- The plight of six India seafarers aboard the MV Sai Arambh stuck in Lankan waters
A damaged ship, spotted with holes on its hull and carrying six Indian seafarers, approached Sri Lankan shores way back in 2019. The ship, MV Sai Arambh, on its way from Visakhapatnam to Tuticorin Port in Tamil Nadu, had to cut its journey midway due to engine troubles on 2 October 2019.
Painting a picture of that fateful day, Captain Mushtaq Ahmed Kapade told Brunch: “As Sri Lanka was nearby, a tug boat was called, and our empty cargo vessel pulled to Colombo port, which we reached on 18 October.”
In December 2019, the owners of the ship, Captain Prafulla Ranjan and Captain Hemant Dhanu, came down to visit the crew, assuring them of their salaries, and promised to repair the ship, according to Capt. Kapade. At the time, there were 19 crew members stranded in Sri Lanka – none of whom had been paid their salaries. Although months passed since the owners departed, Kapade claimed, they were still not paid, despite sending several letters and reminders.
Seeing no sign of payment, the seafarers took legal action and filed a complaint against the owners. Kapade told us: “The ship was seized by Sri Lankan authorities. The court ordered minimal staff on the ship, so six seafarers remained,” explaining that many had returned to India by themselves using whatever means they could. The six remaining Indian crew onboard the vessel 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.
Kapade also informed us that the crew hadn’t been given insurance or paid the minimum wage, and pointed out the injustice of the situation,
as years have passed and they are still stuck in a foreign country, unable to see their families or ensure their wellbeing due to the lack of money.
Kapade told us that the crew was able to arrest the vessel with a warrant issued by the Sri Lankan High Court on 30 January 2020, claiming damages for outstanding wages, which then stood at $ 90,587.98 and which continue to accumulate.
We were also informed that a few officials from the Embassy of India in Colombo visited them. “The embassy officials told us to get a copy of the order from the court allowing us to return to India,” he said.
Once the ship was presented to court, the seafarers were informed that as the ship is 28 years old, it is in a very unsafe condition due to a high level of corrosion. Kapade also told us that the living conditions on the vessel were abysmal and were always a cause of worry. “There are several leaks; the floor is always covered in water. Even when walking around, we have to be careful; one wrong step and our foot will go through the floorboards that have seen years of water constantly on deck.”
Kapade informed us that once the court proceedings began, the Commercial High Court issued a verdict in February 2022 to auction the ship, pay the port, and clear all the pending dues owed to the crew members.
“The owners have appealed against the auction. They are dragging the case only to trouble us, so that we will leave the vessel without collecting our money,” Kapade stated, claiming the ship to cost far less than it would for the owners to pay the amount requested by the courts, “so they conveniently ignore the case and still refuse to pay us”.
This disputed case is just one of many unacceptable long-running cases registered on the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Abandonment database, but on witnessing the awful conditions that these crew members have been enduring all these years, one can understand the severity to which human rights laws have been violated in this instance.
The final verdict is yet to be determined by the high court due to the unpredictable situation in the country, meaning that court days were postponed several times without warning or being properly rescheduled, Kapade told us.
Despite this, he and the other seafarers are hopeful for a positive outcome, simply wanting to return home and have their years of wages rightfully paid to them. While the outcome is still unsure, since the owners have disputed all claims the crew made, one can only hope that these six stranded seafarers will see an end to their suffering.