Piracy is no longer limited to stories in children’s books or cartoon shows. Like terrorism, it has become a global issue that needs serious attention.
The safety and welfare of Indian seafarers working on ocean-going ships have never been a priority with the government. Two instances come immediately to mind: the mysterious disappearance of the Panama-registered ship MV Rezzak and 25 sailors in the Black Sea in February and the detention since December 2007 in South Korea of two Indian officers—Jasprit Chawla and Syam Chetan—of oil tanker Hebei Spirit after a mishap that caused the worst ever oil spill in the history of that country, though the two were not in any way responsible for the incident and were cleared by a court there.
So, it comes as no surprise that the Indian government has sat as a mere spectator when pirates started hijacking ships with alarming frequency in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of strife-torn Somalia in the past few months.
So far, no Indian ship has been hijacked, but those taken over by pirates have a few Indian officers and crew on board. India supplies some 6% of the seafarers to global shipping. They have made a name for themselves manning and operating some of the world’s biggest tankers and bulk carriers.
Out of the roughly 82,000 Indian seafarers working on board Indian and foreign ships, about 52,000 are employed on foreign vessels.
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Every day, hundreds of ships coming from Europe to India and other destinations or going to Europe from various points of origin have to pass through the notorious waters in northwest Indian Ocean. Countries such as the US, the UK, Canada, France, the Netherlands and Denmark have sent their warships to patrol the waters close to the Gulf of Aden, to thwart piracy and protect their sailors.
India so far has a hands-off stance on the issue, mainly because of a fear of spoiling relations with the transition government in Somalia.
The defence ministry has put naval ships on standby, ready to proceed to Somalia to patrol the area if the external affairs ministry gives its go-ahead for this exercise. The external affairs ministry, however, is yet to take a call.
The situation would have remained the same if an oil tanker owned by Mumbai-based Mercator Lines Ltd had not got into a problem earlier this week. Immediately after the ship loaded with crude oil left a West Asian port for a European destination, the crew refused to operate the ship as it had to transit through the Gulf of Aden. They threatened to jump overboard and kill themselves if the ship proceeded on its journey. The captain had no choice but to anchor the ship mid-sea. As a result, Mercator cannot even change crew to help the ship sail with the cargo and execute the contract.
An idle ship would mean a loss of thousands of dollars to its owners and consequent penalties for not delivering cargo on time. The shipping industry has the option of taking a detour and sailing round the Cape of Good Hope. But this is a longer route, which will substantially raise freight costs for merchants.
The local shipping industry says, quite rightly, that the government should provide protection to its seafarers whether they are working on Indian or foreign ships. This is because Indian shipowners do not want to send guards to protect their crew and ships from pirates and assume risks arising from any mishap, because the insurers won’t oblige.
The wage agreement signed between shipowners and workers’ unions provides for a payment of an extra Rs10,000 for each day spent sailing through troubled areas. Also, the compensation to be paid to a worker in the event of a mishap resulting in disability is twice that paid under normal circumstances. But this will be given only when such regions are declared as war zones, which in this case it hasn’t been. So, seafarers are right if they refuse to sail through the pirate-infested route.
Surprisingly, the interventions of the United Nations Security Council has not resulted in any improvement in the situation. The International Maritime Organization, the global maritime regulator, wants the UN Security Council to take stronger action to solve the problem. It has asked maritime nations to voice their concerns strongly at the UN that this cannot continue any longer.
India’s shipping ministry is in dialogue with the ministries of defence and external affairs to ensure lives of seafarers are safe.
The sooner a decision comes in this regard, the better. Because, besides the sufferings of family members of the seafarers, the latest episode has just dealt a big blow to India’s efforts to attract young people to a career at sea and overcome an acute global shortage of trained and technically qualified manpower to operate ships.
With a host of attractive on-shore options to choose from, Indian youth is now shying away from lonely floating jobs. The profession no longer offers a chance to discover the world, as it used to be earlier, as port stays have been shortened to reduce costs.
Safety risk such as pirate attacks and criminalization of seafarers, such as in the Hebei Spirit incident, have only added to the woes.
Manoj is Mint’s resident shipping expert and writes on issues related to shipping and logistics every other Friday. Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org