India records high number of crew changes on merchant ships amidst COVID crisis

Photo: Indian seafarers stuck on board MSC Grandiosa in April 2020 while the ship was docked in Italy.

By Captain Sanjay Prashar

All shipping crew changes globally may be near normal by Aug. 10. Every one of us has done our bit and we can say proudly that we are doing a good job despite a war called COVID-19 forced upon us.

Seafarers, declared as essential workers by Government of India, made unmatched contribution by moving ships and logistics chains.

Here is the success story of Indian seafarers’ crew change that have gone on from Mar. 23 this year and this is the status report till July 15. Indian seafarers gained jobs on cargo vessels this year. With this increase in cargo ship jobs, Indian seafarers lost jobs on cruise ships, as 200 of the cruise ships were laid off globally this year due to COVID-19 pandemic and lack of cruise activities.

Indian seafarers maintained highest professionalism at sea, and they delivered top class performances when it mattered most. There is still some more nautical miles to be covered and this report shall continue till we have the last man, who completed his tour of duty has returned back home in India and the first man standing to join the ship takes flight.

There are many more jobs to be done: maritime training and exams need to restart. We cannot have certificate of competency exams stopped forever. Orals should have started by now. Online courses have not really happened. Employment for trainee seafarers has been lost.

It is a huge unemployment crisis for thousands of Indian seafarers. They spent several thousands of dollars and lakhs of rupees for training, and are now on the road without a means to earn with what they trained for. Banks will haunt them to repay all sorts of loans – home, education of children and what not. Our focus will be on this now on.

As per my assessment, about 15,000 Indian seafarers are due for relief and if present momentum continues, then, by Aug. 10, we can see that 95 per cent crew change would have been done, and new takeover will be happening for Indian seafarers.

Crew change means jobs have been retained or growth in employment for Indian seafarers. It was heartening to see Prime Minister Narendra Modi talk the other day about merchant navy expert sailors during his address while participating in the “Skills Day” event.

Today, the Government of India has allowed partial opening of international flights to and from the United Arab Emirates, the United States, France, and others. In the coming days, such transits would become smoother.

Nevertheless, seafarers need to stay alert, as five per cent COVID-19 test cases of seafarers are positive, impacting them and their families badly.

When the initial despair in Mar. 2020 when COVID-19 hit India severely and the lock down was made the new normal, one ministry in the Indian government worked overtime to protect its assets such as ports, merchant vessels, and seafarers. The Ministry of Shipping, chaired by Union Minister of State Mansukh L. Mandaviya, held meetings every day with ports chairmen, officials from his ministry, Directorate General of Shipping, and at least one webinar with seafarers.

Mandaviya established COVID-19 branch at the Directorate General of Shipping and the Director General of Shipping, Amitabh Kumar, took charge dealing with the industry, as well as fixing crew change issues.

Amitabh Kumar’s direct involvement ensured an extremely high morale among the Indian seafarers, resulting in healthy ships and continued logistics and supply chains for the global industry.

He issued circulars and guidance notes including toughest Standard Operating Procedures to place Indian seafarers on cargo ships. He also spoke to seafarers and their families, handled so many grievances including 500+ Indian seafarers returning from Iran. He kept his office working amidst the pandemic lock down and shifted his work to the homes of many of his staff members.

Mumbai-based Deputy Director General of Shipping Dr (Captain) Daniel Joseph handled issued of ships and seafarers, and he created and maintained a digital war room through social media platforms to solve several issues of seafarers returning from and embarking on cargo vessels.

Gujarat Maritime Board‘s Nautical Surveyor Captain Ashwin Solanki fixed all policy matters at Gujarat-end for crew change.

Between March and May, seafarers travelled by roads, crossing millions of kilometre, to reach cargo ships to board, with the port health officials keeping a tight vigil on the safe joining/signing-off COVID-19 tests.

According to one industry estimate, around 25,000 Indian seafarers have already benefited from crew change at Indian ports and another 30,000 took seafarers’ special charter flight to destinations globally to join duty on board vessels.

The frustration — over job losses, lack of opportunity and earnings — of seafarers and families dissipated to a great extent by early July, as crew change picked up momentum. India is the only country which operated 201 charter flight for seafarers.

Seafarers crew changes in numbers:

  • 19 Indian ports did 25,000 crew change during COVID-19 crisis.
  • First charter flight flew on May 19.
  • Till July 15, India did 201 charter flights through shipping companies.
  • In 57 days, the flights carried 29,075 seafarers.
  • These flights brought back 1600+ distressed Indians.
  • The distressed Indians returned to India with zero travel costs.
  • These gratis flights were operated out of Doha and Colombo.
  • 10,679 Indian seafarers joined cargo ships.
  • 18,396 Indian seafarers signed off from cruise and cargo ships.
  • 162 foreign seafarers signed off in India and took flights back home.
  • 37 ships takeovers done by Indian seafarers.
  • In July alone, 1,000 seafarers-a-day flew to join duty by charter flights.
  • 1,553 seafarers went on five flights on July 5. A record.
  • Anglo Eastern Ship Management Private Limited has a record: Most crew change done of over 7,000 seafarers by charter flights and another 3,000 at Indian ports.
  • 17,090 Indian seafarers transited through Doha in the last 47 days by 121 charter flights.
  • Former Qatar Airways‘ Senior Vice President for Aeropolitical and Corporate Affairs and Qatar‘s Advisor for Aviation and Air Transport Matter Fathi Atti made this possible in Doha and it became the friendliest airport for Indian seafarers.
  • Mumbai Airport operated 105 charter flights, Delhi Airport operated 64 flights, and Chennai Airport at 10 flights.
  • 132 Recruitment and Placement Services agencies have used seafarers special charter flights till July 15.

(The writer is the Managing Director of Mumbai-based VR Maritime Services Private Limited, International Maritime Federation’s India Chapter chairman, National Shipping Board member, and Himachali Seafarers Association founder-member)

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