India has opposed security guards on ships saying it doesn’t want armies running amok on the high seas. But Indian crews are signing up for protection from mercenaries

Late on the night of March 29, 2010, as the merchant ship Iceberg was just ten nautical miles from the port of Aden, a small boat pulled up alongside, almost invisible in the dark, carrying men with assault rifles in their hands. For the next 33 months, the men on board would be held at the Somali village of Gara’ad, as the ship’s owners, Dubai-based Azal, stonewalled ransom demands for its multinational crew and its multi-million dollar cargo of industrial equipment. The pirate cartel holding the ship wanted $8 million, and when they didn’t get it, started torturing the crew.

“They started beating us, and denying us food and water,” recalled Mumbai resident Santosh Yadav, who had married just ten days before he shipped out. “We were allowed to sleep only for six hours over a few days.” His ship mate Wagdi Akram committed suicide.

Now, as New Delhi and Rome engage in the latest of their periodic diplomatic skirmishes over the prosecution of two Italian marines charged with shooting dead two fishermen off the Kerala coast in 2012, there’s an elephant in the room: how are at-risk merchant crews to be guarded?

For the most part, a misplaced hyper-nationalism has coloured the Italian marines debate — the case wasn’t and isn’t about white men armed with guns shooting at brown men without them. Though governments across the world have been signing off on protecting crews with guards, India has resisted, in part, because of the public outrage provoked by the Enrica Lexie case.

The dogs of war

Ever since 2009, when armed guards stationed on board the Maersk Alabama successfully defended the ship against pirate attack, the high-seas mercenary business has flourished: last year, the industry is estimated to have generated upwards of $1 billion. In 2011, the U.S. and the U.K. began allowing private guards on ships. European states like Italy resisted the tide, but started stationing some numbers of military personnel on ships — like the two sailors now living in the Italian ambassador’s home in New Delhi, awaiting trial for murder.

India has opposed security guards on ships, private or governmental, saying it doesn’t want armies running amok on the high seas. It has pointed to the risks of terrorists posing as private security contractors. For its part, the Indian Navy has flatly refused to station guards on ships, saying it doesn’t want to risk having officers prosecuted in foreign countries.

However, even as the government takes this principled stand, Indian crews and ships are signing up for protection from mercenaries. Largely stationed in Sri Lanka’s Galle, and mainly drawn from that country’s retired naval personnel, private contractors guard hundreds of Indian ships headed to ports from Salalah to Dar es Salaam. The Sri Lankan government licences a corporation to transfer the guards’ weapons in floating armouries as ships arrive, and then handed back as they leave — offshoring the lethal part of the business. No one knows for certain just how often the ancient right of merchant ships to defend themselves from attack has been exercised. In 2012, one contractor alone reported 18 exchanges of fire with pirates.

Estimates from industry sources suggest upwards of 3,000 guards are now employed by up to 140 firms. Eighteen ships are operating floating armouries in international waters — one was held off Chennai last year when it accidentally drifted into Indian territorial waters. Though about a quarter of ships transiting the Gulf of Aden have officially disclosed that they are carrying armed guards, sources in the industry say the practice is in fact far more pervasive.

Abiding threat

It’s tempting to look at the numbers and conclude that the dogs of war have been unleashed by fear, not risk. The London-based International Maritime Bureau’s authoritative figures show piracy has reached a six-year low. In 2013, the IMB recorded 264 pirate attacks, a 40 per cent drop since Somali piracy peaked in 2011. Fifteen incidents were reported off Somalia in 2013, down dramatically from 75 in 2012 and 237 in 2011. “The single biggest reason for the drop in worldwide piracy is the decrease in Somali piracy off the coast of East Africa,” said Pottengal Mukundan, IMB’s director.

The fall, Indian officials say, is proof that structured government intervention is working. Three international maritime task forces are now operating in an estimated 40 warships — very roughly, the size of India’s entire western fleet — along with patrol aircraft and helicopters, to secure shipping routes.

In addition, 10 independent national flotillas are in operation. The opacity of defence costing makes it hard to say precisely how much this multinational effort costs. However, experts say the size of the fleet indicates costs of some $2 billion a year. That’s a third of India’s entire naval budget for 2012-13, Rs. 36,343.5 crore.

Impressive as these figures might be, it isn’t clear if they’re the cause for the fall in piracy. It also isn’t clear how long cash-strapped governments will prove willing to pay these bills. The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated in March 2011 that it would take 83 warships, with a full complement of helicopters, to provide a half-hour response to a distress call.

From the data, it is also clear that sailors are at risk in other oceans. The IMB’s live piracy map shows a heavy cluster of attacks off the coast of Nigeria, and in the South China Sea. Bangladesh pirates killed four Indian sailors in 2012. “This armada approach to piracy…,” says the blunt-speaking former naval commander and expert C. Uday Bhaskar, “…is just nonsense.”

Experts say the attraction of armed guards is simple. “Not one ship with guards on board has ever been hijacked,” says former naval officer and analyst Shishir Upadhyay. “For crews and owners, that’s a pretty compelling argument.”

There are other compelling arguments. Insurance costs have soared for all the traffic passing west of Mangalore, which is now designated vulnerable. India’s shipping industry estimates that the country is losing Rs. 1-2 crore a day in additional insurance. Escaping the high-risk zone doesn’t come cheap either — rerouting costs the global shipping industry between $486-$680 million a year.

And then the issue of the ransoms — the price of the life and freedom of a sailor. The Ukrainian-flagged Faina, carrying tanks and anti-aircraft guns, fetched for Somali pirates $3.2 million. Pirate cartels in the Somali ports of Eyl, Xharadhere, Garard and Ras Asir were good for an estimated $176 million in 2010, and close to $160 million in 2011. Oceans Beyond Piracy, a watchdog that researches the issue, estimated the total economic costs of piracy at between $6.6 and $6.9 billion. Insurers slash premiums for ships that carry armed guards. Each complement of four guards typically costs $2,500 per trip; many shippers have also invested in armoured safe-rooms for crew. Though the costs aren’t small change, they’re a lot cheaper than hijacking.

Long-term solutions to the problem, everyone acknowledges, are needed. Somalia has had no government since 1991. Foreign trawlers began to prey on coastal fishing grounds with impunity, destroying a traditional source of livelihood. The flooding of the region with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers led many young men to turn to the pirate cartels that sprang up from 2005. Somalia’s western-backed administration, under siege from the powerful jihadist group al-Shabaab, has no influence outside the capital, Mogadishu.

Puntland, the quasi-independent region that is home to many pirate ports, has been trying to deal with this through retaliatory action. Its forces organised an attack to release the sailors of Iceberg. But not every country is willing to pay the price in cash and blood, needed to restore full order in Somalia, and a dozen other lawless states, where pirates flourish.

praveen.swami@thehindu.co.in

More In: Comment | Opinion