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Friday, 1 April 2011

if we DO NOT want to see shipping become a pigsty like civil aviation in India . . .

One way of looking at the recent controvery on fake and fraudulent licences in the aviation industry in India and also in some other countries is to say, oh hey, it doesn't impact us in the Merchant Navy. We have this wonderful system of flag state, port state and every other state possible which will protect our reputations as well as ensure we are competent. In addition, the paperwork is so long and cumbersome, that it automatically sifts out the chances of any problems. Plus, because of security and customs regulations, nobody will come near our ships anyways.

The other way of looking at things is to realise that, hey yes, there are deficiencies in the whole system, not just in India, but all over the world. And that the sooner we take some pragmatic steps to fix things, the better for us as individuals and for the industry as a whole and most importantly - for the Nation as a larger National Interest. And even if they don't come near our ships, those who want to find out will stand outside the Ministry and DG Shipping and find out what they want - after they've hired boats to take photos of ships outside ports and visited family members.

So, without pointing any fingers, what can be done rapidly to clean up things in the whole certification programme and training in India - so that we are not caught with our pants down if somebody does the equivalent of a nose landing on an aeroplane, at sea? What, for example, could be amongst the most stupid things a seafarer could do?
Here are two simple examples of two of the biggest news-making marine accidents in recent past. They made news because of possible pollution issues as well as passengers in danger. But hardly any news on the real cause of the incident. Mainly because the shipping lines along with their flag state, port state and classification societies were able to keep the noise level down. Very simple - keep the media away, and keep the people onboard silent.

# Go aground on an island, thinking it was a dense cloud, sighted only on the radar, making coffee instead on the bridge taking precedence to looking out.
# An uncontained crank-case explosion leading to leakage of a thin film of diesel causing a total engine room fire, because the duty engineers had no experience of how to react.

Luckily for us, the mainstream media does not have the faintest clue of what happens on board ships, and almost all of us from the old school of thought believe that the media is a terrible animal to be kept at bay. When was the last time any shipping company invited media onboard their ships, for example, other than for a fancy party during launching or taking over, and even that ashore at a hotel? Like a response to the various questions put by a Superintendent ashore - please let me know this, this, and this - and also please let me know if you understand the effect if media comes to know, and provide a response by 0800 hours tomorow morning Singapore time.

At the same time, for piracy and criminalisation and other increasingly relevant problems, the industry wants to use the media, by one means or the other - and that is a simple truth too. The media, the mainstream meida, is a double edged sword, and once an industry rides the tiger, there is no getting off.

So, before the s___ really hits the fan - and the way social media is growing, especially with seafarers at sea increasingly having access to the internet as well as other mediums to propagate their views - it is a question of time before people onboard ships start coming out with their truths. instead of keeping quiet. Already younger people are writing in direct to this magazine, as well as to some of the writers here, and if not allowed to maintain blogs on board - then saving up material, photographs, evidence, to publish at a later date. A few photographs of oil being pumped out, dirty food, unsanitary conditions on board, safety irregularities, rusty conditions, or anything like that - and by chance any of them go viral - that's it. Owners of the MSC CHITRA will know what one is writng about, and the KHALIJA III even more so.

So here are a few suggestions to the powers that be, and SAILOR TODAY invites comments as well as further responses on the subject.

1) To start with, face it, the best thing in the Indian Merchant Navy's certification system is that the main Competency Certification is still done by the regulatory authoirty - the MMD and DG Shipping. You can not be a certified deck or engine officer unless you have cleared your "tickets", issued by the Government, wonderful. Luckily for us, unlike in the aviation sector, this has not been left to the training schools. Except for the entry level. Still, there is ample room for manipulation even there, and it is about time that the examinations for aspirants leaving training institutions need to be carried out by a government body before the youngsters are allowed to even step onboard a ship. Even as cadets.
This may certainly place a heavy load on the already overloaded and creaking system - well, so be it. There are ways of using infotech to do this, online exams under supervision are only one way, but  atleast there will be some standardisation on who steps on board a ship and who doesn't. Currently all sorts of lack of capabilities along with well trained people manage to get documents enabling them to get onboard - that has to be fixed.

