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Indian seafarers abandoned and adrift on land

Indian seafarers abandoned and adrift on land
M. Kalyanaraman November 10, 2019

When the marriage proposal came, Gagandeep Kaur’s folks felt her prospective husband had a “good, standard” job. After the wedding in 2014, Ms. Kaur realised her husband’s job involved much hard work. But little was she aware of how risky his merchant marine profession was.

On November 3, Ms. Sidhu, a resident of Ludhiana, landed in Shanghai along with her father Charanjit Singh, a farmer in Jalandhar. She had left her two-year-old son with her in-laws. She had waited for nearly three months, hoping that her husband, Captain Jagvir Singh Sidhu, detained in Ningbo, China, would be released.
Smuggling charge

Captain Sidhu was arrested by the Chinese police and Coast Guard in July on charges of smuggling in frozen cargo at Ningbo on the vessel MV Hai Yue. Ms. Sidhu realised that the vessel’s owner and the manning agent who had recruited her husband had washed their hands of the case.

Yogini Deshpande’s WhatsApp status message recalls the Hindi film song Jindagi, ek safar he suhana, which urges the listener to stay in the moment, because life is unpredictable.

Ms. Deshpande, a resident of Pune, has been married for 10 years and knows that her husband’s job involves long periods away from home. But nothing had prepared her for the ordeal ahead.

Her husband, Mithun Vasudev Deshpande, was a second officer on board MT Riha when the ship was apprehended by Iranian authorities in the Strait of Hormuz on July 13. The charge: illegal travel through their waters, later changed to oil smuggling, she says.
House arrest

Her husband is under house arrest in Qeshm Island along with two others. Iranian courts have sentenced him to three years in prison or to pay a fine of $13 million.

Ms. Deshpande says their lawyer has stepped away, citing non-payment of legal fees by the ship’s charterer. Since his arrest, she has spoken to her husband for just a minute over phone.

Meanwhile, in Dindigul, Tamil Nadu, R. Thandapani has been trying to pick up the threads of his life. His ship, Seaman Guard Ohio, was seized by the Indian Coast Guard in October, 2013 and brought to Thoothukudi. Mr. Thandapani was among 11 Indians and 23 foreigners charged with illegally procuring fuel while in Indian territorial waters, conspiracy and illegal possession of weapons. Facing action from the Coast Guard, the ship and its crew were abandoned by the owner, AdvanFort.

Mr. Thandapani, a certified Able Seaman, has been working in a printing press since his release by the Madras High Court in November 2017 after it found him to be innocent. After nearly two years, a company has offered him a shipping job. As part of the process of placement, the company asked him to obtain a US C1/D visa that is needed for seafarers joining a ship in the U.S.

The three cases are illustrative of what has accompanied a boom in jobs for Indians in merchant ships — seafarers being recruited by dodgy owners and their manning agents in India.

The boom has its roots in labour arbitrage. Indian seafarers were relatively less expensive but well trained. Also, Indian certificates of competency for these professionals are valued worldwide.

Today, some 2.1 lakh Indian seafarers, forming 10% of the global seafarer population, are in the job market on one lakh ships.

Some seafarers get entangled in illegal operations by the owner, as with Captain Sidhu. Under the Maritime Labour Convention 2006, a seafarer is deemed to be abandoned if the ship owner fails to cover the cost of his or her repatriation, does not provide necessary support, or unilaterally severs ties with the seafarer.

In the case of MV Hai Yue, says Vikram Singh, who was the Chief Officer of the ship, “The Captain is innocent. It was the second officer who was acting as the de facto master.”
Suspicious moves

The owner of Hai Yue, a relatively small ship, some 76 metres long, with one cargo hold, is in Henan province of China, and the vessel is operated by V-Star Ships of Hong Kong.

Vikram Singh and six other Indians including Captain Jagvir joined the vessel in Taiwan on June 17. They were recruited by Marvin International Ship Management of Mumbai. Within five minutes of the crew boarding the vessel, Hai Yue departed, Mr. Singh says.

There was a Chinese second officer on board who told the crew that they were sailing to China. Throughout, he was either on the satellite phone or, if the vessel was close to the coast, on his cell phone, taking orders from the owner, Mr. Vikram Singh says. The second officer said the owner knows only Chinese, not English.

