August 25, 2011

Arctic Rape

We just don't learn.

My cynicism with the U.S.' Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management and Regulatory Enforcement (BOEMRE) was validated last week when Shell Offshore- owned by Royal Dutch Shell- was granted 'conditional approval' to drill in the Arctic's Beaufort Sea next year. Another brick in the wall of Arctic devastation has been laid; humanity will pay much more than the $3.5 billion Shell paid for those Arctic leases by the time this environmental rape is done with.

Ironically, Royal Dutch Shell is fighting to control a "substantial" spill off a ruptured pipeline in the Gannet field in North Sea- the worst since 2000- as I write this. The British The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) puts the figures at " several hundred tonnes," but we know, after the Deep Water Horizon explosion, that announced figures mean very little and are often intended to obfuscate, not clarify. Interestingly, Shell says- with suspicious accuracy- that only 216 tonnes of oil has been spilled so far. These numbers- and the story- is being modified almost daily, so do not hold me to them.

The Deepwater Horizon environmental disaster will look- in retrospect- like a drop of oil in the ocean compared to an Arctic incident of even a fraction of similar magnitude. Drilling hundreds of miles away from  the nearest Coast Guard base, with ice and inclement weather to boot, Shell's expansive 'three tier' contingency plans in the frigid waters of the Arctic -that it says are sufficient to contain a major spill- will obviously be as worthless as junk bonds. For a start, there is no proven technology for cleaning up oil in icy water; skimming boats do not work. If a blowout happens when ice is freezing over, say some scientists, the earliest that relief wells can be drilled may be next summer, which means months of oil leaking into pristine waters unchecked. 

Listen to retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who led the US response to the Gulf spill, saying earlier this year that the US was ill-equipped to deal with a major oil disaster in Alaska, given harsh weather, little infrastructure and unpredictable ice. Environmentalists have used words like 'inexcusable' and phrases like "disaster waiting to happen" and "dangerous and disappointing" after the BOEMRE clearance given to Shell was announced.  Chuck Clusen, director of Alaska projects for the Natural Resources Defence Council, says the approval is "either the height of irresponsibility or the height of ignorance — but either way it should be stopped.”

Shell's contingency plans for Arctic drilling- based on which I presume the approvals have been granted, make the delusional claim that the company will recover 90 percent of any oil that will spill after a Horizon type catastrophe. Ridiculous, given that only five percent (yes, five) of oil could be recovered in the Gulf after the Horizon blowout, and the waters there were temperate and infrastructure available much closer. Shell's delusional plans make no allowances for the fact that the disaster site may be inaccessible for weeks, if an incident happens at the wrong place at the wrong time.

It appears that the ban on drilling that the Obama administration announced in the aftermath of the Horizon catastrophe was obviously temporary eyewash; now that public outrage has subsided, the only game in town-crony capitalism-can safely resume its march again.  

But why blame only the US or single out just Shell? The fact is that the oligarchs- often huge multinational companies- rule the world today with their henchmen government-accomplices across the world. From Africa to Russia to the US to India, mineral resources are plundered and looted with scant regard for the environment or the livelihoods of indigenous peoples. These companies co-opt politicians and administrations in much the same way as the old European colonial East India Companies did, giving each collaborator a personal stake in the loot-Directorships of companies post retirement included.

Today's East India Companies are less honest about their rape and plunder, though. They cloak their ravenous greed with meaningless environmental assessment and contingency plans made for hypocritical approval processes, but their intention is rape.  The only other difference between the old colonialists and the new ones is that the new ones have hundreds of employees and consultants- and entire puppet governments- on hand to manage events when the inevitable disaster occurs. As in the Deep Water Horizon case, when even journalists were barred by the Obama government from taking photographs of tarred beaches and dying marine life . These oligarchs know fully well that a disaster is a statistical probability- even certainty- and that the fallout will not be containable when it occurs. Therefore, they decide that they will manage the outrage and keep the natives from getting too restless instead, when disaster does strike. Their strategy, in short, is a) rape b) manage outrage. They have no strategy for the protection of the environment.

