Shanmukha, who was working in Uganda, returned to his hometown in Visakhapatnam last year as his wife Jaya was pregnant. As he looked for work amid the pandemic, he finally decided to take up a job in sailing, which he had earlier quit after marriage. Even after paying the recruitment agents around Rs 1.5 lakh, he stopped receiving his salary within three months. He still held onto the promise that he would soon be paid and sent home, and assured Jaya he would be back in a few days when he last spoke to her on May 26. Jaya continued to wait for his call, while supporting herself and their one-year-old child on her own. A month later, she got to know that her husband had been jailed in Dakar, Senegal, along with three other Indian seafarers, in a drug trafficking case.
The sailors and their families insist that they were innocent and unaware of the drugs, and were only waiting to be paid and sent home. Detained in a Dakar prison, they are only able to communicate with their families through a Senegalese man they had met in jail who has since been released. Through their letters, they have been asking their families to seek support from Indian authorities in Senegal. Of the seven crew members arrested from the ASSO 6 cargo ship, four are Indian â€” Shanmukha from Visakhapatnam and Mahesh from Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh, and two others, Chandan and Krishna.
Speaking to TNM, Jaya said that Shanmukha had left to work on the ship back in December 2020. He was promised a monthly salary of USD 800, but only received USD 600, until February. â€śThey were told that the ship was going to be dismantled and sold for scrap in June in Dakar, and they would then receive the rest of their pay and be signed off. When he called us on our sonâ€™s birthday on May 4, he said he would return by the end of June. But on June 29, I got the letter that his crewmate Mahesh wrote to his family and sent through the man they had met in prison,â€ť Jaya said. Maheshâ€™s letter said that they had been arrested on June 6, as drugs were found on the ship which they believed was only carrying cement. â€śWe are suffering for no fault of ours. We havenâ€™t eaten properly in a month. Contact the Indian Embassy in Senegal and inform them about us,â€ť the letter said.
Since then, Jaya and the other sailorsâ€™ families have been trying to seek legal assistance from various agencies, including the Embassy of India in Dakar, the Ministry of External Affairs, and the Directorate General of Shipping. Jaya says that the Embassy in Dakar responded on July 2, saying they had sought details and consular access from the Foreign Ministry of Senegal and would get back when they have some information. However, since then, Jaya says she had not heard from any authorities, and anxiety has been building among the imprisoned sailorsâ€™ families.
The recruitment agent who placed Shanmukha on the ship has refused to help, and has stopped taking her calls, Jaya said. â€śMy husband has been a seafarer for many years. He is a law-abiding person, and would never be involved in any illegal activity. The recruitment agent took money from him and placed him on a dangerous ship. I am sure my husband was unaware that drugs were part of the cargo,â€ť she said, adding that she has been working a parttime job to take care of her child, but things have been really difficult as they were entirely dependent on her husbandâ€™s income.
Manoj Joy, Community Development Manager with Sailorsâ€™ Society, a UK-based maritime charity that supports seafarers and their families, said that such instances of exploitation are common among Indian sailors. â€śOften, unreliable recruitment and placement agents are not transparent about the kind of companies the sailors will be placed in. The seafarers who are eager for a job and trust them end up being exploited,â€ť he said, adding that often, crew members could be unaware of the exact nature of cargo on their ship. â€śThey should at least receive legal support for the trial, as the agents usually abandon them when such incidents happen,â€ť he added. Recently, in a similar incident, five Indian sailors who were released after being jailed in Iran for more than a year in a drug smuggling case said they were duped by recruitment agents, and sought assistance to return to India.
TNM has contacted the Embassy of India in Dakar, and the story will be updated with their response if received