Vidyadhar Pol is still in disbelief over how close he came to sailing the other way on Thursday instead of returning home.
But for a last minute decision by the Ministry of Home Affairs on Wednesday evening, the cruise ship Marella Discovery would have refuelled at Mumbai Port on Thursday morning and set sail towards Europe after a 40-day-long wait in Indian waters. Instead, 147 Indian crew members disembarked and were whisked away to a hotel after being tested for COVID-19.
Pol, who works as an assistant cook onboard the cruise liner, said that the Captain, Chris Dodds, told his crew on Tuesday that after spending 15 days in the waters off Kochi and another 25 days off Mumbai, he could wait no longer for the Indian government to make up its mind.
“Unfortunately, despite everything we have done, the Indian government has not delivered on its promises. I spoke to the head office yesterday and told them that we have to draw a line. We’re hanging around here with no direction. I can see people’s smiles going and its not good for us. Nothing is going to happen in the next few days. It wasn’t a decision that was easy to make,” Dodds had said.
India had closed its borders last month in a bid to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pol and his compatriots had dreaded heading to Europe, which has been severely ravaged by the pandemic. “We knew that returning to India would be impossible from Europe. If one of us died, even our bodies would not be sent back to our families,” he said. The recent passing away of an infected Goan sailor aboard another Marella cruise ship docked in Europe had also spooked the stranded sailor. “His body has been kept on the ship because the Indian government refused to accept it and no European country is ready to allow it into its territory,” said Pol.
Following Dodds’ announcement, the desperate sailors and their families ramped up their appeals and posted videos on social media pleading with the government to repatriate them without delay. “We did not receive any response to our earlier petition. It was only after we shot videos and shared them widely that the government woke up to our plight. We also reached out to (NCP MP) Supriya Sule, who helped us a lot,” Pol said.
On shore, the National Union of Seafarers of India (NUSI) lobbied with the Ministry of Shipping and the MHA to issue a sign-on and sign-off order allowing several thousand Indian sailors stranded in vessels across the world to return home by sea.
Abdul Ghani Serang, NUSI general secretary, said that ensuring the safety of anxious Indian sailors should be among the government’s top priorities.
On Thursday, the sailors disembarked at Mumbai Port at 9 am and were allowed to leave for Andheri at 4.30 pm after undergoing tests and completing immigration formalities. The sailors will remain in the hotel until the results of their tests are known.
The Marella Discovery set sail for Europe after refuelling, said Serang. Pol is confident of testing negative. “We did not have single case on the ship and all our passengers and half the crew disembarked nearly two months ago when we docked at Singapore to load supplies. Since then we have been on sea,” he said.
In the month-and-a-half since then, morale and food both began to run low, as the Indian government kept dithering. “Rice, tomatoes and onions were almost over. We couldn’t eat pasta every day. We had free wifi and were able to speak to our families every day. But the crew was upset,” he said.
Like his compatriots, Pol returned home with his contract over and a future in the embattled shipping industry in doubt. He is, however, grateful to Marella Cruises and the Indian government. “The company and our fellow crew members were patient to wait for us for 40 days. They were also upset when the company decided to head to Europe,” said Pol.
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