It helps to do all this when the natives themselves are addicted to oil.

The impending destruction of the Arctic is just another step on a long road to hell. The devastation of the pristine and frigid end of the earth may well turn out- as we all know- to be the last straw that makes the planet itself become hostile to us. The new colonialists are trying to convince us that the Arctic is the last frontier, but that is a lie. It is actually the last bastion. 

August 18, 2011

Soft State

To the many who are asking- after the Pavit grounding and the Rak Carrier sinking- "What is wrong with India's maritime security?" I have a one-word answer. Everything.

Another slightly longer answer to the same question: What is wrong with maritime security is corruption and its fallout, because Indian inefficiency is the bastard child of another perverted disease- corruption. We are saddled today with endemic political, commercial and bureaucratic depravation that rots the foundations all our institutions. It also spawns inefficiency, inertia and self-centred behaviour, besides a culture of non-accountability.  An indolent, arrogant and corrupt system will never be equipped to handle any security; so it is.

Things were supposed to be different after the Mumbai terror attacks three years ago, when ten terrorists came in by sea from Pakistan, hijacked an Indian trawler and sailed it to mayhem in Mumbai after killing the skipper. Although some of us have often expressed dismay at the sorry state of maritime security affairs since then, we were assured last year, by none other than the Home Minister, that maritime security had been significantly augmented. A fortune had already been spent on building a three tier security ring that involved the Coast Guard, the Navy and coastal maritime police, we were told. We knew we were being told a lot of nonsense, of course; for one, we could see that piracy had reached Indian shores that were now at the fine edge of a war zone. Later we heard reports of pirates swimming ashore- undetected- in Lakshadweep and Gujarat. We saw, repeatedly, the complete lack of Indian control over the country's coastline. We saw the great Indian State being caught repeatedly with its pants down.

The Pavit and Rak Carrier incidents are just high profile, close to Mumbai's many TV cameras- and therefore noticed by the otherwise sea blind country. Many questions remain unanswered there, though. In the Pavit case, the biggest ones being: How does a ship abandoned a month earlier off Oman (and that the owners reported sunk) drift roughly eastwards in the southwest monsoons for weeks through Indian waters unnoticed? How does it land up beached on the most popular holiday spot in central Mumbai without any authority being aware of its existence? And how does it land up there reasonably decently maintained a month after being allegedly abandoned? The Rak Carrier sinking is equally suspicious, and smells of fraud.

However, these are just two incidents out of the many recent security breaches on the western Indian coast- so far only the western, although I doubt very much that the east coast is any more secure. Numerous piracy incidents close to the Indian western coastline (also, alarmingly, close to the Bombay High oilfield) and the grounding of the MV Wisdom off the same Juhu beach all happened before the Pavit, making a laughing stock of government statements that said that 183 interceptor boats had been provided to a dozen states across the country for coastal security, that the coast guard was being expanded with fifteen specialised vessels on order, and that scores of new coastal police stations had been setup. Billions had been spent and billions more promised. (News reports said, long before the Pavit and the Rak Carrier, that these interceptor boats lay idle in Maharashtra because of chronic mechanical failures, lack of trained crew and- and this is hilarious- the monsoons.)

The Comptroller and Auditor General of India said early this month that coastal security is "besieged with ad hoc planning and bureaucratic bottlenecks, huge manpower and equipment shortfalls and turf wars among different agencies, including the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard," according to media reports.  "Flawed planning and deficient execution of plans has resulted in Coast Guard operating at virtually half its required strength," the CAG said. The force has only 65% of the required force-levels of ships and vessels, and 48% in terms of aircraft and helicopters. The CAG also says that coordination between agencies leaves much to be desired. "In an era of heightened coastal security concerns, Coast Guard remains ill-equipped to discharge its enhanced role and meet the challenges of today," the CAG said.

