The Indian seafarer deserves better in choppy high seas

With Indians playing a significant role in keeping the global shipping industry running, their welfare and safety acquires significance

April 25, 2024 12:08 am | Updated 02:31 am IST

On the coastline near Hobyo, northeastern Somalia. File

On the coastline near Hobyo, northeastern Somalia. File | Photo Credit: AFP

Amid rising safety concerns among Indian seafarers following the recent attacks on commercial ships in sensitive geographical areas such as the Red Sea and the Strait of Hormuz, India submitted three papers to the 111th Session of the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Legal Committee (LEG), which is from April 22 to 26, 2024. These submissions address crucial issues such as seafarers’ security, contract terms, and broader maritime security challenges. India has stressed the need for a comprehensive approach to maritime security and advocated improved contractual conditions for seafarers. While acknowledging the IMO’s efforts to combat maritime fraud, India has called for broader international cooperation to tackle various maritime threats, including piracy, armed robbery, extremist attacks, regional conflicts, and emerging risks such as drone attacks and the use of maritime weapons.

Sea piracy is back

Recent pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia, including hijackings, suggest a resurgence of piracy. In December 2023 and January 2024, Somali pirates targeted vessels such as the MV Ruen and MV Lila Norfolk. India has called for vigilance, proactive measures, and international cooperation to combat piracy and protect seafarers, in line with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

India has also highlighted the impact of unlawful recruitment practices on seafarers’ well-being and international trade. Since 2020, over 200 cases of seafarer exploitation have been reported to the Indian Maritime Administration. India has urged international coordination to address these issues and ensure seafarers’ rights under the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006.

The maritime industry, vital for global trade, depends heavily on seafarers who often face challenges and risks.

India, with 9.35% of global seafarers and ranking third globally, confronts these issues, evident from recent incidents such as the seizure of MSC Aries and the detention of MT Heroic Idun at Nigeria (this last case went on for several months).

These events highlight the vulnerabilities of Indian seafarers, catalogued by a survey, showing how a majority lacked legal representation, felt unfairly treated, and were unaware of their rights. India has submitted papers to the IMO’s Legal Committee, which emphasise seafarers’ security and contract terms. Yet, enhanced international cooperation is needed to safeguard seafarers and ensure uninterrupted navigation, especially amid rising incidents involving Indian seafarers and geopolitical tensions.

Three years ago, the Maritime Union of India highlighted a 40% increase in kidnappings in the Gulf of Guinea, with 134 cases of assault, injury, and threats reported. Incidents such as the kidnapping of 20 Indian nationals from the MT Duke (off the western coast of Africa) and the ship owners paying hefty ransoms highlight the dangers faced by seafarers.

An Indian initiative on rights

In response, the Indian government and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) launched the ‘human rights at sea’ initiative. Reports reveal cases of seafarers being held in foreign jails, stranded in foreign waters, and subjected to illegal detentions. ‘Human Rights at Sea’ has highlighted abuses against Indian seafarers, including 200 held in foreign jails and 65 stranded in Indonesia for 151 days. The NHRC has highlighted the challenges of holding ship owners accountable for violations against Indian seafarers operating under foreign registrations to evade taxes and has stressed the need for proactive cooperation among stakeholders and mechanisms to protect human rights in the maritime industry.

Maritime piracy is a growing concern for Indian seafarers. With around 2,50,000 Indian seafarers serving on specialised cargo vessels worldwide, recent data from the International Maritime Bureau show a more than 10% increase in serious piracy incidents over the last 10 months. Armed pirates have boarded nearly 90% of targeted cargo ships, endangering seafarers.

Addressing piracy requires a comprehensive land-based solution. While private guards on merchant navy ships can deter piracy, the volatile nature of piracy-prone oceans poses challenges, as highlighted by Bjorn Hojgaard, CEO of Anglo-Eastern Univan Group, a major employer of Indian seafarers.

Further, reports suggest that Iranian shipping companies, in collaboration with international recruiters, exploit Indian seafarers by luring them with false promises of high salaries and opportunities in the Middle East. These seafarers often face overwork, are provided insufficient food, and are forced into transporting illegal cargo, despite paying hefty fees to secure overseas jobs.

Seafarers need support

Despite these risks, many Indian seafarers remain committed to their careers at sea, which makes it imperative to have improved rights and protection. Currently representing 9.35% of the global seafaring population, India aims to increase its share to 20% in the next 10 to 20 years, with ship management companies playing a crucial role.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Indian seafarers demonstrated their resilience and professionalism, enhancing India’s standing in the global maritime market. The Ukraine-Russia conflict has also created opportunities for new players in the Indian maritime sector.

Recent attacks on commercial ships have heightened safety concerns among Indian seafarers, with some considering quitting their jobs due to security fears. This underlines the urgent need for government support and enhanced protection measures.

K.M. Seethi, an Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) Senior Fellow, is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University (MGU), Kerala. He was Senior Professor of International Relations and Dean of Social Sciences at the MGU

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.