Ship mangers plan to carry out crew change at foreign ports collapse
Indian Embassy puts spoke in charter flight plan citing local rules
A plan by a group of ship managers and staffing companies to carry out crew change at overseas ports involving Indian seafarers have collapsed on Saturday as a confused government denied permission to run charter flights to facilitate this task.
As many as eight ship managers and crewing firms have joined hands to run the charter flight using SpiceJet from Mumbai to Doha and back, as well as from Delhi to Doha and back to, fly Indian crew looking to join ships abroad and to bring back those who had signed off after spending extended contract tenures at sea.
Globally, crew change on ships have been halted since February due to the lockdown restrictions and stoppage of international flights. The issue has roiled the global shipping industry with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) stepping in by asking the member states to treat seafarers as “key workers” providing an “essential service” and to exempt them from travel restrictions for facilitating their joining or leaving ships.
Currently, entry into Qatar is restricted for Indians but transit through Doha is permitted, opening a window of opportunity for Indian seafarers to join ships at ports in a few countries. From Doha airport, Qatar Airways run flights to 19 cities.
The Mumbai-Doha chartered flight scheduled for Sunday had planned to carry 90 Indian seafarers and another 180 crew on the return leg (Indian crew employed by Carnival Cruise Line who will come from London to Doha and from there to Mumbai on the SpiceJet flight) to allow the costs to be spread over a larger number of people and make it affordable for travellers.
The entity chartering the flight pay for the onward and return leg. If seafarers are not allowed to board the return flight from Doha, it would discourage companies from chartering flights and cause a hindrance to the process of crew change, said a seafarer.
The Ministry of Home Affairs has allowed Indian seafarers to fly out and also land in India on charter flights.
The directorate general of shipping (DGS) is granting permission for charter flights but that approval is not acceptable to the Ministry of External Affairs. For outgoing seafarers, the Indian embassy in Doha has to give permission though the crew will be in transit in Doha. The embassy in Doha again has to be involved for seafarers returning to India.
The ship managers had to cancel the plan to bring back 180 crew due to lapse of time limit set by the Carnival Cruise Line, as the government delayed approval and finally denied permission. The onward flight was also scrapped.
“This is a cumbersome process and the government is confused and cannot work on timelines,” said Sanjay Prashar, managing director, V R Maritime Services, and one of the key persons who pursued the plan.
The Sri Lankan government has approved crew change in Colombo and Galle with an eye on making the island nation a global hub for crew change.
“Whereas, the Indian government says you cannot sign off a foreigner, you cannot bring in an Indian seafarer, you cannot send an Indian seafarer and then you have so many procedures to follow and all the permission have to be taken by the shipping companies who never had any expertise taking permission from airlines and embassies,” Prashar said.
“The Indian government, after 65 days of lockdown, cannot even make a procedure and they have failed miserably on crew change in foreign countries and bringing back stranded seafarers. They have treated seafarers as corona carriers and not as corona warriors,” Prashar, who is also a member on the National Shipping Board, said.
“We discussed this issue with five ministries, and all were nice but when it comes to giving permission, nobody gives you permission,” he said adding that the “Indian embassy is not aware who is a seafarer and what he does”.
The Mumbai-Doha-Mumbai chartered flight planned for Sunday was the first exercise for crew change overseas for Indian sailors and its success would have led to at least three more charter flights on the Delhi-Doha-Delhi sector in the first fortnight of June.
Chartered flight till date
MMS Maritime (India) Pvt Ltd ran a chartered flight (the lone so far) from Bangalore to Colombo on May 16 to facilitate the movement of 50 Indian seafarers to get employment opportunity in South Korea. These 50 seafarers boarded newly built ships taken over by their owners from shipyards in South Korea.
It flew empty on the return leg though there were some 100 Indian seafarers stranded in Colombo on that day.
A SpiceJet charter flight will leave Chennai for Colombo on May 30 carrying 23 seafarers for yard delivery.
Prashar said that till now only take over ship crew was going abroad and stranded crew on cruise liners were returning to India on chartered flights run by the cruise liners.
But, Indian seafarers disembarking from ships at the end of their extended contract tenure were not allowed to return.
“Indian seafarers on-board are staying beyond their call of duty whilst facing the worst restrictions globally with no help coming from the government,” says Prashar.
The fact that none of these chartered flights have worked out so far is “adversely affecting our seafarers on board” and loss of employment opportunities for those looking to join, said a shipping industry executive.