Three years after Mumbai, the Indian government has still not set up the promised apex Maritime Security Advisory Board headed by a Maritime Security Advisor. Their inefficiency is breathtaking.

I am not saying that security today is directly compromised because of corruption in the intelligence, navy, coast guard or coastal police setups. However, I will bet that somewhere, sometime, when you least expect it, questions will be asked about where the billions that have been spent went.
What I am saying, however, is that rampant corruption and its concomitant fallout guarantee paralysis in efficiency and makes the pursuit of maritime security an exercise in futility. I bet this is the real reason why we have gotten exactly nowhere after spending those billions.

The Indian State and its security apparatus stands exposed at a particularly dangerous time today. New threats are emerging in addition to old existing ones. In our immediate neighbourhood, Pakistan is on a slow march to chaos, maybe even disintegration. Piracy and maritime terrorism remain potent threats. Our waters are becoming polluted dumping grounds for old and unseaworthy ships and all kinds of crimes and frauds.  A newer threat is the recent approval given by the International Seabed Authority to the Chinese for undertaking deep-sea mining in the Indian Ocean; the approval   will allow a hostile country to flex its military muscle close to Kanyakumari in India on the pretext of mining operations. Tough for India to contain China when it cannot do that to a pirate boat sailing merrily into Gujarat.

India today is simply not geared enough, strong enough or honest enough to meet these challenges. It is a soft State and not only because of its wishy-washy foreign policies that try to please all and end up pleasing none; it is a soft State because all its institutions have been softened to putty and their foundations hollowed out by corruption and its diseased spawn. It is a soft State because corruption- and its illegitimate children led by inefficiency- have made its security apparatus soft in the head. India is soft because most Indians cannot see beyond their own narrow self-interests; it is soft because graft and greed prevail everywhere over professional good sense.

Clearly, there can be no maritime security in this slothful atmosphere. Clearly, we have to fix corruption before we even begin to fix maritime security. Unfortunately, I have very little faith that this will happen in my lifetime. I have few beliefs left when it comes to Indian institutional integrity; In fact, the only belief I still have left is that you will be able to read this article- unchanged, three years from today- and it will still appear topical and fresh, because little, if anything, would have changed.

We had better pull up our socks. And while we are at it, we had better pull up our pants too.

August 11, 2011

Somalia, a dreadful opportunity.

I am here to tell you that the continued failure of the international community to bring political stability to Somalia- or its futile efforts at the IMO and everywhere else- will soon result in a near-spectacular increase in piracy out of that country. This will happen because the Somali famine is the biggest humanitarian disaster on earth today, and pirate gangs will soon attract thousands of Somali men who have been painted into a bloody corner. These men- and young boys, as my tale will tell- have just four choices left: Fight for the Al Shabaab and maybe die, fight for the government and maybe die, die of starvation or take to piracy.

The horrendous famine, maybe the worst in the last sixty years, has resulted in a million and a half internally displaced persons in Somalia. Twenty nine thousand children are dead; 10 million (and counting) people have been directly affected. Tens of thousands are making the sometimes month long journey to the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, often on foot. Many die on the way. Some mothers abandon weaker children, leaving them to starve to die on the side of the road. An estimated 1,300 Somalis are crossing into Kenya every single day to refugee camps set up by aid agencies. More than $2 billion is needed to address the crisis.
Worse, women and children are being attacked and raped en route to Dadaab- and at Dadaab-since there are few of their men around to protect them. The UN refugee agency UNHCR says that more than 80 per cent of those fleeing Somalia are women and children. But where are the men?

