Monday, 6 April, 2009

Celebrating Piracy and Criminalisation of seafarer

For seafarers who turned up for the National Maritime week celebrations seminar at the auditorium of the Shipping Corporation of India (SCI), Mumbai on 1st April, 2009 their hope of finding some solution to the heart-wrenching problems of piracy and criminalisation of seafarers turned out to be a hoax. The deliberations did not give the slightest hope of the threat abating nor any promise being extended by the government as if signifying what the day April 01,09 was meant to be. No one could fathom what further relevance these two issues had for the celebration week besides a number of events that had already taken place focusing on the same issues including the one conducted by the Directorate and graced by the union shipping secretary, A. P. V. N. Sarma.

More appalling still was the moderator of the two panels, the Lloyd Lists’ correspondent Shirish Nadkarni making a surprise announcement, “We will now welcome into our midst Capt. Jasprit Chawla and Chief Officer Syam Chetan,” he said, (referring to the two Indian officers of the tanker ship “Hebei Spirit” detained in South Korea). As no one stepped in he blatantly stated that it was ‘April Fool’. Heart broken was Commodore D. R. Syam VSM, father of Syam Chetan who had come as a special invitee. He sighed, “For a moment I thought the administration had a happy surprise for me. But it was not to be.”

Although ‘Piracy and Criminalisation –Threat to the Seafaring profession’, was the theme of the seminar, one of the cadets Amit Sharma when asked to voice his opinion lamented, “It is obvious that people who are lawmakers, framing the rules are sitting in air-conditioned offices while drafting the rules and regulations. How do we face the pirates and criminals? We are not trained to tackle these problems when we go into the deep sea.” The directorate humbly responded stating that ‘there were no answers to these problems.’

Umesh C. Grover, Director (Technical & Offshore Services), SCI observed, “As it is seafaring had lost its charm with shorter port stay and longer voyages at sea. Now to add to it is criminalisation and piracy rearing its ugly head?”

S. Hajara, cmd of SCI stated that the treatment being meted out to the two Indian officers of V. Ships in Korea has got the whole world to take another look at the IMO guidelines.

In his presentation, Jim Mainstone, Head of Special Projects at Gray Page, contended, “The world media has not properly highlighted what the hijacked crew faces under the control of the pirates.” He gave details of the modus operandi of the Somalian pirates, their style of functioning and their mind-set. “We have to make a coordinated effort, put an agenda to work together. Unfortunately, every country has a different policy. With the result if pirates are actually captured then how do we try them and to whom should they be handed over – certainly not to the Somalian authorities.”

The other facet which was serving as a deterrent to attracting more youth to the seafaring profession was tactfully handled by Brian Martis, Group Business Services Director of V. Ships. He gave an account of the trauma which Capt. Kanwar Sunder Mathur who commanded the beleaguered Erika underwent for no fault of his. Also the unjust treatment meted out to Capt. Apostolos Mangouras of the tanker Prestige, where without Mens Rea and without being proved guilty seafarers were subjected to punishment.

He cautioned about the disproportionate response to accidents and the reaction being indicative of the treatment seafarers will receive. He quoted the former French President Jacques Chirac’s response to accidents at sea saying, “This is not inevitable. It is the result of human actions. France and Europe must not leave these shady men, these gangsters of the sea, to profit cynically from the lack of transparency in the current system.”

Mr. Martis explained that substandard operators, substandard ships and substandard manning agents who are a serious threat must be reported upon. They are responsible in part for the kind of legislation we are confronted with today. We have come a long way and the industry has made great strides in improving its image. “We have a choice to make,” he said. “We can accept the status quo and do nothing about it. Or we can organise ourselves well enough to fight the scourge of criminalisation.”

The two panel discussions were inconclusive and had nothing to offer accepting clarifications on some of the points raised.

Reacting to the spent-out trend the seminar was taking and the listless efforts of the government machinery rising up to the occasion, Mr. Abdulgani Y. Serang, General Secretary–cum–Treasurer of the National Union of Seafarers of India (NUSI) likened the progress to ‘waiting for the cows to come back’ development, “If there happened to be a minister’s son or a prince from some country on a passenger ship that gets attacked only then will there be a wakeup call like the 9/11 situation evoked. But when we talk about offering more bonuses or money to seafarers whose ships traverse through pirate infested areas, Indian ship owners quickly say an unequivocal ‘NO’.”

The Chief Guest, Justice Dr. A.S. Anand ruled that piracy and criminalisation of seafarers will continue to exist. “Piracy on the high seas is a form of terrorism whose objective is not so much to harm but to disturb the equilibrium in exchange of money,” he pointed out. “Unfortunately, there is no definition of ‘terrorism’, thus the selective approach of the governments and their double standards are evident … Countries will keep asking how does it matter to me what happens in your backyard.”

He went on to point out that the response of media to show the ugly face of piracy and criminalisation is not as evident as it was after 9/11, or even the recent attack on a cricket team on foreign soil. “However,” he appealed to the cadets, “Don’t go by these aberrations. Seafaring is still a good profession!”

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