Ordeal by the sea

A brief sense of relief prevailed when the ordeal ended for the six Indian sailors of MV Suez as they reached the Indian shores. This time all credit and thanks for their rescue must go to the activists in Pakistan.

However, they had to collect and then pay the ransom to the pirates. It is alleged that $2.1 million was paid as ransom by the Ansar Burney Trust to secure the release of the six Indians, four Pakistanis and 12 others.

Also, there are probably 47 Indian seafarers who are still held captive and their future is left only to their fate. Left to fate, notwithstanding what was claimed in Parliament.
In March 2011, in a statement made in Parliament, the minister of external affairs S.M. Krishna assured the nation that, “the (Cabinet) Committee (on Security) approved a series of measures to address the legal, administrative and operational aspects of combating piracy”. The committee also formed an Inter-Ministerial Group which was to deal with early release of captives, cargo or crew. A standard operating procedure was also to be framed to deal with exigencies arising out of piracy.
Maritime piracy may be 4,000 years old, dating back to the time of Hammurabi of Babylon. It is estimated that Somali piracy has increased seven fold during 2007-2010. Today, the pirates’ area of operation covers over 2.5 million square nautical miles. On January 25, 2011, India’s permanent representative at the United Nation, H.S. Puri, observed: “…the disturbing fact that… operating further and further off the Somali coast. The shift of attacks to the south and east of the Indian Ocean reflects the pirates’ ability to adapt in order to bypass the security corridor established by the naval forces and to extend their reach to approximately 1,000-1,200 miles from Somalia”.
In 2010 alone, world over, pirates, Somali inclusive, had captured 1,181 people and hijacked 53 ships. By mid June this year, 154 ships were attacked and 26 vessels hijacked. Since 2005, it is estimated that 130 ransoms were paid to pirates. Ransoms have multiplied 36 times in five years, averaging $5.4 million per ship. It is reported that a Kenyan government’s study estimates that 30 per cent of all ransoms paid reach terror groups. Speaking in the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, lawmaker Ed Royce has expressed similar concerns. The commandos of Al-Shabaab, the Islamist insurgent group based in Somalia, are already talking about “sea jihad”. Lloyds, the internationally reputed London-based insurers have refused to “…indemnify ship owners if they paid a ransom to terrorist groups”.
The human cost of the maritime piracy is shocking. Somali pirates have violently attacked over 4,000 international sailors. The case of Capt. Prem Kumar of Rak Africa is a grievous tale of the merciless treatment the captives undergo when held by the Somali pirates. Released in March 2011, the captain later died of brain haemorrhage and multiple organ failure. Seven Indian sailors of MV Asphalt Venture released after ransom payment were held back by the pirates claiming that they planned to swap them with the arrested pirates awaiting trial in India. It is reported that 37 Somali pirates who were arrested are awaiting trial in Maharashtra. Citing this as the reason the Somali pirate groups claim that they are at war with India. Hence, it is believed that from among the captured crew, they target the Indians even more, use them as human shields, chain and torture them.
It is reported that several Indian cargo ships are now opting for a longer route — via the Cape of Good Hope — thus resulting in increased cost of ferry. It is reported, again, that every month, over 24 Indian flagged merchant ships transit the Gulf of Aden. An estimate suggests that the value of Indian trade that passes through the affected area is about $110 billion. A senior risk analyst observed, “Premiums may rise further if the Lloyds market makes larger losses, and this will continue to push up the price of shipping goods, potentially raising commodity prices in the affected markets…”
India has a coastline of 7,500 km. Our major and minor ports are busy centres of economic activity. The Indian Navy and the Coast Guard have done exemplary service in safely escorting over 1,800 vessels, carrying Indian and foreign flags, in the two years from 2008 to 2010. Since 2008, as a part of the anti-piracy patrol, 23 Indian Navy ships have been deployed in the area. It is to their credit that no ship under the Indian naval escort has been hijacked by pirates.
The threat looms large not just in the high seas. Recently at Nandel, in Junagadh district, Gujarat, the police arrested 17 men from a boat that was adrift. Fourteen of them were Somali pirates. The other three claimed they were Yemeni fishermen. Another vessel Wisdom, which lost its pilot, went adrift near Worli, although being towed to Alang, the ship-breaking yard. With Somalia recognised as one of the Al Qaeda bases, what these piracy groups and the ransom they receive can do is anyone’s guess.
In March 2011, Sushma Swaraj, the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, asked the government if the anti-piracy provisions of the UN Security Council are being accessed. The International Fund and the specific mechanism for this purpose should be proactively invoked.
The Government of India should immediately call all the maritime Indian states to discuss this problem. A standard operating procedure should be in place and be carefully followed to remove the perception that only when the media heat is on, the government responds to the affected families or even sends a frigate to rescue.
The Philippine government’s gesture of increasing the payments for their seafarers may be a palliative, but a necessary one. Necessary for us to consider, because over six per cent of seafarers engaged in international companies are Indian nationals. They are productively engaged albeit facing this occupational risk. An additional financial package for them, if and when passing this dreaded area, may be a welfare state’s gesture India can afford. The Government of India may begin with one such suitable to our conditions.
The Indian government should do and be seen to be doing more on the human, economic and security threat that the Somali pirates are posing us.

The author is spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The views expressed in this column are her own.

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