Turns out that the Al Shabaab- an Al Qaeda linked terror group fighting the west supported and UN recognised Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Somalia- is abducting males as young as 12 to fight for them.  And, as it turns out, so are the TFG military units.  Some terrified Somalis are therefore leaving their men and boys behind, hidden in towns and villages, before they begin their march to Kenya and hopefully to salvation.  Jane Okello of the UNHCR is quoted in Al Jazeera, "The men are probably dead or fighting", although she says that some would have stayed back for other reasons.  Amnesty International says that that both the militants and the Somali army are guilty of recruiting child soldiers; Al Shabaab has even set up checkpoints at the border where young men are stopped and taken away.

A provocative question now: if you were one of those men, would you consider joining the pirates instead? I know I might, because maybe that is the only I see to protect my family- and stay alive.  Shipping should beware of these men because they have nothing left to lose.

The simpler response from the rest of the world- and the only one seen thus far- is to throw money at the crisis.  Set up camps, roll out the UNHCR to feed, clothe and shelter refugees. The urgently needed and much more complex response should see the UN involved in bringing about political change in Somalia. Help and pressure the league of extraordinarily beleaguered gentlemen in the TFG- on the back of a UN peacekeeping force or some such- to push for some form of centralised democratic government there. Somalia is a crisis on many fronts: humanitarian, security and piracy crises that affect the world cannot be solved without a comprehensive political resolution on the ground in that wretched country. Failure to do this will mean we will continue to fight elsewhere flames of fires that are lit in Somalia.

Let nobody assume that this will be easy. NATO is stretched already with its Libyan misadventure. Besides, EU Navfor's first mandated priority is the protection of food aid for Somalia, and more aid there will mean more UN's World Food Programme vessels in need of protection and so fewer warships available to protect commercial shipping. This is already happening.

The Americans will also have to be persuaded to put the 1993 Black Hawk Down incident aside and support a UN led political and military initiative in Somalia. They may be more inclined to do so today, given that they have now resumed drone strikes against selected terrorist targets in Somalia after many years. Even assuming US or European support- agreed, a stretched assumption- Somalia's anarchic past will be another huge obstacle. Like Afghanistan, the country is besieged by corruption, warlords and criminal gangs, not to speak of the Shabaab, locally powerful satraps or pirate gang leaders, all of whom are flush with arms and money. Huge ethnic tensions exist within Somalia- and between Somalis and the Ethiopians, who seem to send thousands of US backed troops into and out of Somalia periodically, adding to the chaos. In any case, Somali- Ethiopian wars go back to the sixteenth century.

We know that a political solution to Somalia is the only way to go; the Somali famine gives the UN an opportunity to arm-twist powerful groups- on the back of a mandated military force- into negotiations. The Al Shabaab will be the one to neutralise here, because they will not come to any table. They have to be tackled eventually; better now, when they are not in control of the entire country, then later, when they just might be.
I believe that a beginning must be made today, when Somalia needs the international community as it comes to grips with its humanitarian catastrophe. If we delay, we will be back in a year or two to the same position we were in three months ago- except that there will be thousands of fresh pirate or terrorist recruits already out there attacking us, our ships and our cargoes. And they will be much stronger.

The UN must start now. Countries around the world must support the UN with funds to fight the famine- I am not one of those sailors who finds it easy to damn all Somalis because of the actions of some of their compatriots who I may see aboard speeding skiffs from time to time. And I am not one to point to the last two decades of civil war in Somalia as the only reason for the famine (the IMF and the World Bank, besides oil companies and US' expansionist policies are major culprits, as often) and say that the Somalis deserve their misery. I do not look on them as unworthy victims.

All I say is this: The international community must find a way to engage the less rabid elements in Somalia, and come down like a ton of bricks on the more rabid ones. It must begin the process that will end anarchy and form a representative government there. Moreover, it must start now, because the iron will not stay hot forever; the horrendous famine has given us this opportunity.

We must also do this because our existing initiatives to fight piracy- that seem to consist mainly of touting, much like computer software, newer and newer versions of Best Management Practices- are getting us precisely nowhere.

August 04, 2011

Children of a lesser God.

