Tuesday, 10 February 2009

“Do Indian (seafarer) lives have no value?” asks Supreme Court

New Delhi, Feb5: The Supreme Court in New Delhi pulled up the Government last week for ignoring the plight of Indian maritime casualties. An annoyed bench of Justice R.V. Raveendran and Justice Aftab Alam noted the administration’s failure to provide details of deaths of Indian mariners in international waters. Referring to earlier rulings by the highest court of the land and the Government’s failure to provide proper details since 2002, the court said, “Do the lives of Indians have no value? You are carrying out an order as if it was casual.”

The Court was hearing a petition filed by relatives of seamen sailing on the tug ‘Jupiter’, the ship ‘Rezzaq’ and the ‘Stolt Valor’, who claimed that the GOI’s lackadaisical attitude in taking prompt action in such incidents was endangering seamen’s lives. Last September, the Supreme Court had directed the GOI to put procedures in place to streamline the recruitment process as well as to set up guidelines to investigate piracy incidents off Somalia. However, the history of the Supreme Court intervention goes even further back.

In fact, the Stolt Valor case has been the only one that has satisfactorily ended with the Indian crew safely back home. On the other hand, the M.V. Rezzak case is as baffling as the Jupiter 6 one: The Rezzak was a Panamanian registered 1982 built vessel, which disappeared between Novorossysk, Russia and Bartin Limani, Turkey on the 17th of February last year. Twenty five Indian crew were aboard. The Rezzak was reported overdue when she did not arrive at the discharge port as scheduled; concerned agencies alerted authorities but attempts to trace the ship were unsuccessful. Although many questions have been raised about the case, the fate of the Indian crew remains unknown.

In its reply, the GOI told the court that it was facing a shortage of qualified personnel in the Director General of Shipping (DGS), which was hampering investigations of incidents in international waters. The GOI also filed a statement in response to the case pursued by the families of the ‘Jupiter 6’ crewmembers. The tug, registered in Jamaica, has been missing since Aug 8, 2005. It reportedly sank off the Namibian coast. The ship's agent, Pelmar Shipping, confirmed its disappearance about two months later. A PIL was filed on behalf of the families of the missing crewmembers, but there has been no satisfactory outcome in the case even after all these years. In fact, relatives of the missing crew claim that the Jupiter 6 crew are not even mentioned on the list of casualties made public by the GOI. The ship was on a passage from Walvis Bay to India via South Africa when it disappeared. Even though the issue was raised in Parliament, authorities have been accused of failing to take steps to trace the missing ship. In November 2006, A Bench of Justice H.K. Sema and Justice P.K. Balasubramanyan had asked the DGS, Pelmar Shipping and Pelican Marine to respond to the petition filed by Sabeeha Faikage and others as next of kin of the crew on board the tug. There were 10 Indians and 3 Ukrainians on board.

It is hoped that last week’s Supreme Court ruling may spur the Government of India to take some action. The Times of India reports that in its September order, the court had asked the following questions.

-How many incidents of marine casualty involving Indian crew have occurred since October 10, 2002? Was information received within 48 hours of the incident as is mandated under the law?
- In how many cases did Indian recruiter of seafarers for foreign vessel give this information?
- In how many cases was Indian government invited to participate in the marine casualty investigation by the lead state or the flag state?
- In how many cases did Indian government actually participate?
-In how many cases has Indian government made public the final report of investigation into such incidents?
- In how many cases has Indian government taken action against recruiting agents/manning agents/managers of the foreign flag ship which employed Indian crew and in what manner has it safeguarded the interest of the Indian crew

The Indian maritime community hopes to get some answers to these questions.



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