Piracy buffets India in several ways

21-04 are pirate.jpgThere's been a spate of anti-piracy gatherings. The United Arab Emirates hosted its second such international conference-A Regional Response to Maritime Piracy: Enhancing Public-Private Partnerships and Strengthening Global Engagement-over 27-28 June in Dubai. A global conference in Turkey in early June preceded this. Even as that was in play, India's national security adviser Shivshankar Menon addressed a high-level global meeting in St Petersburg, Russia, that focused on anti-piracy ways and means.

In several respects, piracy-specifically, piracy off the Somali coast and Gulf of Aden-has come home to India. Even as Menon delivered his address, 43 India sailors were held hostage by pirates. This is a key global shipping channel that links Asia with Europe. A little further to the east is the Persian Gulf. Nearly 90% of India's oil imports move through this zone.

The danger, which Menon called "a growing industry" in his presentation, is increasingly immediate, with expansion last year of the definition of the high-risk area related to piracy. It has expanded from the 65th meridian east to the 78th meridian east, which covers the entire west coast of India; and effectively covers the sea lanes that skirt Sri Lanka. A handsome chunk of Indian and global merchant traffic travels here.

Piracy buffets India in several ways. One, of course, is the threat to Indian-owned shipping, India-centric cargos carried by ships flying flags of other nations, and to Indian sailors. Increased insurance costs for shipping, cargo and personnel follow. (Oceans Beyond Piracy, a US-based organization, estimates a $7 billion global economic cost in 2011 on account of Somali piracy.)

The second is: dealing with piracy and hostage-taking on the high seas. The Indian Navy contributes to patrolling efforts, and has in the past three years escorted more than 2,000 ships-one-tenth of these Indian flag carriers-along the high-risk Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor in the Gulf of Aden. This has led to prevention of several piracy attempts, and capture and eventual incarceration of over a hundred Somali pirates in Indian jails. This is a complication: as yet there is no specific anti-piracy law in India, and so, the Indian Penal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure are being applied to these prisoners.

The third factor is of piracy having emerged as an organized industry. An estimated $160 million was paid to Somali pirates as ransom in 2011. Indian security mandarins stress the "transnational dimensions" of Somali piracy; and point to evidence that suggests pirates have data on the movement of targeted vessels and on-board security arrangements, pointing to transcontinental links with security companies and financial operators, which financiers of piracy-the moneybags, as it were-seamlessly team with. Besides, Al Qaeda derivatives in nearby Yemen and the radical Islamist-controlled parts of southern Somalia (a concern here is Al-Shabaab, a Somali jihadist group), are suspected of using piracy to generate funds and followers.

At home, India has attempted to plug legal loopholes: the government has introduced the Piracy Bill, 2012, in Parliament. It covers acts of piracy against ships on the high seas as well as within India's 2 million-plus square kilometres of exclusive economic zone. The Bill proposes life imprisonment and, in certain cases, death. Abetting piracy will attract up to 14 years in jail in addition to fines. (There is as yet no globally acceptable legal framework for anti-piracy action.)

But piracy needs primarily to be fought abroad, and collectively, and to that end Indian official thinking has been to make common cause. India is a supporter of the United Nations-blessed African Union Mission in Somalia to which India contributed $3 million. Besides sanitizing the Somali coastline, the effort is also to ensure that local populations-impoverished fisher folk, for example-do not feel the need to take to piracy. The combination of stick and carrot has worked a great deal in the Straits of Malacca, another cradle of piracy.

This dovetails with the breakthrough meet this past February, the London Conference on Somalia. It was attended by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, East African nations-and leaders from Somalia's Transitional Federal Government as well as of some breakaway regions, including the pirate havens of Puntland and Somaliland. The conference tried to work peace deals, development, and legal issues that include extradition, incarceration and prosecution of pirates. Indian authorities are now hoping to take the regional lead in such matters.

Source: LiveMint