Gautam Chatterjee has two major tasks to complete before the onset of monsoon. The building that houses his office — headquarters of the country’s maritime administration — has been declared unsafe. He has to find another place in Mumbai city to accommodate around 200 people in the next two months.

Second, he will have to find a way out to remove five oil tankers held up for more than three months off the country’s coasts, both east and west. These ships, virtually abandoned by their bankrupt owners, could drift and potentially cause a disaster during heavy rain and bad weather.

Going gets tough

As for the first challenge, Chatterjee, Director General of Shipping, appears to be half way through — he has short-listed a few premises. The problem is that he can pay only Government approved rent, which is much lower than the inflated rates of the city’s real estate lobby. But he is confident of shifting the office before the rains hit Mumbai.

The second challenge is tougher. The oil tankers, anchored 10-20 nautical miles off the coast of Mumbai, Goa, Chennai and Vizag, are owned by the Mumbai-based Pratibha Shipping. These vessels cannot sail as they lost their insurance cover and statutory licences, including seaworthiness certificate, as their owner failed to honour his financial and other commitments.

Some aggrieved parties have got court orders to arrest two of the vessels, but it may take time to sell or auction them. Apart from these five, the company has four more vessels. One of the tankers, MV Pratibha Cauvery , was in the news following the death of six sailors, who jumped out of the vessel when it was hit by cyclone off Tamil Nadu coast last October, and the subsequent arrest of two of the company’s directors earlier this month. The Cauvery is now berthed at Chennai port.

Of the other three tankers, two are at a Chinese yard and the third at a dry dock in Bahrain. The Chinese shipyard refused to allow these vessels to sail out until the repair dues were settled by the company.

Pratibha Shipping, owned by A.N. Pawar and family, has been in financial trouble for quite sometime now. The company has not been paying salaries regularly for more than a year. But no one shed a tear till the company’s vessels were held up, as shipping industry has been facing prolonged recession.

Huge debt

It is understandable for a company in financial trouble to borrow as much as possible. But the case of Pratibha is unbelievable. A Mercantile Marine Department official said in the case of some ships, the company had borrowed several times the value of the ships, most of which are over 30 years old. It is learnt that against one or more ships, the company borrowed as much as Rs 100 crore, although the value could be a fourth of that. How the lenders agreed to such a high leverage is anybody’s guess.

Details of the bank loans could not be obtained. However, it is learnt that co-operative banks have the maximum exposure to Pratibha Shipping.

As on March 2011, the company had outstanding term loans of over Rs 270 crore from banks such as Cosmos Co-operative Bank, Saraswat Bank, Axis Bank, State Bank of India and Corporation Bank, according to data available with a rating agency, which had suspended its rating recently.

Pratibha’s Chairman and Managing Director Sunil Pawar still thinks he can revive the company if he gets support from the Government and oil companies.

“Several families depend on us, we cannot let them down. But we are not getting any support from the oil companies. In other countries, Government supports shipping lines in trouble, here we don’t have anything like that,” said Pawar.

Preparing for emergency

For Chatterjee, who took over as head of maritime administration in mid-October, Pratibha was one of the first major cases to deal with. In January, when he was told that the company’s entire fleet of nine tankers was stranded in India and abroad, the priority was to bring the crew back home safely. The crew on the ship that was in the Chinese yard reportedly had a harrowing time with cold weather and poor supply of provisions on board. Getting them back to India was a Herculean task, said an official of National Union of Seafarers of India, which took the lead in rescuing the stranded seamen.

With the support of seafarers’ union, Chatterjee won the first round of the battle, though he had to spend many a sleepless night. The second round is to remove the ships before the monsoon. The memories of the scare that the abandoned ships MV Wisdom and MV Pavit created when they ran aground Mumbai’s Juhu beach in 2011, still haunts the Mercantile Marine Department (MMD).

If the stranded Pratibha ships are left unattended, they will be a threat to coastal safety and headache to the maritime administrator. Chatterjee is trying to persuade the owners to move out the ships. But it may not be easy. On Friday, he summoned them to ascertain their plans. Apparently, they have promised to come out with a concrete plan next week.

Another worry for him is that MMD is not fully equipped to handle a disaster. It did not even have an emergency towing vessel. The Shipping Ministry is understood to have sanctioned two such vessels, but the department is yet to get the funds.

Despite all the limitations, Chatterjee is confident that he would be able to accomplish his tasks before the monsoon.