A 41-year-old sailor from Puducherry was on duty when he lost his wife in April. He could manage to sign-off from his ship only last week and is now awaiting his COVID-19 test result in Mumbai. Nearly two months after his wife died, he would be able to grieve the loss with his family when he gets the test results and he can finally fly back to his home to meet his two daughters. The sailor did not wish to be named.
A young 21-year-old cadet - sailing just for the second contract in his career- was devastated when he heard about his father's death. At a time when he was supposed to be at his home in Tamil Nadu, the lockdown across countries meant sailing for four extra months than what the contract mentioned.
"I had to ensure that the young cadet stayed with me in my room after he heard the news of his father's death. He was deeply affected. His sister is pregnant and his brother has special needs. We have seen a lot on the sea with our years of experience but it was very hard to explain (in such a situation) to a young man, just starting off his career. We all stopped talking about our families in front of him, just to be able to support him," Chief Officer Joyson J told NDTV.
Mr Joyson and the young cadet, who did not want to be identified, returned to their families in Tamil Nadu last week. However, there are 20,000 Indian sailors still waiting to return to their homes, sailing beyond their contract tenures, according to industry estimates.
Thousands of other Indian sailors are estimated to be on stand-by to join their jobs on ships. The wait has been unending and without salaries for many, industry estimates suggest.
Around 68 of 120 countries are closed for crew change at their ports as of today.
"Two Indian sailors have lost their lives this month while sailing due to mental stress. If seafarers are essential workers, they should be treated as 'essential'. Globally now, seafarers are being treated as persona non grata by most companies. We are working under inhuman conditions. Only 30 per cent of crew change is working globally," Captain Sanjay Prashar, member of the National Shipping Board, told NDTV.
The Board is the highest advisory body in India on matters related to shipping and infrastructure.
"World leaders need to discuss seafarers. They can't just discuss ships and logistic chains. There is someone who is moving this logistic chain and that person, who is 'invisible', should be made visible," Captain Prashar added.
Around 90 per cent of the world trade is carried by the international shipping industry. The International Chamber of Shipping website states: "Without shipping, the import/export of affordable food and good would not be possible - half the world would starve and the other half would freeze."
Globally, around 1.6 million seafarers are involved in the process with many left overworked in high-risk environments, distressed and not able to return to their families.
India accounts for around 12 per cent of the total seafarers across the world.
During the lockdown period, 11,842 Indian seafarers have signed off or signed on to ships from Indian ports - in unprecedented circumstances. Mumbai, followed by Kochi, are the ports that have seen the highest numbers.
The Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for chartered flights has resulted in sign-off and repatriation of 10,824 sailors in India since May 19, a press release from the Director General of Shipping stated.
Nineteen Indian ports have been permitted to allow crew change, an important process which helps vessels to operate smoothly. The Cochin Port Trust has facilitated around 2,000 sailors to return home and to join the ships as well.
"We understand the difficulties of sailors. Director General of Shipping and Ministry of Home Affairs has put together a SOP for the port to facilitate movement of sailors, with all precautions. Till now, we have not declined any request made to us. The Kerala government has extended all support with respect to screening, testing and quarantine facilities," Dr M Beena, Chairperson of Cochin Port Trust told NDTV
The challenge is unending global uncertainties due to COVID-19, considered a new normal.
"The larger issue is about safety. Our job is to ensure ships and sailors are safe. Human performance is dependent on the environment. There has to be a conducive environment for right decisions to be taken and these decisions involve high risk consequences," Captain Rajesh Unni, CEO of Synergy Marine Group told NDTV.
"With unending COVID uncertainties, it is for countries and companies to ensure safe corridors at ports and fixed schedules for flights. And we have successfully demonstrated that at select ports. Now it is for supply nations - that provide with sailors - to step it up," Captain Unni added.
The Synergy Marine Group, in collaboration with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, has been running a helpline - iCALL - in 10 languages for distressed maritime personnel and their families. Their data shows that distress calls have seen a 50 per cent increase during the lockdown period.
34-year-old Sujith Thirunilath Sidharthan has finally managed to reach Mumbai - after sailing months beyond his contract period on ship - and is in quarantine, despite the death of his father almost a month ago in Kerala's Kochi.
"If returning to one's own country is a struggle, reuniting with family is another. I am in quarantine in Mumbai, despite the death of my father last month in Kochi. We are not being allowed to quarantine at our destination state. So this means, I will be in quarantine twice, for around 21 days in total," Mr Sidharthan said.