Bryan D’Costa, a 25-year-old from Goa, is currently on a cruise liner stranded off the coast of Scotland. Having spent over 60 days onboard in what he calls ‘a state of isolation’, his frustration is palpable. He is among the thousands of Indian seafarers to be stuck in foreign waters amid lockdown.
“It’s extremely disheartening. There are only Indians onboard, about 100 of them, since seafarers of other nationalities have returned home for free. The senior management of the ship has stayed back just to look after us. We have a limited supply of food and other items. We are seasick and desperate to return home,” he says.
According to a statement by maritime bodies in April, approximately 40,000 seafarers were stranded abroad. Of these, about 15,000 are onboard 500 cargo vessels, whereas the remaining 25,000 are on cruise ships. Some of these seafarers have since signed off at Indian ports.
D’Costa was hired as a contractual worker by a third-party company. The contract has now expired and he hasn’t been getting his salary since April. The company he works for has cited coronavirus-related complications as one of the reasons for not paying him.
Those onboard have written to the Indian Consulate but have failed to get a response.
“My CDC (continuous discharge certificate) already says that I have disembarked,” he adds.
There was hope on the horizon for this group after the Government of India announced the launch of a repatriation flight from London. However, they soon faced a new set of complications.
“Our company is not being allowed to book the tickets for us. The Air India officials we spoke to have repeatedly insisted that only those who travel can book the tickets, not the firm. The ticket costs Rs 50,000,” he says. The group has since been uploading videos and tweeting, pleading with the government to allow them to return home.
“It isn't just the ticket fare, we have to pay for traveling to London. We also will have to pay for quarantine facilities when we reach India. The burden is too much for us to bear,” he adds.
The situation is more bleak for those who haven't been shortlisted for the repatriation flights or are stranded in areas that don't have flight connectivity. “I don’t understand why seafarers aren’t being selected to board the repatriation flights. There are 150 Indians stranded near South Africa, some in Rome, others in Miami; what about all these people,” asks Dixon Vaz, president of the Goa Seamen Association of India (GSAI).
For cargo ships, however, there are added operational complications. Ranjit (name changed), stranded off the coast of Rotterdam, Netherlands, explains, “The flight only operates from out of India to India to bring back the people. But in order for us to sign off from the ship we need to be replaced by somebody because the ship cannot sail without the crew. The show must go on, so the evacuation doesn't work for us. So somebody has to fly from india and take our place for us to go back home.” Onboard a chemical tanker, he doesn’t see a possible return to home for now. There’s no repatriation flight in their vicinity and his ship will not be heading towards India.
The journey itself has not been a smooth one, either. As Ranjit recounts: “We had some medical issues where a crew member was to be sent to a doctor. Even that wasn’t allowed. We don’t sail with doctors to cure ourselves. No country would take us if somebody onboard falls sick or even cuts his arms or whatever. We called up some doctor and told them about the symptoms so they told us to administer him some meds.”
On April 22, the Directorate General of Shipping released a circular outlining the standard operating procedures for controlled crew change and signing off at Indian ports. The e-pass mechanism introduced under this has helped some ships sign off safely. However, the SOP has a major catch as Ranjit explains, “The catch is the ship should only be berthed at an Indian port. Shipping is all about money and the mileage isn't 14 kmpl. There's gonna be a lot of fuel consumption and some offshore hours which the ship owners dread hence you're lucky if the cargo loaded on the ship is for india or you’re going to India to load.”
For some who did manage to return to India, the experience wasn’t a pleasant one either. As Mr Vaz told Business Standard: “I know of a case where a seafarer who returned signed off at Gujarat. There was a lot of hassle to get the person to travel from there to Goa. Local authorities aren’t aware of sailors’ e-pass and coordination between state governments is very poor. They first had to be taken to Mumbai and when they weren’t allowed to cross the border at first, a special taxi had to be arranged to get them back to Goa.”
Business Standard sent a detailed questionnaire to officials of DG Shipping and the NRI commission of Goa. This story will be updated with their comments as and when they reply.
Mr Vaz, meanwhile, has been leading the chorus against an order issued by the government of Goa on the 8 May. The circular states that all people returning to the state from abroad, and seafarers signing off at the port who have tested negative for Covid-19 need to undergo institutional quarantine for a period of 14 days. The costs of this quarantine will be borne out by the company the seafarers work for. This move, Mr Vaz alleges, is discriminatory.
“Why do we not allow seafarers to opt for home quarantine once they test negative for coronavirus on arrival? We communicated our demands to the state government. They said this is to ensure the state remains in the green zone. The government should then bear the costs for quarantining and not push the companies to do it,” he says.
“Many of these companies are now on the verge of bankruptcy. Why burden them further? When shipping resumes a few months down the line, none of them will want to hire Indians,” he adds.
This concern is echoed by all seafarers Business Standard spoke to.
“Sad story is that in these few months no seafarer is allowed to fly from india but the new ships that were built and ships taken over from other companies haven’t stopped so we're losing out on a lot of employment because all those ships are being given away to Chinese crew who's allowing crew change when they were supposed to be handed over to the indians,” says Ranjit.
Emphasising on the urgency of the matter, Mr Vaz added, “The more time we waste in repatriating these people, the worse the long-term impact on economy will be. We are going to see mass unemployment among seafarers if the situation continues like this.”