Thursday, 21 February 2013

Is the EC proposing illegal demolition?

Continuing European attempts to overturn a ban on sending toxic ships to countries like India and Bangladesh for demolition have long evinced howls of protests from environmentalists. It now appears that even legal experts, including the Council’s own lawyers, are expressing grave concerns at the legality of the move.

Citing leaked European Council legal opinion papers are the source, a British newspaper- The Guardian- now says that the EC’s own lawyers are saying that the proposals may be illegal and against the Basel convention, the international treaty that was designed to reduce the movements of waste between nations, and specifically to prevent transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries. Under the convention, rich countries must dispose of their own asbestos and other hazardous waste material before sending their ships to developing countries for demolition.

Environmental groups like the Shipbreaking Platform have long claimed that the European proposals were illegal, and would set a precedent in international law. Shipping experts have argued, in addition, that Europe’s proposal to exempt ships from its own legislation was absurd, and would hit at the very foundation of Basel by allowing rich countries to legally export toxic ships to developing countries .

The European Council’s lawyers seem to agree. In a restricted document that the Guardian says it has sighted, the EC legal service says, "[We] consider that there is a serious risk that the … exclusion of ships from regulation 1013/2006 in the manner being proposed could amount to a breach of the obligation not to defeat the object and purpose of a treaty. "

Another environmental toxic watchdog group- the Basel Action Network- stridently criticises what it calls the European Council’s double standards. "The EC's proposal to allow the shipping industry to ignore the Basel convention is scandalous and illegal. It is absurd to imagine that a huge oil company could legally dump their old rusty tanker full of asbestos in Asia when it would be a criminal act for anybody else to likewise export one single barrel of the same asbestos. But that is what the [EC] is proposing," says Jim Puckett of the group.

 Thanks to spiking demolition activity in the current financial crunch, the Europeans sent a vessel a day was sent to Asia to be broken up last year; a 75% increase over 2011. The International Labour Organisation says that workers in shipbreaking yards in countries like India perform jobs that are among the most dangerous in the world.

The World Bank says that Bangladesh alone will have 79,000 tonnes of asbestos and 240,000 tonnes of cancer-causing chemicals dumped on it by ships in the next 20 years. With the Hong Kong Convention not expected to come into force for another decade, there is cause for concern. 

Patrizia Heidegger, executive director of Shipbreaking Platform, says: "To scrap Basel obligations, Europe will be throwing away the very principles it has championed on the world stage, it will be undermining European ship recycling job opportunities, while poisoning some of the world's poorest, most desperate workers”

“It’s a lose-lose-lose proposition, all simply to line the pockets of shipping moguls."


Carnival Triumph- to failure

The ripples of the Costa Concordia tragedy have not yet died away, but Carnival Corporation- the largest cruise line company in the world- has been hit by another commercial and public relations disaster, the first lawsuit in which has already been filed in Miami. More may well follow.

The crippled luxury cruise ship Carnival Triumph has been towed in to Mobile, Alabama in the US. Thousands of passengers were left in misery after an engine room fire left the ship disabled in the middle of a Caribbean cruise. The ship ended up drifting in the Gulf of Mexico for days with 4200 passengers and crew- and with the US media going ballistic, giving a blow by blow account of conditions on board- little food, broken or overflowing sewage systems, no heat, no air conditioning, and panicked or irate passengers. Reports included stories about overflowing toilets, hours-long waits to get food and flooded rooms and fearful, weepy passengers who, amongst other things, feared for their lives. 

One comic on US TV called the Carnival Triumph the ‘ship of stools,’ no doubt influenced by strident stories in the US media that expressed complete shock that the Triumph passengers had been asked to use “biohazard” bags after clogged toilets overflowed.

Industry experts have already seriously questioned safety standards aboard cruise ships after the Costa Concordia disaster. The Triumph accident – the cause of the fire is still not officially known- has added to concerns in the US about the mammoth passenger ships of today that set out to sea. Maritime lawyer Michael Winkleman says that calls for higher safety standards, more oversight and other regulatory changes that might affect cruise lines have fallen on deaf ears in Washington for decades “The cruise lines as a whole are spending a tremendous amount of money on lobbyists and doing a very effective job of it,” Winkleman told a US based newspaper.

Nonetheless, there has been considerable negative publicity connected with the Concordia and Triumph incidents. “It’s starting to build up that cruising is not safe,”’s Carolyn Spencer Brown says. “Everybody out there who has ever thought about taking a cruise is having second thoughts. It’s a train wreck. There has to be an impact.”

Carnival has been accused of not communicating properly with information about the incident, with some saying that ‘budget trimming’ is having an impact on its operations. The Company operates around a hundred cruise ships worldwide that sail under the Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Lines, Princess, Cunard Line and Costa Cruises brand. It had revenue of $15.8 billion in 2011.

The company, and others in the cruise business, have all put on a brave face after the incident. Carnival has declined to comment on the possible impact on bookings post the negative publicity. Others have said that personal injury lawsuits may be difficult to prove, and that passengers may well decide not to sue. In any case, they point out, insurance should cover most costs- including the cost of cleaning up overflowing raw sewage. 

As compensation, Carnival has promised to return Triumph passengers’ fares, and give credit worth $500 for another cruise. And, as the firm tweeted, “Of course the bathrobes for the Carnival Triumph are complimentary.” Ironic, because the same bathrobes were used by passengers as white boards on which they headlined their complaints. 


