Logistics

High costs, red tape and politics threaten Vizhinjam’s new-found status as a crew change hub

P Manoj Mumbai | Updated on July 27, 2020 Published on July 26, 2020

‘Front Cruiser’, an oil tanker, has scrapped plans to call at Vizhinjam anchorage on July 27 to carry out crew change and will instead sign on four seafarers and sign-off one at the anchorage of Cochin Port Trust next week.

‘Front Tiger’, an oil tanker, has also dropped plans to sign on 14 seafarers and sign-off an equal number of Indian crew at Vizhinjam on July 28. It will carry out this task when the tanker passes Colombo port on July 29. The Indian crew lined up to join this ship has been flown to Colombo on charter flights.

These two incidents are a big blow to the emergence of Vizhinjam near Thiruvananthapuram as a hub for crew change as embattled ship owners and managers look at newer locations to swap staff on ships after travel restrictions imposed by nations to deal with the spread of coronavirus disrupted this key activity globally since March.

Likely issues

Shipping industry sources said that the high costs quoted by ship agents, red tape and politics were threatening to spoil Vizhinjam’s new found stature as a crew change location which started on July 15 when container ship ‘Ever Globe’ carried out crew change involving 14 seafarers overcoming bureaucratic hurdles, followed by staff swap on ‘Ever Gifted’, also a container ship, on July 22.

With Singapore – a maritime hub - imposing tough rules recently for crew change involving Indian seafarers, Vizhinjam is seen as an ideal location for this activity due to its deep draft and proximity to the main international shipping route.

“Front Cruiser” is now being diverted to Cochin on its way to Arabian Gulf after a brief stopover in Colombo to disembark two Sri Lankan crew. The four seafarers lined up to join the ship braved tough situations to arrive in Thiruvananthapuram from as far away as Uttar Pradesh, Madurai and Chennai. They have since been moved to Kochi and asked to redo all the formalities related to COVID tests which they had competed successfully in Thiruvananthapuram.

Timeline of events

‘Front Cruiser’ picked a Thiruvananthapuram-based ship agent which quoted $4,000 (including $200 as agency fee) to facilitate the crew change on board the tanker. The only other agent approached by the ship quoted $12,500 (including $1,500 as agency fee) for the same task.

‘Front Cruiser’s’ preference for the agency that offered the lowest rate for the crew change did not go down well with some government officials who are backing the agency that had quoted three times more for the same job at Vizhinjam, a person briefed on the issue said.

On Friday (July 24) evening, ‘Front Cruiser’ also managed to secure permission from the State’s Fisheries Department to use two of its enforcement boats – one to take crew and the other to carry officials overseeing the process – for ₹50,000 per boat.

But, within minutes, the ship agent hired by ‘Front Cruiser’ was called by the Customs Department and asked to deposit a bank guarantee for ₹10 lakh and another ₹10 lakh as bond or get a court order similar to the one involving Dowins Resources Pvt Ltd, a local steamer agent, for permitting crew change.

On July 21, the Kerala High Court issued an interim order on a petition brought by Dowins Resources against the Union of India, Foreigners Regional Registration Officer (FRRO), Superintendent of Customs, Chief Commissioner of Customs and Vizhinjam International Seaport Ltd.

In its petition, Dowins contended that the demand of the Customs Department to pay light house dues of ₹92 per twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) as per the Light House Act, for crew change involving ‘Ever Globe” was “arbitrary and illegal” as the ship did not enter port limits or use any facilities of the light house. Hence, the Customs is not entitled to demand light house dues at Vizhinjam, it argued, adding that the light house dues are not collected during crew change at the outer anchorage of central government-owned Cochin Port Trust.

Dowins also asked the court to direct the Foreigners Regional Registration Officer (FRRO) to facilitate immigration clearance for all future crew change at Vizhinjam, apprehending that FRRO may deny such clearances and hold up crew rotation.

The High Court allowed Dowins to carry out crew change after complying with the standard operating procedures/protocols for controlled crew change prescribed by the Directorate General of Shipping, immigration clearance norms, all other applicable rules and regulations and all other statutory requirements.

By asking other ship agents to secure similar orders from the court to help undertake crew change, the Customs Department has indirectly made sure that only Dowins gets the business at Vizhinjam, backing the court’s interim order which went against its own stand, the person said.

The other charges for crew change include an anchorage fee of ₹0.90 paise per ton levied on the ship by the State government.

“Given these issues, a good opportunity to undertake crew change in Vizhinjam, bringing revenue to the State and the Central governments, is being squandered,” the person mentioned earlier said.

“The fees being quoted by the ship agents are astronomical,” he added.

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Published on July 26, 2020
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