The newspapers carried two stories towards the end of last month. In one, the Kerala High Court ordered Air India to pay Rs 75 lakh (approximately USD 170,000) compensation to each of the families of last May's Mangalore air crash victims. Air India had earlier tried to offer compensation based on the income of the deceased- many on the flight were from low income families- until one of the poorer families went to court. The court ruled that under the applicable Montreal Convention, "It is clear that the intention of the lawmakers was to ensure parity in compensation irrespective of the class of travel or background."  Even after a court battle, the ruling has taken just fourteen months since the crash.

The second story is different because it involves shipping. That one said that the families of the victims of the mysterious disappearance of the tug Jupiter 6 off South Africa in September 2005- almost six years ago- would finally be paid compensation of USD 40000 for each officer and USD 25000 for each crew. I understand from sources that this is an interim amount, but the fact is that after six years, during which the parents of three of the missing crew have tragically died of heartbreak, a sailor's life is found to be worth a seventh that of an air crash victim in India. Seven dead Indian shipboard crew equal one dead Indian airborne landlubber.

One can only hope that the final compensation in the Jupiter 6 case is much higher; besides anything else, a Supreme Court judgement will set a precedent that will be difficult to revert. The families of tomorrow's dead sailors may finally get some protection.

Do not tell me, please that one case involved a bunch of employees while the other case involved aircraft passengers. Don't tell me about contractual agreements and built-in compensation clauses, please. Legal and other niceties went for a toss, as far as I am concerned, when the manning agents of the Jupiter 6 - Pelmar-took one month to inform either the DG shipping or the families of the crew that the tug was missing. All bets were off the moment an initial compensation of USD 400- yes, four hundred dollars- was offered to the families of the missing Indians, according to reports. All protocols and agreements were flushed down the toilet when the bereaved families- some coming from low income families in Kerala, the very demographic that the court protects in the other Air India crash compensation case today- were made to grovel and run around in their time of grief- by the manning agents, Indian owners and the Indian administration. Even after some of the parents died. Even after the court asking the DG shipping to detail steps taken since 2006 to 'improve the fate' of seafarers. 

Sorry, your Honour. No steps taken. No can do. Who cares? Don't you know that seafarers are children of a lesser God?

If it weren't for Manoj Joy and his 'Sailor's Helpline' that was involved in the Jupiter  6 case right up to the Supreme Court, the families of the dead sailors would still be grovelling before petty bureaucrats and assorted touts that call themselves owners and managers. Salute to Mr Joy, who has been unrelenting in promoting seafarer causes even after he was physically attacked by a gang with iron rods, sticks and beer bottles in 2007.  

Shame to the rest.

The Supreme Court has said that the Jupiter 6 compensation is without prejudice to the right of the kin to move an appropriate forum for more compensation. I know that the families will probably not have enough will left to fight further, but I wish they would. Easy to say, I know. In similar circumstances, I may well have settled instead for some piece of mind myself.

The Jupiter 6 story does not have a happy ending so far. Six years, dead parents, mental anguish- and insufficient compensation at the end of it all- is hardly victory. Although I hope that the families of the crew, after a harrowing six years, get some closure and a measure of peace, other ships will continue to disappear (The ending of the MV Rezzak disappearance story- with the same manning agency reportedly involved and 25 Indians missing since 2008- has still to be written). Other sailor families will continue to suffer the loss of loved ones. Their losses will be magnified, as usual, by a combination of fraud, indifference, lethargy, hardened neglect, petty mindedness, bureaucratic sleights of hand, corruption and plain inefficiency. All in a commercial and regulatory system that is - to this sailor, at least- not worth anything much at all.

The Children of the lesser God need many more 'Sailor Helplines' around, for sure. And all of us in this industry- too much of which is actually human trafficking in thin disguise- need to support Manoj Joy and his like wherever they are found and in whichever way we can.

Because outsourced conscience is better than no conscience at all.