India's role in keeping shipping industry running

The collision between a freight ship and a bridge in Baltimore, USA, didn’t turn into a major disaster thanks to the quick actions of the 22-member Indian crew aboard the vessel Dali. Prior to the collision, the sailors issued a mayday call, prompting authorities to halt traffic on the bridge and preventing potential mass casualties. President Joe Biden commended the Indian crew for their swift response that saved lives.

Dali is just one example of numerous ships predominantly or entirely manned by Indian seafarers. The global shipping industry, responsible for over 90% of the world’s goods trade by volume, stands to suffer without the contributions of Indian sailors.

According to data from the Directorate General of Shipping, Government of India, India is the third-largest provider of seafarers worldwide, following China and the Philippines. Indian seafarers constitute nearly 10% of the global maritime workforce.

Between 2013 and 2017, there was a significant increase of 42.3% in the number of shipboard jobs available for Indian sailors. However, it’s worth noting that India lags behind China, which accounts for 33% of the world’s seafarers. A notable distinction exists between the two nations: the majority of Chinese sailors serve on Chinese-flagged vessels, whereas Indian seafarers work on both domestic and foreign ships, making them more globally dispersed. This dynamic could shift as India develops and operates more ships domestically.

According to the most recent available data, the total count of Indian seafarers aboard ships rose from 108,446 in 2013 to 154,339 in 2017. Among them, there were 62,016 marine officers and 82,734 rating ship personnel in 2017. It is likely that these figures have seen significant growth since then. Recent estimates suggest that the total number of Indian seafarers has reached approximately 250,000, with around 160,000 holding professional certifications and serving on cargo ships, while approximately 90,000 work on cruise liners.

India has maintained its position on the International Maritime Organization’s White List, which denotes countries fully compliant with the STCW-95 Convention and Code. To be listed, a nation must demonstrate adequate systems for seafarer licensing, oversight of training facilities, flag state control (ensuring proper oversight of flagged vessels), and port state control (effective government inspections of foreign ships in domestic ports). India’s inclusion on this list enhances the appeal of Indian seafarers to international shipping firms.

Experts predict that the percentage of Indian seafarers in the global shipping industry is expected to rise to 20% within the next ten years. This trend is propelled by four key factors: the presence of quality training institutions in India, increasing literacy rates, an aging seafarer population in Europe, and the proficiency of Indian sailors in English. Despite having approximately 166 maritime training institutes in the country, only around half of the available pre-sea training slots are currently being filled. This indicates significant potential for expansion in the Indian maritime workforce.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the critical importance of Indian seafarers in the global shipping industry. Initially, there was a shortage of labor on cargo ships due to shipping companies’ hesitancy to employ Indian seafarers, driven by concerns over rising COVID-19 cases and fatalities in India. Despite the International Maritime Organization’s efforts to urge governments to classify seafarers as essential workers, the Government of India promptly designated Indian merchant navy personnel as such, recognizing their vital role.

The conflict in Ukraine has heightened the demand for Indian seafarers. Prior to the war, Russia and Ukraine combined contributed approximately 15% of the global seafarer supply. However, the ongoing conflict has disrupted this supply, leading shipping companies to turn to countries such as India to meet their staffing needs.

Naturally, there are obstacles to overcome. Firstly, the merchant navy faces stiff competition from other appealing career paths like IT in attracting young talent. Secondly, there is a shortage of available training opportunities on board ships. Lastly, the low representation of women in the maritime sector significantly hampers the workforce’s potential. Tackling these challenges head-on could pave the way for India to account for one-fifth of the world’s seafarers in the near future.

William Murphy

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