2) Next, for the Certificate of Competencies, the courses need to be reviewed, rejuvenated and renewed with urgency. The British in their wisdom left us an examination system in the Merchant Navy that still works on learning by rote, memorising vast amounts of often useless and defunct information, and then spilling it out in large volumes on paper. The whole method is geared towards memorising solutions of questions, so that books published decades ago can continue to be sold, in a mutual backscratch venture that would put cats and monkeys to shame. This has been said umpteen times before, then people get their tickets, and forget about the whole thing - meanwhile, the system goes on. Same holes are there on the same charts for ROC, right?
This has to be changed - more syllabus drawn from actual life on modern ships as well as even more importantly - from future design and technology expected on ships. For reasons of my own I took 27 years between two subsequent levels of competency - and the syllabus was exactly the same as done by my batchmates who cleared well in time. In between, I had moved on, headed a Silicon Valley tech company where skillsets were changing every three months - and saw how the youngsters coming in were keeping up in those industries. Matter of fact, the rise of employment potential in the shipping industry for Indians could have been as exponential as in the IT industry, if only the system had moved on with the times.
Here, the young people doing their "tickets" with me were actually being asked to regress back in time, learn about stuff that had gone out 3 decades ago - and then go on really state of the art modern ships to unlearn everything so that they could work on things they had to learn from scratch on their own using tech manuals provided by the equipment supplier. What was the use of the examination, then?

3) The grand wonder called "orals". Sit with the younger people doing their tickets nowadays and listen to them - it is almost as though we are living in archaic times. Such and such surveyor demands that you must wear a suit. Another one expects you to wait for hours and sometimes days before calling you in. Yet another one expects you to wear a shirt in such and such colour and shoes of a particular sort. Many of them are keen to show what they know rather than extracting from you what you know or don''t know. Some will argue about what you were taught by somebody because they don't like that college or instructor. Yet some more will go out of course. And bar none, it seems that almost all of them treat the candidate like SHIT, because of their own insecurities or because that is how it was always done.
It is about time that all orals were video recorded, and that candidates were given a chance to go in for appeal in case they felt their results were incorrect, and in a manner that prevents those candidates from being harmed in revenge by vindictive surveyors. A certain percentage of failed candidates along with those who have asked for appeals to be given repeat attempts very soon after being failed needs to be introduced, and the process being done in such a way that the candidates have more faith in the system. In addition, minimum and mximum time limits to be set for orals, so that schedules are not disturbed.

4) The reality of non-Competency courses, also known variously as Modular or STCW and similar courses, is well known. With 100% pass percentages, lax attendance criteria and very often dis-interested instructors, this is one reality that is going to come back to bite us one day. Here again, some institutes are very thorough and professional about the seriousness with which they take charge of these courses, and at some other institutes it is simply a pay your fees kind of formality.
It is about time that the exams for the non-Competency courses were also streamlined and held by a central government agency, so that there could be some standardisation, especially since some of these modular courses deal with extremely important topics which can impact life and limb.

5) And last but not the least, the document trail, especially things like the linkage between the INDOS number, the CDC, the CoC and the rest of the documents. This needs to be sharpened up very rapidly, and details available online, as was supposed to have been done years ago.


The future success of the Maritime certificate of competency system in India, and therefore subsequently and as a result the credibility of the CoC, will depend totally on the open-ness and transparency shown by the authorities. As well as their willingness to change with the times.

Otherwise, we have the example of the DGCA in front of us - and believe me, it is like people are baying for the blood of officials there. Interim, the credibility of pilots of Indian origin has taken a very big beating.

We do not want to see that happening to the Indian Merchant Navy.

Do we??

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