier. “My sixth sense says he is alive. There were occasions when he used to be unwell while on voyage, and I could feel that something was amiss. It is impossible for such a big tragedy to happen in my life without my sixth sense giving me an indication,” she says.
Hope floats: ‘In the absence of proper evidence, we cannot accept the ship has sunk,’ says M.B. Goswami, seen here in an undated picture with husband B.B. Goswami, the ship’s master.
Poonam last spoke with Afroz in Russia for nearly an hour on the midnight of 17 February, shortly before the ship was to sail to Turkey carrying steel billets.
Three months on, she’s not been able to come to terms with her husband’s disappearance, even if it means a struggle for necessities because she can’t withdraw money from his bank account. “The bank is asking for a declaration from me stating that my husband is no more. I cannot give such a death certificate,” she says, her voice choking with emotion. “It’s not that easy.”
In one of the biggest shipping disasters involving an all-Indian crew, MV Rezzak went missing while on its voyage from the Russian port of Novorossiysk to the Turkish port of Bartin Limani. Family members of the crew are yet to come to terms with the disappearance.
“We are 100% sure that the ship has not sunk. There is no confirmation. We are not going to accept that the crew perished in the mishap,” says Uma Mohan, sister of the ship’s chief engineer Mahendra Gopal Krishna Menon. “Why doesn’t the Directorate General of Shipping explore the case from the maritime fraud and piracy angle?” she asks.
“In the absence of proper evidence, we cannot accept that the ship has sunk,” says M.B. Goswami, wife of B.B. Goswami, the ship’s master.
Others, too, are holding on to hope.
In West Bengal’s 24 Parganas district, Lakshmi Roy is undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer, and her husband for a nerve disorder. Her brother Kishor Kumar Roy, a cook on Rezzak, was her main financial support. “We are waiting for his return,” says 21-year-old Soma Roy, Lakshmi’s daughter.
The family of Ashok Kumar Dukhi Prajapati, a 37-year-old technician on Rezzak, too, believes he will return. “My heart says my husband is still alive,” says 32-year-old Sangita Devi.
A year ago, Prajapati, his wife and three sons moved into a new house in Jovahakhas village of Deoria district, Uttar Pradesh, built with money borrowed from banks and relatives. With Prajapati’s disappearance, the onus of earning for the family is on their eldest son.
Those who disappeared with the ship include 23-year-old Alok Kumar, a top-ranking student from Jharkhand who was working as a junior engineer on board Rezzak. He had joined Pelican Marine Pvt. Ltd, the Mumbai firm that supplied crew to Rezzak, in August 2006.
Ten of the 25 Indian crew on board Rezzak came from the tiny island of Minicoy in the Lakshadweep archipelago, where 90% of the people earn their living doing small, odd jobs on board ships.
Muthegebidharuge Hussain, 29, was sailing for the first time. “We have no information whether Hussain is dead or alive. And this uncertainty is more difficult to deal with,” says Hussain’s cousin Ibrahim.
“It looks like a hijack,” says Ibrahim Hajikagothi, brother of 29-year-old Sajid Hajikagothi from Minicoy. “If the ship sank, we would certainly have received a message from the ship’s EPIRB.” EPIRB, or emergency position indicating radio beacon, is an emergency signal that can be triggered manually or automatically when a rescue is needed
Santosh Biswas, director of Pelican Marine, dismisses such reactions as “emotions”. Pelican does not hold a licence from India’s maritime regulator, which is mandatory under relevant Indian laws for any firm that wants to operate in the shipping business, even as a staffing services provider.
“We hire and supply crew to ship owners on the basis of a provisional approval,” he says. Biswas would not say who granted the provisional approval.
Rezzak was registered in Panama and the ship’s insurer, Luxembourg-based British Marine Luxembourg SA, is waiting for a final report from Panamanian authorities to proceed on claims.
“We have no other choice. Some authority has to say that the ship has indeed sunk. Otherwise, on what basis will we move ahead with the process of giving compensation?” asks an official with Mumbai-based James Mackintosh and Co. Pvt. Ltd, British Marine’s correspondent in India. “We don’t know which way the report is going,” he adds.
In shipping, correspondents are firms that provide claim settlement advice to ship owners and marine insurers.
The interim safety investigation report penned by R.K. Muduli from the Directorate General of Shipping, the country’s maritime regulator, said the ship “underestimated the severity of the prevailing stormy weather and sea conditions for safe navigation.”
The directorate general is now waiting for the safety investigation report of the Panama Maritime Authority to pronounce the final verdict on the missing ship.
“This ping-pong will unnecessarily delay the process of paying compensation,” says Abdulgani Serang, general secretary of National Union of Seafarers of India, or NUSI, a trade union representing seamen working on Indian and foreign-registered ships. The crew from Minicoy were members of NUSI.
But, unlike Indian-registered ships, the crew of Rezzak was hired by Pelican Marine, the ships’ manning agent. And employees hired thus are not covered by the same laws.
Meanwhile, family members have rubbished Muduli’s interim report. “The entire report is a lie. Every chapter is wrong,” says Mohan.
She adds that director general of shipping Kiran Dhingra told a delegation of family members who met her that given the delay in getting government approval for the trip, Pelican Marine sponsored Muduli’s journey to Russia, Turkey and Panama to investigate the case. Mint could not independently verify this. Dhingra could not be reached for her comments. Her office said she was in a meeting.
Biswas confirmed Pelican Marine paid for the air tickets of Muduli and provided all assistance to him in Russia, Turkey and Panama, but would not comment. “This was done to complete the investigation at the earliest, as government approval takes a long time,” he says.
In the past five years, four foreign ships including Rezzak, with 54 Indian crew members, have gone missing and nobody has a clue about them till today, says Mohan. These ships were Jupiter 6, Reef Azania and Infinity Marine 1.
The family members accuse the Directorate General of Shipping, the shipping ministry and Pelican Marine for not supporting or helping them crack the case. But the country’s maritime authority says it has done whatever it could.
“The ship was registered in Panama and the incident happened outside India’s territorial waters. Still, we have gone out of our way to pursue the case and help the family members on humanitarian grounds,” says Deepak Kapoor, nautical surveyor and a deputy director general at the directorate.
The families are in no mood to listen. “If that was the case, why are they allowing people to go and work on foreign ships? Having done that, it’s the responsibility of Directorate General of Shipping to look after the 25 Indians,” says Mohan.
Family members of the missing crew say Pelican Marine’s Biswas has been hounding them to sign papers relating to the missing ship and the crew. “Biswas says the ship has sunk and the crew (is) dead. How can he decide that?” asks Mohan.
She claims that family members of the earlier missing ships who signed such papers are yet to get compensation from the ships’ insurers. She also says Pelican Marine has stopped paying salaries to the crew after February. “Under maritime law, the missing crew has to be paid salaries till it is conclusively established by some authority that the ship has sunk and the crew is dead.”
“We are not going to leave the case. We want the government to take action,” says Sangita Devi.
Tomorrow: Families set to take the battle to the courts.