Covid curbs at foreign ports hit Indian seafarers hard

The trade to-and-from India so far is not affected. But if the situation continues to remain the same for the next two to three months, it could definitely hurt India trade, including essential cargo.

As the second wave of Covid-19 continues to grip India, the country’s trade may see severe challenges, with several international ports barring vessels from changing crew who have recently travelled from India.

A large number of countries, including Singapore, Canada, the UK and United Arab Emirates have denied entry to Indian seafarers over Covid-19 fears.

“Indian seafarers are at a disadvantageous position due to the ongoing second wave. Due to the restrictions, shipping companies are now preferring to deploy Indonesian or Filipino crew over Indians,” Abdulgani Serang, general secretary at National Union of Seafarers of India (NUSI), told Business Standard.

Indians, who are one of the world’s largest sources of sea crew along with the Philippines and China, have been dealing with this situation for the last four months.

“Indian flag vessels will have to be carry Indian crew and to that extent there is no escape for domestic shipping companies from the impact of the stance taken by international ports,” said R Kumar, managing director of Tolani Shipping Company.

This could lead to potential job losses as well, as the industry added 25,000 jobs last year despite the first wave of the pandemic. 

The trade to-and-from India so far is not affected. But if the situation continues to remain the same for the next two to three months, it could definitely hurt India trade, including essential cargo, Kumar added.

Arun Garodia, vice chairman of Engineering and Export Promotion Council of India (EEPC), agreed. “We will get to see the impact of this (seafarer issue) in the coming days, especially on the cargoes that are about to reach the destination now or over the next few days. This will impact export of every product, and not just engineering items,” he said.

India’s merchandise exports remained robust in April, despite localised lockdowns in the country. Order books have been steady mainly on the back of demand from nations that have nearly recovered from the impact of the pandemic, said industry officials.

At present, imports are not impacted as the government has been taking steps to ensure speedy clearance of goods owing to urgent need of various medical equipment and pharmaceutical products to fight the pandemic.

Kumar however said medical equipment are being carried largely by foreign container vessels and there is no India connection there. “Neither Indian crew gets deployed, nor is any Indian shipping company involved. So we don’t see medical aid to India getting impacted,” he added.

Industry officials see speedy vaccination as the only sure shot solution to resolve the seafarer issue.

“We are not adhering to guidelines laid down by international bodies such as IMO (International Maritime Organisation) which makes vaccination mandatory. We did approach the government a few months ago requesting to bring seafarers under frontline worker category or special status so that vaccination can happen on priority for them. But that request went unheard,” said Serang of NUSI.

Most Indian seafarers belong to the 18-45 age group for whom the vaccination has opened only a few days ago but supply of vaccine is very limited, leaving this category at the receiving end, said industry officials.

While the Indian seafarer community is still struggling for vaccination, governments of Indonesia and Philippines have carried out vaccination drives for their seafarers resulting in Indians losing out jobs to them, explained other officials of NUSI.

The government however played down the issue. “We have tied up with Kolkata, Bombay and Kochi Port hospitals and have also designed a complete vaccination drive for seafarers. Those who are travelling in the next 60 days should register themselves and can get vaccinated at any one of these hospitals,” said Amitabh Kumar, director general shipping, ministry of shipping, without elaborating much on availability of vaccines at these facilities.

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