The plight of some 79 Indian mariners who remain hostages in ships hijacked by Somali pirates and the government's apparent helplessness in securing their release have quite dramatically brought home the menace of modern-day piracy in no uncertain terms. India is not alone in having to cope with the consequences of piracy, which has Somalia as its epicentre and seriously threatens the world's crucial energy shipping routes. Nor has India remained a silent spectator even as the pirates have become more audacious and extended their range close to its shores. In a visible contribution to global anti-piracy efforts, the Indian Navy has joined the navies of the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Russia, South Korea, and Vietnam in patrolling the worst affected sea lanes, achieving a degree of success through warding off attacks or capturing the outlaws. Yet these efforts have clearly not been enough. An expert recently told the United Nations Security Council that “the pirates are progressively becoming the masters of the Indian Ocean.” According to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the current year might well mark a new ominous phase: there will be more hijackings and in many cases a level of violence not usually seen earlier. During January and February, Somali pirates carried out 61 attacks on vessels and 13 hijackings, and killed at least six hostages. Currently, 34 vessels and about 750 crew members are held hostage.

The financial cost of piracy is huge. According to informed estimates, the maritime industry has to bear up to $3.2 billion by way of extra insurance and another $2.95 billion to re-route ships round the Cape of Good Hope, away from the piracy-hit area. The average ransom rose from $3.4 million to $5.4 million between 2009 and 2010. While everybody is agreed on the gravity of the problem, there is a lot of controversy about the best way of tackling it. Concerns over the fate of hostages have precluded the use of more aggressive strategies. While the shipping industry is against arming its crew and stationing armed guards because of the risks to crew in a lethal fight, several softer options have been tried. Ultimately, the sure way to turn the tide against piracy would be to offer pirates and their families a better way of life. That, in turn, would depend on rebuilding the Somali state, improving socio-economic conditions, and countering and eliminating the iconic status pirates have acquired among that country's vast, mostly unemployed youth. It's a tough challenge even under the most favourable circumstances.

More In: Editorial | Opinion