Thursday, 1 April 2010

“Prisoner in my own country”

March Foreign seafarers have been subject to draconian shore leave regulations in many countries ever since terrorism hit shores worldwide; nations have often summarily and arbitrarily stopped shore leaves for crews with scant regard to their basic human rights or a thought towards the actual usefulness of the high-handed ban when it came to fighting terrorism. Few outside the industry know, however, that Indian seafarers have been subject to similar prejudicial restrictions on shore leave in their own country for quite some time- a truly ridiculous state of affairs. Finally, it appears that at least one mariner has had enough.

Last month, Capt. Vipan Kumar, the Captain of the M.V. Ocean Amethyst in Mumbai P&V anchorage, was forced to jump the hoop every day for the month that his ship was at anchor. Any shore leave for the ship’s crew was restricted to the hours between 8am to 8pm, and only after an elaborate operation: Capt Kumar would have to send details of crew, along with two passport size photographs, to the agents, after which immigration would come to the pier to arrange landing permits valid until 8pm.

Capt. Kumar has now written to the Deputy Director General of Shipping (Seamen’s Welfare), pointing out that Indian crew is being denied their right to shore leave ‘under the garb of an increased (terrorist) threat.’ He has quite rightly said, in the letter, a copy of which has been sent to the MUI, that the authorities should increase security measures rather than resorting to ‘shortcuts and unlawful measures’ to deny ship’s crew basic rights. The letter is courteous, but Capt. Kumar’s angst is palpable; “Here I became a prisoner in my own country,” he says.

Indian seafarers will tell you, accompanied usually by some disgust, that the situation in Mumbai is hardly unusual. Restrictions on shore leave for Indians are commonplace, and passes are issued daily, usually until sunset, or 2100 hrs, at many ports. Given that short port stays, overworked crews and short manned vessels are the norm, a denial of shore leave for a few hours that a crewmember may get off is almost cruel. Most crew cannot step ashore before seven in the evening and after the day’s work is done; with these harsh rules, they may get an hour ashore if they are lucky. Some have complained that they cannot even visit their families or friends in homeports.

This being India, there are other issues with the present system across the country. In some ports it is almost lunchtime before the day’s passes are issued; this curtails a seafarer’s liberty further. Ridiculously, advance clearance for medical or other emergencies is sometimes sought. Some ports restrict travel to within a short distance from the port. Some ask that shore passes be surrendered 24 hours before sailing, an equally nonsensical rule in the era of quick vessel turnarounds. And at least one port is thought not to issue shore passes at all. All this for Indians; foreigners have it much worse.

Given this state of affairs, Capt. Vipan Kumar’s missive is perhaps long overdue; we hope it will result in some equally overdue soul searching in regulatory shipping circles. As a senior Master says, “We were proud to be called the ‘second line of defence’ when we came out to sea. It now appears that we are the second rung of criminals.”


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