28-year-old Farhan Khan who works in the engine room of a merchant ship has been jobless for nearly six months now. He had signed off last year after completing his 9-month sailing period and was waiting for the company’s rejoining call since December. After a prolonged wait, he was finally asked to rejoin the vessel in mid-March. But by then, the coronavirus pandemic had spread across the globe.
“I was supposed to join from a port in Europe. I had to take a flight from Mumbai, and I stay about 300 kilometers away. I went fully prepared with my luggage. All formalities were done except for signing the contract and air ticket. But suddenly the company called to inform me that all fresh contracts have been frozen”, says Farhan.
Like Farhan, there are believed to be at least 25,000 seafarers in India who are desperately waiting to rejoin their vessels. But because of the lockdown restrictions and suspension of international flights, they have been unable to do so.
31-year old Ankit Patil had signed off in February after completing his first trip as an Electrical Officer on an oil vessel. But just when it seemed that things were looking up for him professionally, the nation-wide lockdown has left him, figuratively to say, high and dry.
“I had signed off in February to finish a month-long upgradation course. After submitting my readiness to join in March, I received three good offers from reputed companies but I couldn’t join due to international travel restrictions”, says Ankit.
India has resumed domestic airline operations, but international commercial flights continue to remain suspended. Seafarers are allowed to sign-on or sign-off via Indian ports, anchorages and charter flights.
Some shipping companies are hiring private charter planes to ferry their crew from Mumbai or Delhi to airports like Doha and Colombo from where they are put on another flight to the country where the vessel is docked for crew switchovers. Companies say the cost to transport an Indian crew to the designated vessel has more than doubled as compared to the pre-COVID period. Charter flights are three times costlier than normal commercial flights.
That coupled with an increased local transport fare, mandatory COVID testing of a seafarer before sign-on, and compulsory 14-day quarantine after sign-off are some additional costs incurred by companies.
The ordeal is not just limited to those waiting to rejoin vessels. Shipping companies say there are almost 25,000 Indian seamen on board different vessels who are waiting to sign off. Some have been sailing for more than 12 months, which by any standards is quite gruelling for even the most seasoned of sailors.
“I was supposed to sign off in March. My daughter turned one a few days ago and I haven’t seen her for 10 months. My wife has been managing all alone throughout the lockdown”, says Faizan Shekasan, a second officer, currently sailing on a cargo ship.
Faizan says there are 22 crew members on his ship with 11 due for sign off. His job involves overseeing loading and unloading operations, route planning and monitoring vessel navigation. His ship has passed through ports of eight countries since February but no crew was allowed to step out of the ship due to coronavirus restrictions in every country.
“It gets very stressful at times,” Faizan said.
But claustrophobia is not the only challenge. Many seafarers have had to grieve the loss of their loved ones sitting alone in the closed cabins of their ship. And with little distractions, the mourning never ends.
21-year-old Vivek Pandey, a trainee marine engineer from Uttar Pradesh was on his first sailing contract when he got a call from his family to inform about his sister’s demise. Pandey was shattered, and not being able to be beside his grieving parents to console them made him even more miserable.
“We shared a strong bond. Her memories kept coming back and I hated myself for not being there with her when she needed me. My company would have arranged for my travel if there was no lockdown” says Vivek.
Captain Rajesh Unni, founder and CEO of Synergy Marine Group that operates more than 300 cargo and oil vessels says seafarers work in a high-risk environment and deal with dangerous materials, and therefore it is important to ensure that the crew at work is not going through any mental stress.
India is the third-largest supplier of seafarers with a 15 percent share in the global workforce. China, Philippines, Indonesia, Ukraine, and Russia are the other major suppliers of maritime talent.
Industry players say that at least 1,200 Indian seafarers who were unable to rejoin international vessels in the last three months due to travel restrictions have been replaced by crew of other nationalities.
“This number is likely to increase and companies that hire Indian crew will have no choice but to look elsewhere. We urge the government to start at least two flights every day to key locations like Singapore, Hong Kong, and the US where crew changeovers can happen. We are even ready to pay the cost for the airline’s unutilized capacity” says Captain Rajesh Unni.
The National Union of Seafarers of India says that even though the government is facilitating the movement of seafarers through Vande Bharat flights and charter flights, there are substantial cost and logistical limitations on the ground.
Moreover, not all shipping companies are eligible and capable of arranging charter aircraft.
“There are thousands of seamen waiting to sign off and sign on and it is not possible to ferry all of them through private charter flights. Since the government is allowing charter flights to Doha and Colombo, we are asking them to start an exclusive Vande Bharat Express flight to these locations. It will not only be cheaper than charter but also carry many seafarers in one round” says Abdulgani Serang, General Secretary of NUSI.
According to the data gathered from the Director General of Shipping, at least 18,000 Indian seafarers have returned home through Indian ports and charter flights since May 19. About 7,000 seafarers were able to sign on using the currently available routes. The government has given approval for 62 charter flights so far.
“Resuming international flights depends on a number of factors. Many countries are not allowing commercial flights to land at their airports. It is true that the cost to transport seafarers has increased but that is the case in every country. Companies will have to adjust with the current arrangements” says Amitabh Kumar, Director General of Shipping.
Seafarers play an instrumental role in keeping the supply chains running, be it the fuel in vehicles, garments, eatables, cosmetics, electronics among many other items.
“Seafarers don’t get their due acknowledgment as other essential service providers do. When the lands are locked and skies are shut, it is only the water where all activity continues throughout the lockdown”, says NUSI’s Abdulgani Serang.
However, the shipping department believes it is taking all possible steps to facilitate the movement of seafarers.
“Shipping was given an exception even in the first lockdown. No one is allowed to travel abroad using charter flights except for seafarers. So it is incorrect to say they are not being treated as essential services” says Amitabh Kumar.
Like many other industries, the shipping industry too is currently finding itself in uncharted waters. Seafarers and companies are struggling to keep the engines running. While the ordeal may be temporary, the impact on many careers could be long-lasting.