By Syed M. Aslam
Mar 03 - 09, 2003



SHEIKH MUHAMMAD IQBAL was elected the general secretary of Pakistan Merchant Navy Officers Association (PMNOA) in 1974 and still remains its elected head. The Association, the representative body of merchant marine officers, was established in 1951 to promote merchant marine activities and protect the legitimate interests of national merchant navy officers. Iqbal's professional career, dates back to 1963, when he stood first in an all Pakistan open competition and was selected as an apprentice marine engineer to join Karachi Port Trust. Four years later, he stood first class first in all the examinations conducted apprenticeship earning a trophy from the government. He joined merchant marine and has served in many capacities rising from junior engineer to chief on national as well as foreign shipping companies. He served as chief engineer since 1972 but resigned from then Pakistan Shipping Company as chief engineer due to what he calls 'corrupt practices in the national fleet'. Between 1975 and 1983, he worked as chief engineer for a number of foreign national shipping companies including Iran and Malaysia. He has also served as a, Asia/Pacific Seafarers member of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), on the Regional Committee of Asia/Pacific Seafarers and Asia Pacific Regional Committee of the ITF. In addition to the PMNOA he is also a member of the steering committee of the Norwegian Asian Seafarers Association.

PAGE: Pakistan once had a sizeable merchant navy fleet. What can explain the malaise?

SHEIKH IQBAL: It can be attributed to single factor induction of non-professionals in shipping and all other related sector. In 1970, the fleet strength of national marine fleet stood at record 71 ships and the national shipping was able to absorb the bulk of some 2,200 merchant navy officers then. The remaining professionals were able to land readily available jobs on British, Singaporean, Iranian, Algerian, Norwegian, Malaysian, Sri Lankan (then Ceylon) and other national and private shipping companies overseas.

PAGE: What impact did nationalization had on the shipping industry?

SHEIKH IQBAL: In 1974, shipping was nationalized and Pakistan Shipping Corporation (PSC) was established in addition to public sector National Shipping Corporation (NSC) which already existed. Prior to the nationalization there were 9 private shipping companies in the country. The NSC had 25 ships while the then newly formed PSC had 26 ships including vessels belonging to 9 private shipping companies nationalized. The total fleet strength in 1974 stood at 51 ships. But this was just the beginning of the mess we are in today.



PAGE: How?

SHEIKH IQBAL: In 1979, the PSC and NSC were merged to form what is today called the PNSC. At that time the strength of national merchant marine fleet stood at 43 and under the 5th Five-year plan 19 ships were to be procured. However, only 14 ships were actually inducted while the other 5 planned were never inducted. No ships were inducted into the national maritime fleet in the subsequent Five-year plan and no funding has been allocated even in Private Sector Development Plan. Shipping remained a neglected sector worthy of no consideration on the part of successive governments.

PAGE: What's the situation today?

SHEIKH IQBAL: The failure to induct new tonnage and the overall indifference has taken a heavy toll on Pakistani shipping industry to a point where it could hardly be called an industry. The fleet strength has been reduced to just 13 ships all with the sole national flag carrier, the PNSC. The ships have long past their economic lives and the average age of them is 22 years. Almost all of them would have to be scrap in next three years at the maximum. The PNSC is lifting a negligible percentage of the national cargoes and the country has to pay billions of dollars to foreign shipping companies to conduct its foreign trade.

PAGE: The stricter visa and travel restrictions imposed by the US, European and other countries have closed doors for the employment for Pakistani seafarers overseas. What the future looks like for the national seafarers?

SHEIKH IQBAL: A forecast made by BIMCO (Baltic International Maritime Committee, a global shipping think-tank), say the international demand for merchant navy officers would increase by the year 2010. While BIMCO forecasts the increased demand for merchant navy officers it also predicts that there would be a global surplus of 224,000 of the seamen during the same period. This highlights the need of producing officers and not seamen in the years to come.



PAGE: What can be done?

SHEIKH IQBAL: The post 9/11 world has already cost jobs to thousands of Pakistani seafarers working on foreign flag carriers and yet there has been a mushroom growth of institutions offering all kinds of maritime training which offer no employment prospects within as well as outside the country. Even in the prevalent situation these institutions are providing outdated training to keep on producing seaman which would be in surplus in the time to come. The government should take appropriate measures to check the excesses of these mushrooming institutions in the greater national interest to stop the hopefuls waste immense amounts of money for a training which would offer them no job opportunities.