One single act of hijack mid-sea sets off a domino effect
So, you hear about another merchant ship being hijacked by pirates, and you shrug and think there is no reason for you to worry since you are far removed - geographically? Here's the clincher: one single act of hijack mid-sea sets off a domino effect, which touches upon even your day-to-day life.
Although just one incident of attack by pirates has been reported in the Arabian Sea since July last year, several foreign merchant vessels, fearing a similar encounter, move along the Indian coastline - a little too close for comfort. Maritime security forces are up on their toes, as it raises the risk of anti-national elements gaining easy access to Indian territory.
Inspector-General SPS Basra, commander, coast guard (west zone), assured at a recent seminar on Safer Maritime Navigation on Indian Coast, "We are vigilant and we have the utmost commitment towards the safety of Indian waters."
To show that they mean business, the Indian navy and the coast guard nabbed around 110 Somali pirates in at least four combined operations last year.
On a collision course
With a 7,516km-long coastline, India boasts of 13 major ports and 187 non-major ones in over 40 districts across nine states, apart from union territories. At any point of time, more than 2,100 merchant vessels move around the Indian coast. Add to this thousands of fishing boats - big and small, of which around 19,500 are in Maharashtra alone, and you'll easily get the picture that territorial waters are the lifeline for many.
But, when merchant vessels move along within 12 nautical miles of the shore - where fishing boats are usually found, one knows that they are on a collision course.
"When the merchant vessels change their sea lane for fear of an encounter with pirates, they raise the risk of accidents, especially with fishing boats. More the concentration of ships, higher the chances of a collision," explained S Hajara, chairman and managing director, Shipping Corporation of India, a government-owned shipping company, which also does the most business in the country.
Case in point: the recent shooting of two fishermen in Kerala by the security team of Italian oil tanker Enrica Lexie, which escalated into a diplomatic row between India and the Italian government. Captain MM Saggi, nautical advisor to the Indian government, painted a grim picture.
"The Italian vessel was moving too close to the Indian shore and incidents like this are only going to go up in future." Although the exact location of the tanker at the time of the firing is yet to be determined, sources form the coast guard said it was within two nautical miles of the Indian shore.
Rajan Tambe, state president of the National Association of Fishermen, said, "Such incidents are frequent. On several occasions, these foreign ships damage our fishing nets and the matter is not even reported."
According to the Directorate General of Shipping, at least six collisions were reported in the Indian waters between January 2011 and March 15 this year.
But, what should worry you is the way piracy is changing the economics of sea trade. The shipping industry is responsible for around 90% of world trade. According to an estimate, it transports around 8,000-million tonne of cargo every year.
By cruising too close to the Indian coastline, foreign merchant ships are forced to take a longer route than the one originally planned. This not only increases the consumption of fuel, but it also delays the delivery of consignment.
Hajara explained that the delay translates into an increase in charges, among others, for dropping anchor at more ports, which eventually raises the price of a commodity by the time it reaches the market. "These are the consequences of piracy and we are paying a heavy price for this."
Experts claimed that this trend of vessels moving along the shore reportedly works to the advantage of ship owners, as the proximity to the coastline cuts out the risk of a hijack. Owners have to insure their vessels, at a very high premium, for 'kidnap and ransom'. When the risk of a hijack runs low, they often choose not to go in for an insurance at all.
Nip it in the bud
So, how can these problems be tackled? Get to the root of the problem - piracy, suggest experts from the shipping industry. Crack the whip on pirates and merchant vessels will go back to their original sea lanes. "Care needs to be exercised when trying to encourage (merchant vessel) traffic to move away from the 12-nautical mile limit since this may be considered contravening international laws and norms of jumping to the aid of those in distress," cautioned JK Dhar, director, Indian Maritime University, Mumbai.
Experts also suggested making use of several technologies which can help get real-time information of the position of fishing boats and merchant vessels.