DELHI // Tired of paying the heaviest price for piracy, two leading Indian seafarers’ unions went on strike this week. More than 100,000 sailors refuse to work until their government provides an armed escort for all ships passing Somalia and frees the 18 Indian crew members of the hijacked Stolt Valor.
They may be in for a long wait.
“It’s been five weeks and still my husband is stuck on that ship,” said Seema Goyal, wife of Prabhat Kumar Goyal, the captain of the Japanese-owned, Hong Kong-registered Valour. “I worry about him constantly and our three children don’t understand what’s going on.”
Piracy off the coast of Somalia has more than doubled this year, with 74 attacks and counting. As the increasingly bold and well-armed sea bandits have snatched one after another of the cargo-laden ships passing through the Gulf of Aden, Indian citizens at home and at sea have borne the brunt of the hostilities.
“Because they are skilled and speak English, there are more seafarers from India than from any other nation,” said Sunil Nair, spokesman for the National Union of Seafarers of India. He said more than 150,000 Indian sailors work in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. “Because of this, Indians are at more risk as a result of all this piracy than anybody else.”
On Tuesday, the Somali coastguard freed an Indian cargo ship with two Indian crew members that had been hijacked near Socotra Island a few days prior. Last weekend, Somali pirates released the Deyanat after its Iranian owners paid a reduced ransom. Three emaciated Indian crew members arrived in Mumbai after seven weeks in captivity and related tales of food shortages, constant death threats and drug-addicted captors. And in Salaya, a Gujarati port town, locals are waiting to hear from three ships carrying 15 local seamen who lost radio contact from the region this week.
Mr Nair estimates that 17 of the 30 ships hijacked near Somalia this year have had Indian crew members.
One high-profile exception: there are no Indian sailors among the 20-member crew of the Faina, a tank-laden Ukrainian vessel captured a few weeks ago.
On Sept 15, about 35 pirates stormed aboard the Valor, a chemical tanker, off the coast of Yemen. The hijackers stripped the 22-member crew and confined them to the bridge, according to crew members who have been in phone contact. More than five weeks later, progress has been minimal, even as the ransom demand has dipped from US$6 million (Dh22m) to $2m.
Critics, such as the Hindustan Times, a popular national daily, said Delhi has been “pussyfooting on the issue”. That, however, may not be the case.
“In reality, there’s little the government can do,” said Roger Middleton, senior fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, and author of a piracy study released this month. Mr Middleton said military force rarely works and that ransom ultimately resolves the majority of these incidents.
“It’s very possible that the Indian government is trying very hard to help negotiations behind the scenes,” he said. “We can’t know for sure, and beyond that, they can’t do much other than monitor the situation.”
A K Antony, the Indian defence minister, has repeatedly said India is unable to mount a military attack because it has no maritime agreement with Somalia – a point reiterated on Tuesday by the Somali ambassador to India. In the case of the Stolt Valor, armed aggression would be doubly risky because of the 24,000 tonnes of chemicals in the hull. And responsibility for hijacked ships falls first to the owner nation, then to the country where the ship is registered and finally to the country in whose waters the incident occurs.
“In cases such as this, it is normal for negotiations to take place between the proprietors of the ship and the hijackers themselves,” said Nagma Mullick, spokesman for the ministry of external affairs. “That’s what’s been happening here and our embassy has been working to facilitate those negotiations.”
On Saturday, Pranab Mukherjee, the Indian foreign minister, reassured the captive sailors’ families that their loved ones would return home safely.
That same day India rushed a warship to the Gulf of Aden to protect Indian shipping interests in the region. It is the first time an Indian Navy vessel has been authorised to patrol international waters, a move the navy said was not incident-specific. The patrol comes more than three weeks after the navy requested authorisation to pursue and use force against the Stolt Valor hijackers, but was refused.
Somalia’s caretaker government, battling an Islamist insurgency, lacks the resources to combat the problem. Thus, a flurry of hijackings along the coast has in recent weeks attracted a clutch of foreign military vessels. Still the problem festers. The pirates are holding 10 ships and nearly 200 crew. Some of the $20m to $30m paid to pirates in ransom this year, according to Chatham House, is funding Somalia’s Islamist insurgency and possibly wending its way into international terror networks.
“Operating in an area full of rich pickings and with enormous rewards on offer seems likely to point to a trajectory of increasing ruthlessness,” Mr Middleton wrote. “It is likely to be only a matter of time before more people are killed.”
Such fears may be strongest on the subcontinent, where security concerns have led to the sailors’ strike. When Mr Goyal, the captain of the Valour, spoke to his wife last week, he said the pirates were becoming “increasingly hostile."
-- this story published in The National, www.thenational.ae, on October 24