The Government has allowed foreign seafarers to sign off at Indian ports and permitted them to go abroad in Vande Bharat flights, non-scheduled commercial flights or chartered flights.

The permission is applicable to foreign seafarers employed on ships other than cruise ships.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had issued an office memorandum in this regard on Friday.

It has also been decided to permit, as a special case, grant of temporary landing permit (TLP) for up to one month by the Immigration Officer concerned to such foreign seafarers who have expired Indian visas subject to their having valid passport and valid seaman's Identity document (CDC).

The sign-off of foreign seafarers at Indian ports and their repatriation to their home countries will be subject to the standard operating procedures (SOP) framed by the Directorate General of Shipping.

The global shipping industry has been battling a crew change crisis after the pandemic-induced travel restrictions and closure of borders halted staff swap on board ships.

The decision was taken on a proposal forwarded by the Shipping Ministry which said that there has been a wide-spread demand from the international organisations, maritime community, international trade unions and the International Transport Workers Federation to facilitate movement of seafarers to allow crew change on foreign going and domestic vessels.

The International Maritime Organization has prescribed SOPs for a crew member to join a vessel or disembark from it and travel to or from their country of residence. The IMO Secretary General has urged the Member States to implement the SOP to facilitate crew transfer from their ports and airports.

“This move will not only help India in meeting its international obligation to facilitate movement of ship crew, but would also create job opportunities for Indian seafarers awaiting to join a vessel,” Satinder Pal Singh, a joint secretary in the Shipping Ministry said.

A container ship run by Mediterranean Shipping Company, S A, will be the first to utilise the permission to sign off foreign seafarers in India and replace them with Indian crew.

Some 73 foreign seafarers have already signed off at Indian ports and they have been allowed to go abroad after taking special permissions from the authorities.

On April 21, the government allowed Indian seafarers to sign off at Indian ports and anchorages by following SOP. Since then, some 18,581 Indian seafarers have signed-off from Indian ports while another 7,994 have joined ships.

From May 19, chartered flights run by ship managers, ship owners and crewing companies helped 10,679 Indian seafarers to join ships at overseas locations while another 18,396 were brought back.

"The government has taken steps which resulted in crew change involving 55,750 Indian seafarers in 117 days (from March 22) of the coronavirus," said Sanjay Prashar, managing director, V R Maritime services Pvt Ltd.

"Other countries must learn from India," he added.