Distressed Indian Crew Abandoned For Over 32 Months In Sri Lanka Loses A Member To Tragic Death

The six remaining Indian crew onboard the Indian flagged vessel the MV SAI ARAMBH (IMO 9115456, MMSI 419001377) have been reportedly abandoned since 18 October 2019 in the Port of Colombo, totalling over 32 months with limited support resulting in deteriorating crew health, safety, and welfare conditions onboard, including limited access to fresh food and potable water. Tragically, the cook drowned on 29 March 2022 when he fell into the sea as he was attempting to negotiate the ship’s badly damaged gangway to go ashore.

The case has been variously reported in the Indian press, including an extensive video which tours the deteriorating vessel in the Port of Colombo. The owner of the vessel strongly contests the facts laid out by the crew.

Indian Crew
Credits: Human Rights At Sea

Alerted to Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) by the UK-based NGO, Justice Upheld, the unseaworthy general cargo vessel remains alongside with running repairs for below waterline leaks being undertaken, no PPE, holes in deck plates, exterior stairwells and gangways in appalling condition, poor living, cooking, and sanitary conditions.

The crew arrested the vessel with a warrant being issued by the Sri Lankan High Court on 30 January 2020 (date stamped 29 January 2020) with then claimed damages for outstanding wages of then R 7,182, 766.90 (USD$ 90,587.98) and which continue to accrue.

The vessel is listed on the ILO database No. 00553 as reported via the ITF on 30 November 2021 with a stated court date was 3 December 2021 following a series of postponements due to the pandemic and noting the state of current unrest in the country. The last reported payment pending on the ILO database was for USD$ 530,000.

Speaking with the Master at the time of writing, the Mission to Seafarers has been resupplying the crew, while a public auction was scheduled for 8 April, which was postponed after the owner appealed to the High Court. The latest reported court date has been set for 8 August, and ITF is supporting in-country against the current backdrop of social unrest.

Death of crew member

On 29 March 2022, one crew member was descending the badly corroded gangway ladder to go ashore after remaining onboard for over two years during the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. He slipped and fell into the harbour but did not resurface straight away. When the body floated to the surface some 15 minutes later, the crew member was dead.

Personal loans to repatriate

Nine crew were reported repatriated in April 2021, having been forced to take out loans to return home to India, leaving the Master and five crew waiting on legal relief and outstanding wages owed since December 2019. HRAS understands that the crew were compelled into the position of paying 50% of their repatriation costs, with the Indian High Commission paying the other 50% per seafarer.

Crew position

Remaining crew onboard have variously stated to HRAS: “The authorities are very aware of our case and the problems we have, but the ship is 28 years old and is in very bad condition with bad living conditions.”

“Floor plates are so corroded that there are holes through the deck, and we have holes in the galley which leak, the skylight to the engine room is leaking water, and the hold catches are heavily corroded.”

“We have to take care when walking around the ship as we do not know if our foot will go through the deck.”

“The effects on our families have been bad, with everybody suffering during the pandemic. We have had to borrow money for our families to survive…and we do often not have money to recharge our phones.”

The Master informed HRAS of his frustration that authorities are not speaking with him directly and has stated that the Port State Control are not fully aware of the appalling conditions onboard, especially below the waterline with an ongoing engine room leak.

“Please get us out of this ship as soon as possible.” said the Master to HRAS.

Owner’s Position

HRAS has spoken to the co-owner, Captain Prafula Ranjan, who disputes the position put forward by the crew. He highlights that he is informed that the matter is in the court’s hands, so he is unable to make any decision.

He told HRAS:

“The crew arrested the vessel, and we have repeatedly requested that they leave the vessel so it can be sold.”

“The crew have neglected the ship, they do not clean their accommodation, it is filthy.”

“When I was in Colombo in May (2022), I personally supplied provisions myself and went to the ship. I have the receipts which I have submitted to the court.”

“Repairs have been carried out on the ship’s hull to all leaks below the waterline with temporary repairs, and all leaks have been found to be holding. This was completed at the end of June.”

Captain Ranjan makes it clear: “I am a human being also. I have mortgaged my home. I am on the ropes, and my life is at stake. My house is gone, and my life is gone.”

“They [the crew] cannot say that they have been abandoned, and we hold them entirely responsible. We sent buyers to the ship, but they refused to let them onboard in the month of May [2022].”

Captain Ranjan further alleged that the crew “chased five workshop people off the ship with steel rods and sometimes they even use knives.” They said that they were “hostile”.

He further stated that he had requested access to the vessel but that the Director General Shipping [Colombo] had refused.

Master’s response

HRAS put the allegations to the Master, who strongly refuted the owner’s position.

“I don’t accept any of the allegations. The conditions onboard this 28-year-old ship are very bad. We look after the accommodation.”

“No crew have beaten anybody. He is totally speaking lies.”

“We are seafarers, we do not touch anyone. We are fighting for our wages.”

HRAS Comment

This disputed case is just one of many unacceptable long-running cases registered on the ILO Abandonment database, but it is not until one sees the conditions that the crew are having to live under, that the realities of the extent of the abuse of the human and labour rights of those crew are understood.

The fact that wages remained owed, that crew families are apparently suffering related hardships, and that personal loans have had to be used, raising the spectre of long-term family debt and debt bondage, is unacceptable whatever the reasoning in this matter.

Globally, the insidious nature of crew abandonment must be ended, while the Indian flag state and national authorities must prioritise the lives, wellbeing, and outstanding salaries of these crew. Further, vessel owners and agents must address the health and safety issues onboard fairly noting the challenging social conditions and unrest in the country at the time of writing.

Notes

The crew have meantime registered the grievance with the Indian authorities (MADAD (‘Helpline’) portal reference: SR1SFI107972422) and alerted the relevant authorities.

HRAS has contacted ITF London to pass on the updated details received and has spoken with the ITF Inspector in Colombo.

Disclaimer. Human Rights at Sea has taken all reasonable efforts to verify the disputed facts by both parties in this case. If any factual mistakes, updates, or any necessary changes are identified, the NGO should be emailed immediately. This remains a live case, and details may be updated as further reporting is received.

Reference: Human Rights At Sea

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