The Sandheads in the Bay of Bengal have become the Waterloo of many a ship in the Indian waters. Merchant ships continue to 'sink' at regular intervals here. A vessel is said to have been caught in high tide or choppy waters, but it is actually dismantled deliberately and drowned illegally. And even though the practice has been going on—mostly in secret for the last few decades—the authorities have woken up only now to the massive environmental hazard posed, as also to the flourishing international insurance racket on the side. Not to mention the unknown number of human lives lost. Yet, in the absence of punitive action, the multi-billion dollar 'business' continues to boom. According to official estimates, during the last 30 years, no fewer than 81 ships have sunk precisely at this spot in the bay, close to India's sprawling eastern coast. In the last 17 months alone, three ships have gone down here in extraordinary circumstances.
The Sandheads is a body of water around 127 miles southeast of the Calcutta port in the Bay of Bengal. On April 13 this year, Genius Star, a Malaysian vessel with a crew of 18 on board, went down. Prompt rescue measures saved most seamen, except two. According to reports reaching Calcutta shipping circles, the ship was carrying a load of wooden logs which came unstuck as high waves buffeted it.
Last year on June 10, the Fortune Carrier, again a Malaysian vessel, sank five nautical miles from the Sandheads. Like the Star, it was carrying a cargo of wood. In fact, that was the second ship to capsize within a month last year. Only 24 days before the Carrier went down, a 7,300-tonne Indonesian ship, the Segitiga Biru, upended in the same area. Since 1997, eight ships have sunk in this area alone, including the Orient Graf, Time Value, Dubiland and Looknam, making this apparently one of the most dangerous shipping zones in the world.
Yet, far from avoiding the place, ships seem to be queuing up to get into Sandheads' dangerous waters. Which led shipping journal Samudra Darpan to note: "There is something more than meets the eye in these stories." Analysing the tragedies that befell the Star and the Carrier, Darpan pointed to the strange coincidences of both having had an identical cargo of logs and the accidents occurring at the same place.
Says Sadhan Kanjilal, leader of the Forward Seamen's Union of India, "These are mostly tramp ships that carry most of the world's dangerous and contraband cargo, including objectionable chemicals. Some of them smuggle humans illegally. They pick up a ragtag crew from small ports. Chinese, Indians, Burmese and Bangladeshis are usually hired at cheap rates, by shady manpower-supplying agencies working at high commissions."
The timing of the 'tragedies' too is significant. Coast guards say that most ships go down in the pre- and post-monsoon period from April to July. Sinking helps the owners both ways: they collect hefty money in accident insurance, and then, recover the sunken hulls to be sold as scrap later.
Most such ships are registered at Liberia, The Honduras, Panama, The Netherlands Antilles and the Bahamas. International shipping regulations stipulate that ships have to secure a registration from any port. And in shipping circles, it is a known fact that it is easy to register at any of the above locations. A registration makes it possible for a seaman without training to secure a certificate and for obsolete ships to be declared sailable.
Thus, most shipowners choose to operate FOC (Flags of Convenience), an accepted shipping norm, because of the advantages that accrue: 'registration' for derelict ships from countries with notoriously lax tax systems, freedom to appoint untrained and unskilled labour, provision for false 'certificates' and passports (a Calcutta-based person was once shown as a citizen of Monrovia), carriage of contraband items for a premium—illegal rakeoffs all down the line ensure more profit for the operators than their orthodox merchant shipping competitors who accept proper national flags and observe the rules of the game.
But why the Sandheads? Says Anil Baran Das, a former Royal Navy sailor, "The primary objective of FOC shipowners is to scuttle their old vessels and collect insurance. No owner would shed a tear for the death of any crew, but they genuinely wish to avoid any unnecessary controversy, if only to make the insurance claim look smoother."
The insurance for 'drowned' ships is collected mostly from foreign-based companies. Says an insurance consultant, "Normally, these shipowners do not register their ships with any of the known companies. The insurance cover is quite surreptitious and includes a cover for the cargo, the ship, its engine and other parts, but mentions no crew."
Adds Das: "Shipowners are powerful men. An estimated 90 per cent of shipowners operating out of Liberia or Panama are Americans who invent their own laws." The opaque nature of their operations makes most FOC ships 'floating coffins'. Vagueness of nationalities makes it difficult for authorities to intervene effectively—should they want to.
For, even though the Sandheads are well within India's maritime limits and such activities are unleashing environmental and pollution hazards affecting marine life and shipping routes, virtually no action has been taken so far against any of the erring parties. Officials of the Calcutta Port Trust say that the navigation prospects from Calcutta, Haldia or Paradip ports have been hit seriously. CPI(M) leader M.K. Pandhe has repeatedly raised the issue at meetings with ministers for shipping. Some years ago, when two derelict Indian ships, Nityaram and Nitya Angan went down in the bay, Congress leader Balram Jakhar bayed for the blood of the owners in Parliament. But the practice continues, and soon it's all water under the bridge. Till another ship breathes its last.