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Home > India > News > Columnists > M P Pinto

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Indian Navy cannot rest on its laurels

December 15, 2008

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In the general euphoria surrounding the safe return of the Stolt Valor and its crew we tend to forget some of the more disturbing aspects of the incident.

A foreign merchant vessel crewed largely by Indian nationals was set upon by pirates who held the ship and its crew hostage while they negotiated with the owners for a hefty ransom, all the while threatening that the life of the crew was at risk if their demands were not met.

Goaded into action by a series of such incidents, the Indian navy frigate Tabar blasted a pirate ship with its 100 mm canon and sank it off the coast of Yemen. It sent out a strong signal that India had finally realised that its shipping interests and its investment in the maritime industry worldwide were far too important to be held hostage to outdated notions of non-interference with vessels plying outside our territorial waters.

When the Stolt Valor was first hijacked in September maritime experts pleaded for meaningful intervention by government. This was turned down by mandarins in the Ministry of External Affairs. It is a Japanese-owned vessel, the argument went, registered in Hong Kong and hijacked in Somalian waters. So how does the Indian government come into the picture? The fact that almost the entire crew from the Captain downwards was Indian was conveniently forgotten.

This in spite of the fact that the courageous wife of the Captain was moving heaven and earth to get someone somewhere to intervene in an outrageous situation and to re-establish the principle that Indian lives and interests must be protected wherever and whenever they are threatened.

Aside of the need to protect Indian lives, the question also impinges on India's vital interests. Most of the country's foreign trade must perforce traverse two waterways, the Suez Canal in the West, which handles about seven per cent of the world's oil trade each year, and the Straits of Malacca on the East, which account for about a quarter of the total global trade. If either of these portals is affected not only the country's trade but its vital supplies like crude oil are seriously affected. If both of them are to be kept operational at all times they must be freed from the scourge of piracy from which they now suffer.

Ships passing the Suez Canal must navigate about 500 nautical miles along the coast of the failed state of Somalia, bristling not with small time pirates who steal ships' ropes but with desperate well-armed criminals determined to extract huge sums by way of ransom.

The situation in the Straits of Malacca is not much different. Between them these two narrow strips of water constitute the most dangerous passage at arms for any merchant vessel. Typically such vessels are not armed so how do they defend themselves against ruthless criminals?

The action of the Indian Navy has not come a day too soon but they cannot rest on their laurels. The Stolt Valor has been released after unspecified sums were paid by its Japanese owners but not before the crew went through an ordeal that lasted more than 3 weeks.

MV Delight and Razzak -- manned largely by Indians -- have been hijacked and their hapless crew must wait in hope and fear for a similar rescue package. This is no time to debate the morality of taking action against a ship that does not fly the Indian flag. As the largest supplier of trained officer manpower to the world maritime industry should India agonise about the morality of taking action against a foreign vessel outside our territorial waters or must it send out a strong message that it will defend its nationals whenever they are in peril? To hesitate would not only make bright young Indians seriously reconsider a career at sea but disrupt vital trade routes to and from the country.

The only question is whether the Indian Navy should act on its own or in concert with some international grouping. There might be some misgivings about joining the largely US-led group of 14 maritime nations based in Djibouti but there are other alternatives.

The matter was raised at a meeting of the International Maritime Organisation but the reaction of both the Europeans as well as the Americans was at best lukewarm. It is clear that as long as European or American lives are not in danger the seriousness of the situation will not be appreciated at the IMO.

In these circumstances what should India do? One alternative would be for the maritime administration to involve the Indian Ocean Rim Memorandum of Understanding, which was set up mainly for port state control activities but which can easily extend its mandate to checking piracy.

This grouping consists of countries of the Indian Ocean who are concerned that old, polluting vessels should not be allowed free access to the region. From naming and shaming owners of rust buckets that have long passed their sell-by date to checking a scourge that can seriously affect both international trade and our shipping interests is but a short step. Policy makers must take this step urgently. India's seafarers no less than India's vital interests demand nothing less.

The writer is a former shipping secretary to the Government of India

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