New Delhi: This Diwali is set to be a dark one for the 23 Indian crew members on board merchant vessel Jag Anand that has been stuck at Jingtang port in northern China’s Hebei province since June.
The vessel, owned by Mumbai-based Great Eastern Shipping Company Limited and chartered by freight trading firm Cargill, reached the Chinese port on 13 June, but has been awaiting anchorage since then. Union shipping ministry officials told ThePrint that the Chinese port officials are not granting permission to the vessel to unload the cargo or change the crew members, a majority of whom have been on board for more than the allowed limit of 11 months.
Under India’s Merchant Shipping (Maritime Labour) Rules, 2016, the longest a seafarer can serve on board before he is entitled to repatriation is 11 months. But among the Jag Anand crew, most have been on board for 15 months, senior officials of the Directorate General for Shipping told ThePrint.
The Union ministries of shipping and external affairs have raised the issue of repatriation of the Indian crew members with their Chinese counterparts, but they have refused to budge on the ground that the Covid pandemic is still raging, and a change of crew can’t be allowed, except in case of a health emergency.
“We have written to the China Maritime Safety Administration about two months back that the majority of the crew members have completed their tenure on board and need to be repatriated. We are yet to hear from them directly,” Amitabh Kumar, the Director General of Shipping, told ThePrint.
Kumar said shipping officials have also taken up the matter with the Ministry of External Affairs and the Indian Embassy in Beijing to talk to their Chinese counterparts. “A majority of the crew members have been on board for about 15 months. Their 11-month tenure got extended because of the Covid pandemic,” Kumar added.
Berths on priority basis
The Chinese response, according to diplomatic sources, has been that because of Covid, several ship-liners got stuck, and that berths are being allocated on higher-priority ships. The sources said it had been decided that the authorities of the Jingtang port will settle the matter with the vessel’s owner, Great Eastern.
“Local authorities indicated that the ship has to await anchorage as there is no berth available at the port,” said an official who refused to be identified.
However, the official added that the Chinese authorities have not prevented them from leaving the port in case their condition worsens.
According to a diplomatic source, the matter also got entangled in a trade tiff between China and Australia, as Beijing is planning to restrict or impose a ban on import of coal from Canberra thanks to its closeness with the US.
Great Eastern’s efforts
Senior officials of Great Eastern told ThePrint that they are talking to the Chinese port officials to allow change of crew members, and have also provided them various options.
“We have tried every possible plan. We told them that if they are unwilling to allow new crew members to join, we can hire Chinese crew members. But those on board the vessel should be allowed to leave for home. But we did not get any response so far,” said a senior company official, who did not want to be named.
The official said the company also offered to sail the ship to Japan, but did not get permission. “We told them we will fly the crew members in special charter flights to India,” the official added.
Failing to get a response from China, and with the crew members on board getting desperate, the company is now doing whatever it can to ensure that they stay safe.
“We have given them extra bandwidth on the satellite phone so that they can talk to their families back home. Diwali is round the corner and it’s natural for them to wish to be with their loved ones,” the official said, adding that Great Eastern is also ensuring that the crew members have enough stock of food and other essentials that they require.
“We have hired a small boat to carry essential supplies to the merchant vessel,” he said.
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