Sanket Palkar,29, a Third Engineer on board an ocean-going tug, has been stuck at the anchorage of Paradip Port Trust since March 19 when his ship sailed back to India after towing a dredger from Mundra to Chittagong in Bangladesh.

Hailing from Dapoli, in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district, Palkar was due to sign off from the tug on March 26 after a three-months contract with the tug. But, the 21-day lockdown imposed by the government from March 24 and the restrictions on movement of people and vehicles that accompanied it, dashed Palkar’s hopes of returning home.

Along with Palkar, ten more seafarers on the tug were denied permission by the Paradip Port Trust authorities to sign off and disembark from the tug.

Palkar and his fellow mates are among hundreds of seafarers stuck at various Indian ports waiting to sign off at the end of their contracts and disembark but are marooned due to the stringent steps put in place to slow the spread of the pandemic.

The shipping industry has been lobbying the government to allow crew changes (sign on and sign off) at Indian ports and after much persuasion, the authorities are close to permitting crew to join and disembark ships.

“The director general of shipping has assured us that he will speak to the chairmen of port trusts today to issue e-passes to help seafarers undertake seamless inter-state travel by road to join and disembark ships at Indian ports”, an industry official said.

The DG Shipping had also asked ports and shipping companies to give details of seafarers who are already at Indian ports and awaiting disembarkation from their ships by Monday morning.

“This looks like very good news. Hope this works out well and fast; hoping to go home to our families ASAP and safely,” Palkar said.

“A standard operating procedure to facilitate crew changes of Indian seafarers at Indian ports will serve as a great start and much needed acknowledgement of selfless service of seafarers,” said Captain Rajesh Unni, founder and chief executive officer of Global United Shipping Company (India) Pvt Ltd which is backed by Japanese trading group Mitsui & Co.

India’s seafaring community has been urging the government to designate ship crew as “key workers” rendering an “essential service” and to exempt them from lockdown restrictions. Such advises have been given by the International Maritime Organization and the International Labour Organization.

But, for thousands of Indian seafarers stranded or isolated overseas after completing their contract or otherwise, the ordeal continues. They are either being accommodated on board their ships itself or are being holed up in hotels.

The government was yet to work out a plan to allow seafarers to return or repatriate them to India.

Stranded seafarers

Some 40,000 Indian seafarers are stuck at various ports across the globe of which 12,000 alone are stranded on 74 cruise liners, according to an industry estimate.

Take the case of Hemant Mohan (name changed),28, from Mumbai, who is employed with one of the world’s top cruise liners, now stuck at Southampton port in the United Kingdom.

The 3,500-seater cruise ship still has some 1,000 crew on board,comprising Indian, Filipino and European nationals. The Indonesian crew on the ship were repatriated a few days ago using a chartered flight.

Hemant’s nine-month contract will end sometime in July, but he says that his employer will not hold him till then. “There were few medical cases with symptoms similar to coronavirus. So, the company has locked down every single crew in single occupancy rooms to keep us safe,” he said adding that the cruise company was working on a repatriation flight to send the crew to their home countries.

While some of the cruise line owners had offered to charter planes to sent crew back to India in view of the shut-down of international flights, these plans have not materialised so far, prolonging the agony of the seafarers and their families.

“With every passing day, there is a growing concern, unrest and fear amongst the seafarers,” says Abdulgani Serang, general secretary-cum treasurer of the National Union of Seafarers of India.

Seafarers say that the government has to allow them to go on duty.” If the global economy has to move, ships have to move,” said a seafarer from Cochin.

That aside, Indian seafarers are staring at a massive unemployment crisis. The percentage of merchant navy trainees unemployed was at 74 per cent in 2019.

About 25,000 Indian seafarers have lost their jobs in the cruise liner industry after the pandemic struck. “If crew changes of Indian seafarers are not allowed during the lockdown, then 25,000 more jobs will be lost on cargo ships,” the seafarer from Cochin said.