Two or three days later, the Chinese second officer said provisions would have to be taken and two pilots would take the vessel to port. “I saw two people coming in a fishing boat, not a pilot boat. They didn’t look like legitimate pilots,” Mr. Singh adds.

He says the second officer asked the captain to leave the wheelhouse. The Indian chief officer saw the vessel going alongside at what he calls a “blackout port”, with a warehouse or a factory nearby.

When Captain Jagvir and Mr. Vikram Singh went to check, the second officer told them to leave. At this point, the Captain argued with the second officer. The Chinese officer told him that these were the owner’s instructions. In a few hours, the cargo was discharged and the second officer ordered the ship to move.

When the vessel had sailed some 15 to 20 miles, the second officer asked that the ship drop anchor for repairs. After two days, the second officer said the owner had called him and told him to rush to Taiwan since a warship and Chinese authorities were coming. “The second officer cut the anchor chain with a grinder and set sail to Taipei,” Mr. Singh says.

The Captain and six others then told the Chinese second officer that something illegal was happening and all the Indian crew wanted to sign off, he recalls. The second officer said they would be signed off at Busan in Korea, Mr. Singh says.

During the voyage from Keelung, Taiwan, to Korea, the vessel was again adrift, as per the owner’s instructions, near Ningbo. This was when the Chinese Coast Guard seized it.
Flew to Delhi

The six detained Indian crew were at a hotel for nearly a month until August 14 when they were released and they flew to Delhi. The Chinese Coast Guard took care of the crew and paid for the flight, he said. They did not allow Marvin International representatives to meet them or talk to them. The Captain remains under detention.

Gagandeep Kaur Sidhu says she tried to meet Marvin staff in Mumbai several times. “They did not refuse to help but did not do much either, and wasted nearly two months,” she sys. She sought assistance from Sanjar Parashar, chairman of the International Maritime Federation.

Finally, Marvin engaged a lawyer with whom she was in touch over WeChat. When the lawyer said the company had not paid her dues, she decided to go to Shanghai.

In the week of November 4, Ms. Sidhu met Indian consular officials in Shanghai including the Consul-General, Anil Rai, and the Ambassador to China, Vikram Misri, who also promised help. “Indian consular officials are saying that the matter should have been resolved by the owner or agent before it reached the courts,” she says. On November 9, Mr. Rai assured her that Mr. Sidhu would get consular access and medical assistance.
Licence suspended

Ms. Sidhu met the Chinese lawyer who, she said, told her she would continue to handle the case. She then wrote to the Directorate General of Shipping, which had suspended the licence of Marvin International. Marvin is among some 400 Recruitment and Placement Services (RPS) agencies for Indian seafarers.

In the case of Hai Yue, the DG Shipping has told Ms. Sidhu that Marvin does not have a relationship with the owner. “Marvin has an agreement with an agency in Vietnam for placement of seafarers for a Chinese-owned vessel but the relationship between the Vietnamese agency and the owner is not established,” Mr. Parashar says.

The email notes that the documents submitted by Marvin do not show evidence of Protection & Indemnity insurance (P&I) Club cover for the vessel, which could have helped Ms. Sidhu, he adds.

In its note to Ms. Sidhu, the DG Shipping has said the legal fees could be paid by cashing the bank guarantees of Marvin International. Ms. Sidhu hasn’t t met her husband who continues to be under detention in Ningbo.

Yogini Deshpande went to the Indian consulate in Dubai where officials arranged a meeting with one of the three charterers of Mt Riha on October 22. She said the officials had told the charterer to either go on appeal or negotiate the fine.

Visa interview

When he got the job offer in September, Mr. Thandapani felt he was seeing light at last. He attended the U.S. visa interview on September 13 and gave his biometrics. During the interview, he told the interviewer about the Seaman Guard Ohio case and submitted all the relevant documents and the release order. His shipping company told him he was to join the ship at Ennore on October 25. The previous day, Mr. Thandapani went to the consulate. He wanted at least to collect his passport, with or without the visa. But, he couldn’t succeed. And without the passport, he could not join the ship either.