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Indian seafarers delay homecoming amid 21-day lockdown

Indian seafarers are advised not to sign off from their ships and return to India after completing their contracts, except in an emergency, due to the 21-day nationwide lockdown in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus. There is criticism that the Indian government has simply abandoned these people

Seafarers at the end of their contracts are asked not to return to India as borders are tightened for the nation’s 21-day lockdown. However, port-related activities are considered essential services and will not be suspended

INDIAN seafarers are facing a precarious situation as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has imposed a nationwide lockdown for a minimum of 21 days in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The government has advised Indian seafarers working overseas either on Indian or foreign ships not to sign off after completing their contracts and return to India — except in an emergency — citing restrictions imposed by the government on international and domestic travel to check the spread of coronavirus.

“In view of the rapid spread of the coronavirus, the process of sign-off and repatriation of seafarers has been affected the world over due to travel restrictions imposed by various countries,” director general of shipping Amitabh Kumar said in a statement.

In India, the operation of international flights has been prohibited and restriction on domestic travel has also been imposed as a precautionary measure in the country.

“Under these circumstances, it may not be possible for seafarers who have completed their contract to travel to India or to move to their destinations within India,” he said.

“It is, therefore, advised that Indian seafarers working either on Indian or foreign ships are not signed off and repatriated from their ships — except in an utmost emergent situation — as they are likely to face serious challenges in international and domestic travel, until further orders.”

According to Indian ministry data, India has more than 210,000 seafarers, of which, close to 190,000 are employed on foreign flagged ships.

India’s maritime administration had earlier advised seafarers to “avoid availing shore leave in infected regions and consider the risks involved before desiring to go ashore in other regions”.

In relation to documentation, Indian seafarers who are currently sailing on board Indian-flagged vessels or foreign flagged vessels are almost certain to hold either the Certificate of Competency or Certificate of Equivalency for seafarers. If these either of these key documents are about to expire, the lifespan of the document will be extended for a maximum period of one month or until they sign off, whichever is earlier.

What is more, where a crew member has to sign off from a ship due to restrictions at some ports and travel restrictions and the shipowner or the operator is unable to repatriate them, exemptions to safe manning documents will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Such a request should be supported by risk assessment from the company concerned. 

Anglo Eastern training managing director Pradeep Chawla said the shipmanagement company is following the regulations and no changeovers are being carried out at present. “We are working with industry bodies to exempt seafarers,” he added.

Noting that it had already halted all crew changes some two weeks ago due to growing travel restrictions, Fleet Management head of business development Vikas Grewal said: “The Indian lockdown now puts a seal on that move for Indian seafarers. We will have to look to other crew nationalities for any exigencies that may arise over the next three weeks.”

Fleet Management staff across its offices in nine cities across India are now working from home, he added.

Wallem Group chief executive officer Frank Coles said that in the past day, the group has managed to carry out crew changes in China, South Korea, Japan and the USA, but he added that the backdrop to be able to do this changes hourly.

In terms of the situation in India, he said: “Over 35% of our crew are of Indian origin and if they are relieved, they are stuck in the country of disembarkation because India has essentially abandoned them.”

Mr Coles went on to slam the “blinkered” actions of some parties that are preventing seafarers from being relieved. “In this respect particularly, Wallem is concerned with the apparent abandonment of seafarers around the world by their governments,” he said.  

He said Wallem continued to do its best where possible to relieve crew, but noted that this was contingent on other factors such as whether the country is open, the planes are flying, and the port agrees with the transfer.

Meanwhile, the Indian Ministry of Shipping released an order clarifying that port-related activities are considered essential services and will not be suspended.

However, given that the lockdown suspends all activities and movements other than essential services, and district borders are sealed, difficulty can be anticipated in the movement of pilots, labour, personnel, vehicles, trucking, cargo evacuation and port agents.

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