Thursday, 7 February 2013

Living in fear on the MV Amina

Iranian attempts to circumvent Western sanctions against their country- and the present economic crisis- are both combining to hit seafarers in many unintended but inevitable ways. Caught in the crossfire in an economic war over which they have no control, innocent seamen are living with threats and terrible living conditions. 

Reuters broke the story of the eight Indian crewmen aboard the Iranian freighter ‘MV Amina’ earlier this month. They had just returned home to India after a harrowing time aboard the Amina at Colombo, where they were forced to go against the Captain’s orders- and threats- to stop the ship from sailing.

Iran has alleged to have created many dummy companies with ships registered across the world in an attempt to circumvent US sanctions and a EU ban on insurance for Iranian ships. The Amina was taken over by Germany's DVB Bank for defaulting on a loan in Colombo where she had stopped to pick up armed guards before she was to proceed to pirate affected areas. It is believed that the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) owes the bank a total of nearly 50 million dollars, and other IRISL ships have been similarly detained. 

Post the formal arrest of the ship, the crew’s documents were seized and taken ashore, a fact that the Captain initially hid from the crew. Worse, the Iranian crewmen aboard the Amina were ordered to try out the engines, making the Indians suspicious that the ship was about to break arrest and sail surreptitiously into international waters from the anchorage. The Captain subsequently ignored Indian protests and ordered that the anchor be weighed; they, in turn, threatened to drop the second anchor and stop the ship. 

Although the ship did not sail then, the Indian crew were scared that if it eventually did and sailed to Iran, they could face arrest or worse. There fears were not unfounded; the Captain had ‘taunted’ them, according to an Indian crewmember, saying that “if you fall in the water I will give a report that says that you tried to commit suicide”. 

"We had a lifeboat on standby and were ready to escape if required. We slept with our life jackets with the hope that if the ship did leave for Iran we would jump off and try to get the attention of some fishing boat," the crewmember said. 

Said another crewmember Harpreet Singh Sahota, "We weren't able to sleep at night. We felt paranoid and threatened all the time. We were desperate to get off the ship." 

The fearful Indians moved around the ship in groups of three for protection, making frantic calls home, asking their families to get the Indian government to intervene. Eventually, after the story broke in the Indian media, the Sri Lankan authorities- probably under some diplomatic pressure from India- took the Indian crew ashore, returned their documents and allowed them to come home.

Prior to this incident, the Amina had been without cargo for months; the previous Filipino crew is reported to have had a standoff with the same Captain over unpaid wages. Even after this incident, the Amina tried to break free and was fired on by the Sri Lankan navy. She would eventually make a getaway a few days later in rough weather, and sail to Bandar Abbas, in Iran. 

The Indians told Reuters that the food was also the worst they'd ever eaten aboard a ship. Said one, "Even the Iranian crew didn't like the food and they prayed that they would reach Iran safely without dying of hunger along the way," one said.


DP World pushes for more ships for Vallarpadam ICTT

Post the relaxation of Cabotage, DP World- operator of the Vallarpadam International Container Transshipment Terminal (ICTT)- is trying hard to attract more vessels to Kochi. Speaking at a lecture meeting organised by the Kerala Management Association, K.K. Krishnadas, Director and CEO, DP World, Kochi, said that there is a need to create a better image for the port. Krishnadas was referring to some of the problems at the port had faced in the past, including flash strikes and other issues- although Cabotage was the biggest stumbling block. 

 “This has changed now. However, more collective efforts are needed to make the port a success in competition with other global terminals”, he said. DP World also made a lot of efforts to project the ‘strike-free image’ of the port, he added.  

DP World is busy disseminating productivity and performance figures of the Vallarpadam ICTT internationally. The ICTT is said to be gradually increasing its footprint, with some mainline shipping companies regularly sending at least one ship to Kochi on a trial basis after the relaxation of Cabotage. 

With the draft at the basins being increased to 14.5 metres next month and a possible reduction in rates as more ships call the ICTT, DP World is hopeful of competing against Colombo, that some figures show handles almost half of India’s container trade at present.

Government asks Public Sector to use Indian tonnage

The Government of India is pushing domestic Public Sector Undertakings like Coal India, Steel Authority of India, Indian Oil and NTPC Ltd to give preference to Indian shipping companies for carrying their cargoes. The Ministry of Shipping is believed to have asked the PSUs to support Indian shipping at a meeting held recently; the aim seems to be to bolster Indian tonnage amidst the present economic downturn, and to grow India’s market share in her export and import trade (EXIM). 

The PSU’s have, in turn, told the government that they would prefer Indian bottoms provided that ‘there is an open system for price discovery.’ With a piffling 8% of total EXIM trade being carried by Indian bottoms at present, there is tremendous scope for improvement.

Analysts say that many of the PSUs are massive undertakings that can predict their cargo requirements almost a decade in advance and can therefore provide for sustainable growth of the Indian fleet, provided that Indian shipping’s freight rates remain competitive. An ideal situation, they say, would be if domestic tonnage could grow on the back of assured business -in the form of long term contracts- with some of the PSU behemoths.

Indian shipowners have long pushed for greater cargo support from the government along the lines seen in some other countries. As CEO of the Indian National Shipowners Association Anil Devli says, “Countries like Korea, Japan and China have supported their domestic shipping lines with long term cargo commitments”.
The Business Standard reports that the shipping ministry is “hopeful” that the move will also promote inland waterways, an area where domestic shipping does have clear preference- and an area that badly needs the support that long term contracts with PSUs could bring.