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HindustanTimes Sun,31 Aug 2014

Dredger vessel's crew member recalls horrific experience

Harkirat Singh , Hindustan Times  Amritsar, April 24, 2013
First Published: 19:58 IST(24/4/2013) | Last Updated: 20:00 IST(24/4/2013)

The horrific experiences of Chheharta resident Major Singh and 36 of his crew mates on board the dredger vessel Kamal-40 reminds one of the ordeals of the Ancient Mariner on the high seas. 

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Little did Major Singh, an electrical engineer on board the 90-metre long ship, realise that a routine trip to the sea to dump the dredged mud on January 10 would be an life-altering experinece for him and his mates on the sea vessel.

Just as a curse befell the Ancient Mariner and his problems multiplied after he shot dead the Albatross, a similar curse befell the crew of Kamal-40 when their dredger developed an engine problem and got stuck in the middle of nowhere, with water all around and no sight of land.

They made several distress calls but no one, not even the ship owners or the Indian government, came to their rescue, claimed Singh after returning here on Wednesday.

His return clearly brough relief of his wife, daughter and father Raghbir Singh, a retired Indian Navy officer. His family alongwith Akhil Bharatiya Human Rights Organisation (ABHRO) activists, including its chairman Hawa Singh Tanwar, were present at the Amritsar railway station to welcome Major Singh with garlands.

“It was the worst experience that a sailor can ever have. For over three months, we were stuck in the middle of the Arabian Sea, 50 km from Kandla port, as the ship owners abandoned us to the mercy of the high seas,” Major said as he took his 9-year-old daughter in his arms.

As for the reason why the ship owners did not respond to their distress calls, he alleged that it was so because the crew had dared to ask them for their salaries, which were pending for several months.

Major Singh did not mince words in demanding stern punishment for owners of Jaisu Shipyard Company, a Kandla-based company that owns Kamal-40.

“We were treated like animals by the ship owners and I will even take legal opinion on the matter to ensure that those responsible pay for their crime,” he added.

He said that his six-month contract on board Kamal-40 started in November last year and he chose the job as it did not involve a long trip around half the globe. The task of this dredger vessel was to dig up mud from the bottom of the sea so as to clear the Kandla channel to the port for ships.

While they had gone to the sea on January 10 to dump mud, one of the ship's engines developed a technical snag in the Arabian Sea, 50 km off the coast of Kandla. Several distress calls were sent to the owners for sending engine parts that needed to be replaced but to no avail.

“Our water supplies gradually depleted and we were forced to drink sea water that passed through a filter on the ship. It was filtered but still salty and its intake made us more thirsty. Our food supplies also diminished and for the last one month we were all surviving on a limited diet of just rice,” he said.

With limited diesel supply, the generator on the ship was operated for short durations during the night just to remind passing vehicles of the existence of a 'stagnant' ship. From his experiences in the Indian Navy, he pointed out, a ship plunged in darkness and out in the middle of the ocean could prove to be very dangerous for passing vessels.

It was sheer luck that Major had a dongle with him and the only one who had this facility on the ship. It was with this that he was able to send messages through the Internet to the International Transport Workers Federation, which looks after the interests of sailors, and various other organisations. Their ordeal was highlighted by a Gujarat TV channel and thereafter the ABHRO came into the picture.

ABHRO chairman Tanwar said, “We immediately sought the services of Pakistan human rights activist Ansar Burney, with whom we have a good rapport. Burney brought the matter before the United Nations and thereafter a few in the Indian government also moved. We will also be taking legal route against the owners.”

Major claimed that one of the reasons that kept the ship owners away from the stuck-up persons was that they had not paid a single penny to any of the 37 crew members. “They probably wanted us to perish at sea rather than pay a couple of crores,” he remarked.

As pressure mounted, the ship owners finally got the engine repaired and send fuel supplies to bring the ship closer to port. Major and five of his crew mates demanded clearance of all their dues since their contracts were ending or had ended. On April 23, he and five others received payments and thereafter they quit the ship. The remaining crew members were still on board the dredger, docked about 250-metres from Kandla port, he said.

However, the dreadful experience seemed to have not diminished Major's zest for adventure on the seas. After a month's rest at home, he said, he would again pack his bags for better and fruitful adventure.

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