The government will chart out a plan for the evacuation of seafarers stuck on international waters amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Union Minister Mansukh L Mandaviya has said.
Thousands of Indian seafarers are currently stuck aboard cruise ships and cargo vessels in far off waters, and maritime bodies have been demanding from the government strategies for bringing them home fearing that delays might result in disruption in supply chain.
"I am trying to get the details of stranded seafarers. Based on it, the Shipping Ministry will chart out a plan for evacuation of stuck seafarers," Shipping Minister M L Mandaviya told PTI.
He further said: "I am concerned about the challenges faced by Indian seafarers in these testing times and I appreciate their work for moving the supply chain in the world."
The minister said the evacuation will be done when the situation eases and added that the process for signing-off on Indian ports will be fastened.
The minister has asked the shipliners and maritime bodies to provide the details of stranded Indian seafarers in the international waters.
Mandaviya said the shipping ministry is also drawing a standard operating procedure (SOP) for easing out sign-on and sign-off process at the Indian ports.
PTI on Sunday had reported that maritime bodies had sought the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and Shipping Ministry's intervention for bringing back stuck seafarers.
With the Indian airspace remaining closed for domestic and international passenger flights, the maritime bodies have sought government intervention for devising a strategy to bring back such "essential supply workers".
India is the second largest supplier of seafarers, after the Philippines. As per industry estimates, about one lakh seafarers are engaged in Indian and foreign flag cargo vessels across the globe.
Currently, Indian seafarers are allowed to disembark at ports after following the standard operating procedures as specified by the Directorate General of Shipping.
Leading ship management companies operating in India said they are facing huge challenges as crew change aboard cargo vessels worldwide is not happening as none of the leading airports in the country have become fully or partially operational so far.
Capt Nalin Pandey, CMD of Mumbai-based Pentagon Shipping, had told PTI: "Currently, about 4,000 Indian seafarers are sailing aboard various cargo vessels worldwide on extended contracts. By May end, this figure is expected to cross 15,000. This means, at least 400 Indian ship management companies across the country will have to arrange for domestic plus overseas transportation of at least 30,000 Indian seafarers to facilitate the crew change aboard around 10,000 cargo ships across the globe."
Pandey has said if some strategy is not evolved for seafarers, India's participation in terms of global seafarers will take a hit as sources say there are instances where China has offered all support to its seafarers.
Leading ship management firm Suntech Crew Management said it has suspended the crew change temporarily.
"Replacement of staff on-board all our vessels across the globe stand suspended at least till third week of May. Our foremost responsibility remains to keep Indian seafarers protected from any form of health risk arising due to travel as they remain vulnerable to being stranded at airports or ports, where they may be unable to leave or get sufficient assistance," said Capt Sanjay Srivastava, CEO, Suntech Crew Management.
Capt Agyapal Khuman, chairman of top marine travel company ATPI India, said, "To address this problem, it is essential that Indian government soon allows international travel of Indian seafarers through chartered flights as Indian airspace currently remains open for transport of essential goods and essential workers."
Khuman said as a global travel company, ATPI and other bodies are committed to lend required assistance in this endeavour.
Various maritime bodies have sought PMO intervention in this, he added.
Khuman further said the government can allow special charter flights to important crew change airports such as Singapore, Manila, Hong Kong, Dubai, Rotterdam and others.
The directorate general of shipping recently started issuing 'e-passes' to Indian seafarers enabling them to travel by road on a permitted route to reach home after disembarking at a port, or reach the port to board a vessel.
However, the country head of a global ship management company operating in Mumbai, who did not wished to be named, said, "Most merchant navy officers residing in Maharashtra currently fear travelling by road to board cargo vessels calling on ports of Kandla, Kochi, Paradip, Vizag, etc after the violent incident of Palghar lynching in presence of policemen."
"On an average, at least 150 senior merchant navy seafarers refuse me in a week to join the vessels calling at ports located outside Maharashtra due to this fear psychosis," the executive said.
Earlier, the government had come out with a standard operating procedure (SOP) for Indian seafarers at domestic ports. Shipping Minister Mansukh L Mandaviya had termed it a welcome step.