Mumbai: Fifteen ships have sunk off India’s vast coastline over the past two months, mainly because of mechanical problems, as regulators and shipowners grapple with a shortage of skilled staff, officials said.
Although the number is relatively small compared with the thousands of ships that ply Indian waters, they have risen from about four that go down during the stormy monsoon season every year.
“The primary causes are flooding and mechanical problem, which in turn indicated there is something wrong in the material state of the vessel,” said Pankaj Agarwal, deputy commandant of the Coast Guard.
“It means there were no thorough checks before the ships were cleared.”
The ships that sank were more than 18 years old and ranged from 866 gross registered tonne bulk carriers for commodities such as steel to specialized offshore supply vessels.
Shipping firms and regulators have been grappling with a severe shortage of skilled manpower, officials say. This has lowered safety standards and allowed ships to ply even though they may not be seaworthy.
“The rules are not that stringent for near coastal vessels,” said S.S. Kulkarni, secretary general of Indian National Shipowners’ Association.
Of the 15 vessels that went down since May 26, seven were Indian-flagged carriers, while most of the others were flags-of-convenience vessels from states such as Panama and Marshall Islands.
Last week, a 1986-built offshore supply vessel owned by state-run Oil and Natural Gas Corp. went down off India’s western coast. The vessel had 17 members on board, nine of whom were rescued.
Many vessels need at least 12 crew, but most were understaffed, a Directorate General of Shipping official said.
“The coastal shipping firms have thin margins and they cut corners,” an industry official said on condition of anonymity.
Bimco, a global shipping association whose owner-members represent 65% of world’s merchant fleet jointly with the International Shipping Federation, estimated a shortage of 10,000 qualified officers in 2005.
In India, the problem is more acute as seafarers prefer foreign ships that pay more and are tax exempted in India. Local shipowners had estimated a shortage of more than 1,000 people in 2005, Kulkarni said.
The five top positions in the department for enforcing safety and marine pollution norms have had no regular officers for many years, while the survey unit had less than half the staff, an official in the Directorate General of Shipping said.