The Kerala High Court’s intervention has led to rescue of five mariners who were stranded off the aboard an ‘abandoned’ fishing vessel off the Kochi coast since April 2020.
On Tuesday, the ship owner informed the Court that the five had been ‘signed-off’ and could leave the vessel, this after the High Court intervened after taking note of the plight of the five mariners.
The Court had last week directed the Marine Department to provide food and other necessities to the five mariners. Further, the shipowner was instructed, on Monday to do the needful by taking over responsibility from the marine department.
The vessel is presently harboured at Kochi’s Munambam fishing harbour.
The petition filed by the five mariners through Advocate MS Amal Darshan claimed that their continued stay aboard the vessel was a result of a provision in maritime law
Once the contract of a particular crew has ended, they are required to be ‘signed off’ and discharged before they can leave the ship. In the event a member of the crew leaves the ship prior to a ‘sign off’, they are deemed to have ‘deserted the ship’ per the Merchant Shipping Act, 1958, and face legal hurdles in the form of action for desertion (Section 191 of the Act) and non-payment of wages.
If the seamen leave the vessel at any stage before they are signed off per procedure, their future employment will be impacted, it was pointed out.
It was the petitioners’ case that they were not being signed off the vessel with an oblique motive to avoid payment of outstanding salary. The petition described the vessel as ‘dilapidated’, ‘unseaworthy’, and ‘abandoned’.
The petitioners should not be put to trouble any more.
On Monday, the counsel for the shipping company, Advocate Amal George, submitted that the company was completely bankrupt.
“Why should the petitioners be involved in it, if the ship owner is bankrupt?” Justice PV Asha asked.
“There are some technical difficulties, I have to get instructions,” the owner’s counsel submitted.
The Central Government and the Mercantile Marine Department were also impleaded in the matter for not acting upon the petitioners’ request for relief.
They emphasized that the ship-owner could not run away from responsibility to maintain the ship and provide for the crew.
The ship-owner’s counsel eventually informed the Court on Tuesday that the five marines have been signed off.
When advocate Darshan sought to extension of relief granted to a sixth crew member who was not party to the proceedings, the Marine Department raised objection.
The Department contended that if all the crew members were signed off, the ship owner would have to personally undertake to ensure the vessel’s maintenance. Maintenance of the vessel is necessary to prevent the vessel from being termed ‘abandoned’, ‘unseaworthy’ for future travel, in terms of the Merchant Shipping Act and principles of maritime law, it was pointed out.
The counsel for the shipowner emphasized that the shipowner was penniless, and that even his vakalatnama was taken free of cost.
Disposing of the matter, Justice Asha allowed the counsel for the petitioners liberty to file a fresh petition to obtain a sign-off for the last crew member in the vessel. The fresh petition was also disposed of today, allowing the last crew member to be signed-off.