"We must free ourselves of the hope that the sea will ever rest. We must learn to sail in high winds.”
– Aristotle Onassis, shipping tycoon.
Those who make this happen are seafarers. With the advent of shipping, seafarers evolved exploring the vast oceans. They discovered land and that was the beginning of trade. Seafarers being an integral part of shipping, have grown with the change brought about in the industry over the years. Thousands of seafarers are either on-board ships, or enjoying a well- deserved break awaiting and readying for their next contractual assignment. The continuity in employment ensures the smooth running of ships and subsequently global trade; involving the transportation of cargoes such as food, medicines, electronics, mineral, fuel and more. The call of the oceans has become a part of life for seafarers. It is now considered a meaningful, important career that provides a prosperous future and a firm foundation for professional growth. It offers endless opportunities and a beginning to a lifelong maritime journey.
The history of the Indian merchant marine goes beyond our independence. The Britishers shifted powers to the East India Company to have a better control over Indian ships and ports. This allowed the British to utilise our powerful resources, to push the industrialisation of the west at the cost of the east, putting the Indian merchant marine on the back foot. The Indian merchant fleet was composed of both, Indian and British owned ships that were operated by India. Ships of both owners flew the red ensign of the British merchant navy. It was the exclusive prerogative of British ships to carry out trade with foreign countries from Indian shores. Even coastal trade was not free of interference from the British. Conditions under which the Indian Officers chose to continue to be employed, were more out of lack of options rather than out of choice. Then prevailing conditions were those of open discrimination and exploitation as far as wage conditions for Indian seafarers were concerned. A resolution was passed in 1922 which resulted in the appointment of the Indian Mercantile Marine Committee. This committee recommended the establishment of a training ship in Bombay for the purpose of training Indians in the marine profession, and the committee further recommended to engage the troopship ‘Dufferin’, be converted for this purpose. The Indian Mercantile Marine Training Ship, Dufferin thus came into being in November 1927. The first batch of seven out of thirty selected candidates joined the ship in November 1927. From 1927 till 1934, the Dufferin trained only executive cadets. In 1935, the first batch of engineer cadets joined the ship and in the year 1947, when India became an independent nation, the Government of India took initiative of meeting the increasing demands for trained maritime personnel.
It has never been easy to adopt change. Like many industries, willingness to embrace new technology is crucial and shipping is no different. Shipping over the years have seen several changes which came into force due to some major incidents and accidents on-board ships, therefore making regulations mandatory for strict adherence. Seafarers as part of such changes adapted themselves to such stringent requirements and kept themselves updated with the latest regulations and amendments.
Globally there are over 50,000 merchant ships trading internationally, manned by over a million seafarers of every nationality. The operation of merchant ships generates an estimated annual income of over half a trillion US dollars in freight rates.
Seafarers serving on merchant ships is estimated to be slightly over 1.6 Mn, of which 0.77 Mn are officers and 0.87 Mn are ratings. The Republic of China, Philippines, Indonesia, The Russian Federation and Ukraine are estimated to be the five largest supply countries for all seafarers (officers and ratings). The Philippines is the biggest supplier of ratings, followed by China, Indonesia, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. Meanwhile China is the biggest supplier of officers, followed by the Philippines, India, Indonesia and the Russian Federation. At least 240,000 Indians work as commercial seafarers, forming 9.3 percent of the global seafarers workforce.
Indian Seafarers have been subjected to various encumbrances in the past owing to the global financial crisis. This led to a decline in trade and subsequently companies went bankrupt, putting them in an uncomfortable position where they were unable to pay the seafarers wages. In few of the cases seafarers were literally abandoned by ship owners who were not willing to even supply fuel and offer provisions to their ships. This left, seafarers at the mercy of some ports and welfare organisations who came to their eventual rescue.
The Directorate General of Shipping (DGS) in cognisance has taken several measures to ensure the safety and security of Indian seafarers is well taken care of whilst at sea. The recruitment of seafarers is now being scrutinised, ensuring their documentation is in order. Ship owners too are evaluated to ensure they are suitably covered to protect their employees from being stranded at a port, and have adequate provisions to safely repatriate them to their respective destinations.
During the pandemic, when the world was under complete lockdown, thousands of Indian seafarers were stuck on-board cruise and cargo vessels with the Indian airspace closed for international and domestic flights. Ship management companies operating in India were faced with huge challenges as they were unable to carry out any crew changes. Crews on-board ships were getting overly fatigued and mentally exhausted with extended stays. As for the crew ashore, they were finding it difficult to sustain without employment. The DGS, taking this into consideration, came up with standard operating procedures to disembark crew while transiting the Indian coast.
J M Baxi as a front runner in the Maritime Industry, joined hands with ship management companies, facilitating several crew changes at all Indian ports. This was thanks to J M Baxi’s presence at all locations, that helped get things moving in close coordination with the health and immigration departments at each port. This made a huge impact globally, and the Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change was introduced, which aimed to promote and protect the welfare of seafarers. It was launched in response to the crew change crisis, which resulted in around 400,000 seafarers stranded on ships because of coronavirus-related travel bans.
India is on a growth trajectory when it comes to the shipping and maritime industry. The government is providing a boost in the form of subsidies and capital investment for the shipping sector. Most of our major ports are notably termed as the busiest in the world. The future is bright because of the flexible nature and the focused efforts that are taken for the upliftment of the maritime industry. Development of inland waterways is another impressive milestone to enhance trade and simultaneously reduce logistics costs, thus providing a competitive pricing advantage in the global marketplace.
The merchant navy has always been a male dominated industry but over the years the mindset has seen a drastic change. Shipping companies have realised the need to have equal representation of women at shore as well as sea. Though the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) gender programme was initiated in 1988, it is the recent years that have seen rigorous talk and discussions at the global level, about gender disparity in this field.
In India, the DGS specifically talks about the strategies required to attract and increase the participation of women seafarers in maritime trade. The first is encouraging women to join maritime training institutes and providing adequate job training. The Maritime Training Trust (MTT) under DGS provides yearly scholarships to Indian women seafarers to provide financial aid for the same. The DGS also recommends supporting women seafarers during breaks in their career due to maternity by providing them with alternate career options like ship managers, lawyers or recruiters. J M Baxi group as one of the pioneers in the Indian maritime industry has been encouraging women to join its workforce and recruiting women seafarers to stand shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts.
The international shipping industry is responsible for the carriage of around 90 percent of world trade and it is the lifeline of the global economy. Without shipping, intercontinental trade, the bulk transport of raw materials, and the import/export of affordable food and manufactured goods would simply not be possible. Seaborne trade continues to expand, with the growing efficiency of shipping as a mode of transport and increased economic liberalisation. The prospects for the industry’s growth continues to be strong and this would not have been possible without the warriors of the sea - the seafarers, who battle the high seas with their courage and passion to move on, notwithstanding the hardships they encounter.
Take charge of your life, the tides do not command the ship, the sailor does.” – Ogwo David Emenike, Nigerian writer and poet.