India resumes crew changes, seeks industry feedback on repatriation plan

India's shipping minister, Mansukh Mandaviya, delivering a speech. Credit: Wikipedia/Khimanisagar

In response to maritime industry pleas, India has resumed crew changes for its seafarers who are caught up in the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic-related restrictions.

India’s maritime administration, the Directorate General (DG) of Shipping has issued a standard operating procedure (SOP) to reinstate sign-on and sign-off processes for Indian national mariners at domestic ports on 21 April. Similar to all other countries, India had suspended crew movement to contain the risk of virus spread.

As a result of the policy, on 23 April, 145 crew members of a German cruise ship were able to sign off at the Mumbai port. “The crew will continue to be in quarantine in Mumbai until their test reports come [back] negative,” a statement said.

To prevent contamination from ship to shore, the SOP comes with formalities for shipowners and ship agencies, chiefly to ensure that the seafarers who are signing on and off are in good health and have not had any contact with a known or suspect COVID-19 case. This will include a negative COVID-19 test report.

“[A] seafarer arriving on a vessel from any foreign port within 14 days of departure from the foreign port shall be kept in quarantine for a total of 14 days from the date of departure from the last foreign port at a facility approved by the port or state authority”, the SOP stated. “On completion of 14 days, he/she shall undergo a COVID-19 test to confirm negative result.”

A to-and-fro vehicle transit permit would also need to be issued for transportation from the port of disembarkation to the destination where the seafarer resides or is temporarily staying.

While India’s nationwide lockdown is set to run until 17 May, the government has opened consultations with various maritime stakeholders to draw up a plan to repatriate Indian seafarers marooned in overseas, at sea or ports, due to travel bans.

During a wider virtual industry interaction on 28 April, India’s shipping minister, Mansukh Mandaviya, took note of the problems faced by local seafarers and promised to speed up their repatriation. He urged industry leaders to provide details about such seafarers. According to anecdotal industry estimates, about 30,000 Indian seafarers are awaiting repatriation. However, the government has yet to unveil any plans to execute the action.

At the same time, lockdown measures have dealt a heavy blow for cargo flow out of Indian ports, resulting in large-scale cargo buildups and prompting some ports to temporarily halt or curtail export movements to mitigate congestion. The widespread logjam also causes disputes between cargo owners and service providers (carriers and land-side logistics companies) regarding relief from demurrage and other penalties for stranded cargo.

The Adani Group-owned Hazira Port was the first port to suspend its export activities, whereby several carriers have had to skip calls at the port.

“This [delayed cargo clearance] will have a cascading effect on port inventory and could lead to congestion at ports,” a Mumbai-based shipping official said.