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Still in deep waters, seafarers wait for COVID-19 curbs to lift

Gopal Krishna is a petty officer in the engine department of an Indian ship. His mother is not well, but he is unable to reach his home in Visakhapatnam from the Cochin Port, where his vessel is anchored now. “My captain gave me necessary clearance for a ‘short hand’ leave of 10 days. But I didn’t get the necessary clearance from the government authorities. My mother is unwell, I have to reach my house,” Mr. Krishna said. The authorities denied him permission on the ground of COVID-19 restrictions on entry of seafarers, which is yet to be officially lifted by the Union Home Ministry.

Mr. Krishna’s case is not an isolated one. About 10,000 seafarers, of national and foreign carriers, who reach Indian ports on a given day, face problems in availing themselves of ‘on shore’ and ‘short hand’ leaves that they are entitled to. The Centre and the States withdrew almost all restrictions on movement imposed during the pandemic, but seafarers are one group of workers who are yet to get the benefit of these relaxations. They complain that due to lack of proper advisories, they fail to get immigration and port security clearance for ‘on shore’ leave, which is their right according to the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006. An ‘on shore’ leave is usually given for four to six hours, while a ‘short hand’ leave is for 10 to 15 days.

As a result, seafarers who return to shore after three to 45 days of sailing have to remain in ship and are not allowed to go ‘on shore’ for their personal well-being. India has about 2.5 lakh seafarers. They complain that the immigration and the port security officials do not allow them ‘shore leave’ even on those ports where some relaxations have already been announced by the respective State governments. The unions of seafarers have approached Union Home Minister Amit Shah for relaxation in the norms.

The Forward Seamen’s Union of India has represented this problem of Indian and foreign sailors to the Home Ministry. Its general secretary Manoj Yadav said in a complaint to Mr. Shah that seafarers served the globe during the pandemic but are facing mental stress due to want of their repatriation and ‘shore leave’. Mr. Yadav met the Directorate General Shipping too requesting that the issue be resolved. “Neither the port administration nor the Immigration Department or the security handled by the Central Industrial Security Force are allowing them to go ‘on shore’ for their personal well-beings, whereas many vendors, and other related workers, are frequently visiting the ports and onboard the vessels. The problem is because of the absence of any specific guidelines for the ‘shore leave’ of seafarers from the Home Ministry,” Mr. Yadav told The Hindu.

Fundamental rights
The union urged Mr. Shah not do deny the fundamental rights of a seafarer. “In all other countries, seafarers are getting ‘on shore’ leave, of course, with some restrictions. In China, only Indian seafarers face a similar problem. But the government hasn’t helped us to resolve this despite raising this with the authorities,” Mr. Yadav said.
There are about 18,92,720 seafarers in the world, according to the Seafarer Report of 2021. India has about 2.4 lakh seafarers. Without ‘on shore’ or ‘short hand’ leave, the seafarers have to be in the ship till the completion of their contract, ranging from three to nine months. “At one stretch, they may have to sail for three to 45 days depending on their work. The government must understand their mental stress,” Mr. Yadav said, adding that similar unions of foreign seafarers have urged him to take up the issue with the Centre.
Source: The Hindu

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