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WHERE IS THE ACCOUNTABILITY

 

By  F R Chowdhury:

 

A few days back we read a news item that a Bangladeshi ship was detained in Germany by Port State Control for reasons of safety. In the commercial world of shipping, PSC detention of ships is not a very unusual thing. But the same happening to a year old ship is unusual. If it was owned by a private shipping company, the owners by now would have definitely done their investigation and rectification. In our part of the world there is an old saying “sarkar ka maal, darya mye daal”. That must have happened again. I have to speak and write about it because it affects me and unless we raise such questions things will never change.

The ship in question is m.t. Banglar Agradoot is owned by the Shipping Corporation of Bangladesh. This is a state owned enterprise that means to say the company is owned by the people of Bangladesh. The government is entrusted with the responsibility of running the state and in so doing it also becomes responsible for operation of all state owned enterprises. It must be clearly understood that state owned enterprise is not another department of the government rather a commercial venture. It is the responsibility of the government (that is the minister in charge of the relevant matter) to find duly knowledgeable and competent persons (not essentially civil servants or military personnel) to run the enterprise (as Chairman and Managing Director) to highest possible efficiency. The corporation must operate free of any bureaucratic control. The management of the corporation is responsible to the government (relevant minister) and the minister is answerable to the Prime Minister and the Parliament. People in general (who are actually the owners) get to know from the minister and parliament from time to time; and from the annual audited report. There is proper chain of command and responsibility. Everyone connected with the operation and management of any state owned enterprise must feel that s/he is entrusted with a responsibility on behalf of state and it should be performed to the highest ethical standard.

The world of shipping has recently undergone big changes. Shipping has to comply with requirements for safety, environmental protection and for maintaining necessary security. These all have been brought under a Safety Management System known as ISM (International Safety Management) where the ship’s crew and the company work together with defined task and responsibility. Master’s authority is supreme on board the ship; and it is only the master who can deviate from ISM if s/he thinks such an action is essential for reasons of safety, security and environment. Gone are the days when watch-keeping officers and engineers used to think “I have done my watches and done my duties”. The ISM manual will allocate certain other inspection and maintenance duties to watch-keeping officers and engineers. Every three to four ships are grouped together under a Superintendent (experienced master or engineer) known as DPA (designated person ashore); and this DPA forms the link between the ship and the management ashore. This makes a DPA 24/7 on duty.

The national laws (supposed to be derived from internationally agreed conventions) apply to own ships no matter where they are and to other ships (registered abroad) when in Bangladesh waters. This is the case with all maritime nations. Ethical maritime administration will impose the same standard of compliance on national and foreign ships without any discrimination. Inspection of foreign ships is referred to as PSC (Port State Control). This is how we expect the global compliance of all international conventions. Ships that fail to meet the standard are given warning and in some cases with time limitation for correction. Ships may be detained only when allowing the ship to proceed to sea may impose threat to safety of life, property or environment. Ship will be allowed to continue as soon as the defects are rectified to the satisfaction of the detaining authority. The detention of Banglar Agradoot in Germany was a case of PSC. By now the readers of this article understand very well that it was a matter of serious deficiency and not a minor omission like failure to record inspection as stated by the Managing Director of the Corporation. Even such omission is also not acceptable. Corona virus cannot be blamed for all ailments. I would like to conclude this chapter by thanking the German authority for viewing and treating lives of our seafarers at par with theirs.

I understand the tanker was on charter, perhaps time charter. This raises another question as to why the ship had to be given on charter. The number of employees ashore in BSC is one of highest compared to number of ships. BSC should be able to find business for the ship and operate with more profit. A new ship of this size and type should earn about $15000.oo per day. If the ship was detained for two days then we suffered net loss of $30000.oo. There has to be some accountability. Somebody has to stand responsible. Whether it is lack of competence or negligence – one has to pay for it. I would like the chairman of the corporation to kindly evaluate his own position. If he got no further expertise to contribute then he should step aside and appoint a chairman whose explanation he can call for.

The managing director is the next person in the chain of command. He is a senior officer of our navy. Bangladesh Navy is a well-trained service of which the nation can be proud of. I am very proud of my short period of association with the navy as a reservist; and I feel I have learnt a lot. The managing director’s knowledge and skill of naval warfare is beyond any question. However, we cannot expect him to have similar knowledge of commercial shipping world. It is best for the nation that he (managing director) continues to do what he has been trained for and what he does best. We cannot expect him to become another Capt. QABM Rahman and Capt. Shafi to turn BSC from point zero to twenty ships in matter of 7 years.

