On May 11, 2011, the Mumbai-based Director General (DG) Shipping, under fire for being unable to react effectively to the scourge of piracy affecting Indian men and waters, finally reacted as the agency issued an ‘Order’ (available on the website: www.dgshipping.com). For an organisation, long seen as being on sedatives even by its own community of seafarers, this was a sizeable step. However, on closer analysis with various stakeholders, the verdict seems to echo the timeless phrase, ‘too little, too late’.
The order starts with an admission and states, “..it is not unlikely that in the future incidents of successful hijack of ships, Indian seafarers may be held captive..” The order further is divided into sections like pre-joining vessel, piracy incident, financial support, professional counselling for family members, period close to conclusion of negotiations (wonder how is the affected family to even identify the same! Most family members say that as per DGS, the owners/agents are always very close to concluding the negotiations) and post-release.
Reactions from within
Even though this order is barely three days old, it has generated a lot of heat on the web. Some comments from web-based Merchant Navy Group are listed below:
a. This order may satisfy the inner need to put cold water but one expected a lot more. That apart, there is no clarity on critical points! Full details of anti-piracy facilities available onboard a ship should be provided to DGS as well as seafarers, not just BMP3 and the rest of the stuff. What is the position the DGS is taking on citadels, bullet-proof bridge, communications?
b. Utter rubbish! DGS has to lay down the law on the owners and shipmanagers, instead of leaving it to them. What day and age are our DGS authorities living in?
c. Too important a point left vague by the DGS. It must be ensured that financial support equal to an outright grant equal to the salary earned on board should be paid out to the family every month in advance, without placing a lien or any sort of on the wages/entitlements/benefits that would accrue normally to the person.
When contacted, Veeresh Malik, writer and seafarer reacted by stating, “This new order is nothing but an attempt to soft-pedal this aspect of the deeper malaise that affects the corrupt core of all that pertains to shipping in India today. ” Comparing piracy to the Air India Mangalore crash of 2010, he added that efforts must be made to clean the stables of all that is wrong with shipping in India. “And for that very reason, those who would like to see the status quo maintained will not want to see any change,” he said referring to the DGS order. A merchant navy captain, who works for a shipping company in Mumbai, requesting anonymity, stated the present order was, “only suiting the ease of the agency concerned. It won’t resolve anything. It is just too weak to even be taken seriously.”
As far as the shipping community is concerned, they seem to have seen through this act of the DGS.
Suffer but silently
Another aspect worth highlighting is Point no. 6 of the DGS order. Referring to the ‘period close to conclusion of negotiations and immediately thereafter’, this aspect deals with an extremely critical period of the crisis. And it is not in anybody’s interest to even inadvertedly have the game spoilt after this stage has been reached.
That is theoretically. Practically speaking, families say that all that the authorities ever tell them is that they are ‘close to getting all the negotiations completed’ and that ‘all efforts are being made’. In this regard, DGS wants family members to exercise ‘complete restraint’ especially with an ‘intrusive’ media around. This is making minds think whether it is a move by the DGS to effectively seek a blanket media embargo? Manoj Joy, national coordinator, Sailors Helpline, a Chennai-based organisation which has been striving towards providing relief to those in distress at sea, believes so. “Our experience shows that until the time media picks up matters, the authorities are hardly bothered,” he said.
“Sometimes, even after the media steps in, the authorities hold on to inertia,” added Joy. Towards this he highlights the case of former Petty Officer for Marine Engineering in the Indian Navy (IN), Sanjay Kumar Srivastava, who after 20 years of service to the nation, joined as the 3rd Engineer on board MV Nardos – a Panam flagged ship. He suddenly went missing on August 27, 2009. “His wife wrote to all authorities seeking help, she even emailed DG Shipping officials. They either did not respond or when they did, they kept passing the buck to the other desk,” Joy mentioned. Till date, his wife is unaware of what happened to her husband.
Similar was the fate of 10 Indian seafarers (and 3 Ukrainians), on board a marine tug, Jupiter 6 which went missing in September 2005. The company concerned did not bother informing the families for almost a month. The DGS, as the regulator too was not of much help. Left devoid of options, families were forced to knock the doors of the Supreme Court, which has assisted families in getting compensation, even though till date there has been no trace of the sailors. History repeated itself, when in September 2007, MV Rezzak, also belonging to the company which owned Jupiter, went missing, this time with 25 Indians on board. They too have simply vanished without a trace. Clearly, the DGS’s record has not inspired enough confidence, even within its own community.
The other side
Since October 2008, the Indian Navy has maintained atleast one frigate/destroyer to safely escort convoys of commercial ships in the Gulf of Aden’s Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC). That apart, the force has also stationed a patrol ship off the Seychelles alongwith a maritime patrol aircraft, a Dornier, on the mainland. Lastly, in tow with the Indian Coast Guard (ICG), it has also commenced Operation Island Watch for the past few months which essentially involves maintaining a hawk-eye over the region off the Lakshadweep islands and other affected areas.
Despite having invested considerable resources in this sector, there were sightings and subsequent apprehensions of over 100 pirates in the early months of this year. As recently as last week, a merchant vessel (MV Full City) was under attack 400nm off Karwar coast. No doubt, our prompt reaction to that and a well-trained crew managed to save the day, but it also points out that still there is some distance to go before we can make our seas safer. If defence expert, R. Admiral (Retd) Raja Menon is to be believed orders like the one being discusssed, won’t make any improvements. In an email response, he stated, “This is a useless piece of paper which has obviously been copied from that issued by another country. It talks of Best Practices but what are these Best Practices? It was the responsibility of the navy and the government (agencies concerned) to have issued a list of best practices and merely issuing this paper speaks of a continuing apathy to doing anything specific or substantial to help the seafarers. This note virtually says that the shipowners are on their own against pirates and the government has washed its hands of the matter after issuing this piece of paper.” Even among serving officers, who are involved in a day-to-day tackling of piracy, this order has failed to evoke any enthusiasm. From being called ‘loose’ to ‘inconsequential’, officers felt that the DGS could have done much more but it has decided to look the other way.
Question then arises whether this is an order conceptualised and issued in isolation? Has there been a dilution for reasons best known to DGS? Or the DGS is simply not getting the coordination and assistance from the maritime forces who are supposed to work with the DGS in such aspects? Already, the IMO is considering (if not already implemented) the extension of the piracy-affected ‘war zone’ closer to India’s west coast, a move which will put cold water over the regional power role that India wishes to be seen as embodying. Another indication of the issue hotting up is that the premium for merchant vessels too has shot up several folds.
In this environment, it certainly seems that the DGS’s present response is far below what the stakeholders wish and think, they deserve. But the harsh reality is that time is running out and no matter what the differences, all stakeholders need to get their act together and quickly.