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India’s seafarers under pressure

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India’s huge second wave of Covid-19 infections has hit the international shipping industry, which relies on the country for seafarers, as crews come down with the disease and ports deny entry to vessels.

India, along with the Philippines and China, remains one of the biggest providers of seafarers to the shipping industry. But a huge surge of Covid infections and a shortage of vaccines has sparked travel curbs and restrictions on Indian crews, sending shipping firms scrambling to find replacements.

In April, ports including Singapore and Fujairah in the UAE barred ships from changing crew members who had recently travelled from India

Several other global ports have been slamming doors shut on Indian crew and vessels. Companies are insisting on vaccinated workers and seafarers, spelling bad news for an already stretched maritime sector.

Industry executives also said that crews coming from India were testing positive for Covid-19 on ships, despite observing quarantine norms and testing RT-PCR negative before boarding. There is no blanket ban on taking Indian seafarers, but shipowners and managers are worried about taking them.

Seafarers with engineering shop training have been reduced to working in automobile workshops and small local machine shops, accepting a fraction of the wages of $1,500-$1,800 they would have drawn on board a seagoing foreign vessel. It is a situation familiar to thousands of seafarers across India who are unable to get out of the country.

On the other hand, shipping authorities have advised Indian crew currently at sea to “desist from signing off from the vessel” until the situation improves. It has become increasingly difficult for seafarers to be relieved at the end of their contract periods.

India's estimated 240,000 seafarers are predominantly between the ages of 18 and 45, an age group that was supposed to receive one of the two indigenously produced vaccines, Covishield and Covaxin, from 1 May.

 “Seafarers have been designated as essential workers, both nationally and in several other countries, which means the government should have been giving them vaccinations on priority,” said Abdulgani Serang, general secretary of the National Union of Seafarers in India.

“But that did not happen in India from the designated date of May 1, mainly because of the severe shortage of vaccines. Authorities were forced to postpone the jabs until they received stocks of the vaccines. Fortunately, the shortage situation has been sorted out earlier this month, and the pace of vaccination has improved dramatically.”

Serang said that maritime authorities had set up dedicated vaccination facilities for seafarers in port hospitals in cities like Mumbai, Kolkata and Kochi.

“But it will still take time for the seafarers who have taken the first dose of the vaccines to wait the recommended period of eight to ten weeks to get the second dose, and be fully protected,” he said.

“Unvaccinated or partially vaccinated Indian seafarers are thus at a disadvantage compared to people of other nationalities who could fill their jobs – for example, Indonesians or Chinese who have received priority vaccinations in their own countries.”

Several companies are temporarily tapping seafarers from other nations, including Pakistan and Bangladesh, to replace Indians scheduled to board ships. This would have spelt a big setback for Indian seafarers, but for two factors that have worked in their favour.

The other factor that has worked in India’s favour is the announcement of an immediate seven-day “hard lockdown” by Dhaka to stem the spread of Covid cases in Bangladesh. All kinds of transport, except those carrying emergency supplies, ambulances and vehicles for healthcare services and media, will remain suspended in the country from Monday, 28 June. No one is being allowed to leave home without a pressing emergency reason.