The next person in this case is the Technical Director. The TD and the DPA (relevant Superintendent) together stand responsible for the omission. In these days of electronic communication it is not difficult to have virtual meeting and audit of a ship. Any short coming detected by PSC should put a shame on the professional pride of those responsible.

Finally we shall discuss about the position of master who is the focal point of contact in every respect. He has to take the blame for anything that goes wrong on the ship. His action or failure to take action results into all omission and accidents. This is the ultimate point of blame and shame. The master of a ship that gets detained under PSC must go – at least on leave to over-come the disgrace. For the junior officers (operation level: watch-keeping) training continues with taking some of the responsibilities as per ISM Code. The spirit of professional dedication must develop.

As a senior (now retired) seafarer I feel I should say a few words here. Those of you serving BSC should consider yourselves very lucky. It is like serving the nation. It is like serving the poor people to whom the corporation belongs. This is an opportunity for each one of you to serve the nation. In our days we have not been able to do much but still feel proud and happy for whatever we could do. While navigating a BSC ship in European waters under my command, I have never used a North-Sea pilot. I have at least saved a few hundred pounds for BSC.

I remember the case of m.v. Banglar Doot that loaded from India and Bangladesh for US-East Coast and Gulf ports. It was quite an old ship and we had to be very careful to avoid PSC detention. A number of officers narrated how BSC ships on previous calls had been detained by PSC. According to them even if the USCG does not find any technical deficiency, the Agriculture Department will certainly force the ship for fumigation against presence of copra-beetle. This is a particular small insect associated with rice from Asian continent. The process of fumigation involves all ship-board personnel to be provided with over-night hotel accommodation. I knew for sure what a serious financial blow it would be for BSC.

No sooner the ship sailed for USA, we sat down to draw our strategy. Mind you, those days there was no ISM or SMS. Chief Engineer took the responsibility for servicing the fire detection system and making appropriate entries. He also called all officers by turn (including master) to ensure total familiarity with its use. Chief Officer Mehta took the responsibility of overhauling all cargo gears and equipment with the Serang and Deck ratings; and making appropriate entries. Second Engineer was assigned with checking all fire-fighting appliances (including recharging of portable extinguishers) with E/R ratings and making entries thereof. Second and Third Officers took the task of checking all life-saving appliances. I (master) decided to work with Butler to clean up all stores and provision. Every evening, well after dinner, I used to go to the stores for cleaning and re-arrangement. We removed all rice bags, cleaned the area and painted afresh before re-storing the provisions. By the time we reached Philadelphia, the 20 years old ship presented itself ready for inspection. I still remember that the USCG asked the Third Officer about isolating the E/R for fighting fire with Emergency pump. He was very impressed with the answer. He was so happy with the ship that he agreed to have a beer. The Agriculture Inspector spent several hours to find his good old friends but they were all gone.

Years later as we re-collect those memories, we feel a sense of professional pride. Those working now with BSC should not underestimate the hard work put in by those who worked before them. Remember PNSC never had a passenger ship and BSC officers had no experience of carrying pilgrims yet, it carried pilgrims to the full satisfaction of all concerned.

Bangladesh has lot of highly qualified marine officers working all over the world. They are working for national administrations of UK, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Saudi Arabia and UAE. They are also working for reputable classification societies and for largest energy companies of the world. They are also helping many others as consultants and advisers. Our own maritime sector must have a healthy growth to draw attention of the world. Our past must provide the inspirations for the future. We must not hear again about PSC detention of BSC ships. Accountability must be restored.

I shall conclude this article by giving one example as to how state owned organizations can also flourish. Those of you above 70 years old will remember that one time PIA achieved lot of glories for its innovative ideas. It introduced the helicopter service in East Pakistan and provided cheap air travel to remote areas. It was the first free world airline to provide service to PRC (when Taiwan was still occupying the UN seat) from Pakistan. PIA was gradually developing Dhaka as its hub for SE-Asia and Pacific services, while Karachi continued to remain the hub-point for Europe and Middle-East service. Islamabad was being developed as a third hub for service to China, Russia and Central Asia. You will be interested to know as to who were in the helm of the PIA. The managing director was Air Marshal Nur Khan and the chairman was A K Khan. Nur Khan was a genius who never failed in any mission and A K Khan was the first East Pakistani ocean-going ship-owner and industrialist. BSC was formed in 1972 with practically no asset but under dynamic leadership of Capt. Rahman, first chairman and managing director it established itself as a global shipping company.

fazlu.chowdhury@btinternet.com                                                          London, 12 – September – 2021.