Shanmukha was working in Uganda and had returned to his hometown of Vishakhapatnam, India last year after receiving news of his wife Jaya’s pregnancy.
Amid the pandemic, he decided to take up a job on a merchant vessel due to the scarcity of jobs. The sailing job was something which he had quit after his marriage owing to the risks involved.
After paying the recruitment agents around Rs. 1.5 lakhs, he finally managed to get a job. However, he stopped receiving his salary after three months. But, he still did not give in and held onto the belief that he would be paid soon and sent home. This belief was reiterated when he last spoke to Jaya on May 26th.
His wife, Jaya, expected to hear from him soon, while back home, she supported herself as well as her one-year-old child. However, bad news struck a month later, as she received the news that her husband had been jailed in Dakar, Senegal, along with three other Indian sailors in a drug trafficking case.
The seafarers and their families insist that they were innocent and clueless about the drugs, and were only waiting for their salaries and wished to be sent home.
However, once detained, there was no means for them to contact their families. In their letter, they have asked for support from the Indian authorities in Senegal. Out of the seven crew members imprisoned from the ASSO 6 cargo ship, four of them are Indians, Shanmukha being one of them.
On connecting with Jaya, she explained that Shanmukha left the ship back in December 2020. Even though he was promised a monthly salary of USD 800, he only received USD 600 until February.
The crewmembers were told that the ship would be dismantled and sold for scrap in June in Dakar and that they would receive the rest of their salary and be signed off.
In one of their conversations on May 4, their son’s birthday, Shanmukha told Jaya that he would return home by the end of June. Mahesh’s letter stated that they had been arrested on June 6, after drugs were found on the ship, which they believed was only carrying cement.
Since receiving the letter, Jaya and the other sailor’s families have been seeking legal assistance from numerous agencies, including the Embassy of India in Dakar, the Directorate General of Shipping and the Ministry of External Affairs. Jaya stated that the Indian Embassy in Dakar responded on July 2, informing them they have sought details and consular access from the Foreign Ministry of Senegal. They stated that they would get back when they have some information. However, since then, the family members have not heard from any authorities.
Jaya also stated that the recruitment agent who placed Shanmukha on the ship has refused to help and has stopped receiving her calls. Jaya insists that her husband is a law-abiding citizen and would never be involved in any wrongdoing.
However, it was possibly the agent who placed her husband on the precarious ship doing illegal drug trafficking. To support herself and her child in their husband’s absence, Jaya has been working a part-time job. But insists that things have been quite challenging, as they rely entirely on their husband’s earnings.
Manoj Joy, Community Development Manager with Sailor’s Society, a UK-based maritime charity supporting sailors and their families, said that such instances of exploitation are pretty common among Indian sailors.
In a similar incident, five Indian sailors were caught in a similar drug smuggling case. They were released from a prison in Iran after languishing there for more than a year. In this case, too, the sailors were duped by unscrupulous recruitment agents.