The closure of ports and airlines has impacted the shipping sector in many ways. Director General of Shipping Amitabh Kumar discusses the changes and challenges. Excerpts from an interview with The Indian Express.
Cruise ships have been badly impacted because entire cruise activity has stopped for one season at least and seafarers have faced difficulties in repatriation. It is with great difficulty that they have been brought back. Merchant shipping has four-five broad components like container ships, tankers — oil tankers and chemical tankers — and there are bulk vessels used for iron, coal etc. India’s steel exports have increased during this period, so the bulk sector has done fairly well. Similarly, oil prices came down substantially and there was high demand for oil. People purchased oil and did not have enough storage facilities on land, so all these tanker vessels have become floating storage around the world. So tankers are also doing very well. Container vessels suffered because of the blockage in the hinterland. The containers usually move from hinterland to port, and from there to ship. However, because trucks were not functioning at the optimal level, factories were closed, so both the consumption side and the production side were impacted, plus the ground transportation. In India, we have tried to replace road transport with railways to the extent possible. Container segment is working at around 80 per cent of capacity. That’s the impact on trade.
How have seafarers been impacted?
Ships need crew change at regular intervals. The crew has a contract for a particular period. About 80 per cent of Indian crew work on foreign-flag vessels, and about 20 per cent on Indian flag-vessels. Crew change was a major constraint because airlines closed around the world and many ports were shut for crew change. India started crew change in the first week of April at our ports and anchorages. We were the first to get exemptions from the Home Ministry. We came up with our standard operating procedure (SOP) for crew change. Of course, we conduct Covid-19 tests at ports and set up quarantine facilities at all ports. We also developed a utility to issue e-passes for all seafarers for intra and inter-state travel. That started in first week of April, then by end-April, we also allowed seafarers to travel through chartered flights. Now seafarers are using four modes — ports, anchorages, Vande Bharat flights and chartered flights — to travel in and out. So far we managed to bring back 20,000 Indian seafarers and around 9,000 have joined new jobs on foreign-flag ships using chartered flights. It is not business as usual because commercial flights are still not operational, but we have found certain routes which can be used for crew change.
What issues are being discussed internationally with most countries facing these challenges?
The main issue being discussed is crew change. Crew change is very important because fatigue starts to set in. It’s not good for the safety of the vessel if the crew is fatigued. That is the most important aspect. Other aspects can be taken care of. There is a general understanding in the international community that these are difficult times and require out of the box solutions.
Along with new SOPs, what other changes have to be adopted going forward?
We are looking at ways and means of reducing the cost of crew change. By and large, the policy of testing and quarantine will remain in force even if the lockdown is lifted. We would not like any ship to get infected. Similarly, we would not like any ship to infect any port. Any person entering a vessel is a potential threat, so he needs to be tested properly. He needs to self-quarantine, travel in a sanitised environment and get tested before boarding. That has been our policy and we intend to continue because the cost of coronavirus on board a ship is huge.
At the onset of the pandemic, vessels from China faced many restrictions. Has anything changed?
As it all started with China, obviously, vessels that visited China were being asked to stay away for at least 14 days. This continues because we are still not 100 per cent sure that things have smoothened out. This policy is reviewed every 15-20 days, and we will review it again once things improve. But normally, we count 14 days since the ship has left the last port and by the time the ship reaches India from China, it is more or less 14-15 days, so it doesn’t really affect business substantially.
With the ongoing tension between India and China, does anti-piracy vigil become a concern for merchant vessels?
India and China were never in any agreement as far as anti-piracy was concerned. India deployed its vessels as an independent observer and escorts whichever vessel requires escort by the Indian Navy. That continues. The European Union has also deployed their forces for monitoring of vessels. The deployments continue. If there is need for further deployment, the Indian Navy keeps a watch on that and they take a call on deployment. Presence or absence of China is not really going to impact our preparedness for piracy. That is our priority and it will continue.
Will there be any permanent changes?
We had to give exemptions for many things like seafarers training certificates. Because training institutes were closed, we extended the validity of training certificates till December 31. Then they have a CDC (continuous discharge certificate) — because speed post was not working, many of these could not be sent in the last two-three months. Of course, we started a small window for collecting CDCs from our office, but by and large, it’s difficult for people living in remote areas to collect CDCs manually. That challenge remains. Similarly, ships require safety certificates. Because surveryors are unable to board vessels around the world, we have extended the validity of safety certificates based on certificates provided by the Masters. These are challenging times and we have to keep finding solutions to problems that crop up. So far, we have managed to sail our vessels with valid certificates for both ships and seafarers.
Have training activities for seafarers taken a hit during the lockdown?
All the training institutes were closed because MHA guidelines have still not allowed educational and training institutions to open. We have converted theory classes into virtual classrooms. Maritime training has a workshop component that we will have to plan once the training institutes reopen. But we have now come out with a lot of solutions, like e-learning platforms that are free for Indian seafarers. We have allowed training institutes to conduct training using virtual learning platforms and are in the process of developing an online examination system that will be rolled out in a week. We train around 20,000 seafarers in a year in 160 institutes around the country. Around 90 per cent have taken their training on virtual platforms.
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