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Monday, 15 November 2010

shippies, Diwali, festivals - and more.

Diwali is increasingly a festival for all Indians, across social, religious and other barriers, more as a sort of get home and be with the family than anything else. That the markets of the shopping sorts are almost abandoned, traffic on roads is down to very low, and most commercial establishments that would otherwise be open, are shut, is typical. Keep aside the essential services as well as those that need 24x7 attendance, and you have the picture - here, also, people do manage to celebrate either a wee bit early or maybe later on. And then, ofcourse, people can always speak with each other on phone, even if they are not really there.

There are, ofcourse, some categories of people who simply can not be anywhere near their families on Diwali - and don't have the option of simply calling up easily either. Prisoners in jails, for example. Or seafarers on ships at sea, as another example. A satellite call to or from a ship still costs a minor fortune, though some ships now have V-SAT and other internet options available, which are sometimes shared with seafarers for their personal use. All routed through the office, of course, and with hardly any privacy though. But these are more the exception, than the rule, and even that - if people working on ships have the time from their typical 90+ hour working week.

Easy to say this:- seafarers are the invisible wire and glue that keep the world of commerce actually ticking over. Unfortunately, the only time seafarers make the public's mind through the news is when disasters, especially of the environmentally polluting sort, take place. Over a few hundred ships sink every year with a few thousand losing their lives, over 500 seafarers are currently held hostage by pirates off Somalia while family members back home get calls to pay off mini-ransoms, but the "shippie" works on, invisible to all but friends and family, keeping the wheels of commerce - and banking - turning.

Never mind what anybody has to say about the "new economy", and all the rest of it, including profits made for services as well as industries which do not involve the physical movement of goods or people - if there were no seafarers, then almost all of the world's trade would simply come to a grinding halt. That they do this job unseen and unheard, for centuries now, is part of the larger picture. One reason for this silence is  the nature of the whole ship-owning and operating business. The other reason is that most seafarers themselves are, by definition, majorly disconnected from the rest of the world - by the nature of their job - and take a lot in their stride.

It is, no doubt, a tough life. And that is why, currently, it is reported that there is a major shortage of trained seafarers worldwide, especially in the deck and engineer officer categories. The traditional supply from European countries has almost totally died down. Other countries are still about a generation behind in setting up training as well as certification pipelines - though China, despite the disadvantage of being behind in English skillsets,  is catching up rapidly, also because of a rapid expansion in their coastal shipping, fishing as well as shipbuilding industries. Likewise the ex-Soviet East European countries, they too have rich seafaring traditions, and are rapidly catching up.

One would have thought, therefore, that this provided another opportunity for India and Indians to fill in the breach worldwide. Yes, certainly, there already are a lot of Indians in the seafaring industry, both at sea as well as ashore. Many, most of them, do very well indeed lately - with high tax-free salaries and fairly short contracts/tenures at sea. But in the midst of all this, many of tomorow's generation of seafarers seem to have hit on a wall, and for them, Diwali has been anything but happy. Stuck with heavy loans taken in the name of "Government authorised training", and then unable to get the correct documentation enabling them to work on ships, there is a whole generation of trained cadets and crew who are currently stuck ashore. Worse, after their pre-sea training, some who manage to go to other countries to look for jobs, find themselves at great risk working on sub-standard ships and other vessels.

(Case in point: Cadets were recruited from India at great cost, 6-8 lakh per annum plus recruitment and other fees, and sent onboard a "training ship" known as the RAK SINDBAD in Ras Al Khaimah, run by Indians. The website shows as faculty a Capt. Suptd., an Indian mariner, who unfortunately passed away a few months ago. A sister ship, RAK AFRIKANA, with over a dozen Indians onboard including 11 cadets placed without much by way of official authorisation from the Indian authorities, was captured by pirates in March 2010, and there is no further news on their status. But they, like other training institutions, merrily kep advertising and looking for more youngsters to "train".)

But the bigger issue is to do with an organisation in India known as the "Indian Maritime University" (IMU). Formed with the charter to provide higher education to seafarers, it has conveniently moved into the more lucrative business of providing "affiliation" to a large number of pre-sea training institutes all over the country to churn out vast numbers of deck cadets and ratings for crew, many of whom have now started clogging the back-streets and bye-lanes of port cities all over India, unable to find jobs simply because their training is often sub-standard and their certificates are not worth the paper they have been printed on. It is these youngsters, the number now running into thousands and growing every year by leaps and bounds, who are certainly not celebrating Diwali, as they groan under the burden of heavy loans or move out to work on the sub-standard fleets of the world without any sort of protection.

Training for seafarers in India is something which was under the purview of the Directorate General of Shipping (DGS) for decades. The DGS, incidentally, also provides approvals for a separate cadre of pre-sea training institutes, but has a far more rigrous regime, something that has over the decades ensured that certification for seafarers from DGS in India is on top of the rest of the world in terms of judging and declaring competence for all levels - which is a simple fact. DGS also has a system which links training to placement, as well as documentation to ensure compliance by ships and companies that employ Indians to the standards set by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). Not perfect, certainly, but it works. And it ensures that Indian seafarers are able to celebrate Diwali, whether onboard or ashore.

The paralel IMU system, however, is at best in a shambles, and at worse close to creating a major disaster for young Indians looking to taking up seafaring as a profession. Which is a shame, because in the existing shortage, which looks like becoming worse, an opportunity for large numbers of properly trained and certified Indian seafarers is likely to pass us by, providing a window of opportunity to other nationalities.

Which is not good Diwali for Indian seafarers, larger picture, as we seem ready to lose out on another opportunity to dominate what is, in essence, the root of all world trade - shipping.


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