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Tuesday, 8 March 2011

My view on piracy at sea - from India

Already published here, and there are a whole lot of other articles on this and other maritime subjects published there so do visit the good people at Idarat:-

As an ex-seafarer with a mosaic career ashore, spanning media, shipping, technology, politics, banking, as well as bouts of unemployment, every now and then – and now looking at going back to sea, if possible to write a book, it is difficult not to end up having an informed view and an opinion which is at variance with the views of many others, who have not had a similar variety of exposure. This is especially so when one sits down for longish evenings with shippie buddies, the sailing types as well as those ashore, variously. Some may call it arrogance. Others may refer to it as cynical. Those who know me will recognise the concept of battening down the hatches before sailing out of port. But yes, the fact remains, the big topic lately when old salts meet in India is more often than not, through the evening – piracy; and the criminalisation of seafarers. This has moved up, incidentally, ahead of last year’s favourite which used to be fatigue.
In other segments of society – and living in Delhi, there aren’t too many people with a grip on matters maritime beyond the random holiday on the coast or the once in a lifetime cruise – much of the perception of piracy is courtesy of a couple of very shrill television news (noise) channels with the usual bunch of sad crying elderly relatives and hysterical vapid young people with microphones in their hand. The reactions here are really not very relevant, either, which in a way also passes judgement on the Save our Seafarers movement which is aimed at trying to evoke public pressure. Face it – an average of 11 people die every day on Mumbai’s local train tracks – this is India’s premier city – and it has never made a difference to, or put any pressure on, the other 20 million there.
The point is this, and at the risk of sounding very cruel, there are a variety or realities at play here on the subject of piracy and risk to health; as well as other such terrible things to cargo and cargo owner interests, also the shipowners, in and around the Indian Ocean. This short article shall try and address them as well as try and place things in a way that may make sense to a largely European audience and readership. Without in any way being condescending, supercilious or patronising – or expecting others to be so too. However, all are requested to remember that when a ship went down anywhere in the world, a bell used to be rung at Lloyd’s – but today the calculators come out to figure out the bottom line in accounts – often before the hull touches the bottom of the ocean.
So, first off, right off the bat – and I have reconfirmed this from a friend who is the boss of a very large ship management company, and who has first-hand experience of his ships being held up off the Horn of Africa. When you increase wages, place higher insurance cover for the humans, underwrite suitable death and disability benefits, and cover the family for wages for the duration. And there will thenbe long lines of prospective applicants, certified or otherwise, outside recruitment offices from Mumbai to Marseilles, Shanghai to Salalah. Please accept and understand, that those who even imagine that piracy is causing a shortage of potential seafarers do not understand the economic realities in many parts of the world. Incidentally, this was not an original thought even when Joseph Heller wrote Catch-22.
Next, most real seafarers are still in “the sky is falling on our heads” position, when they are not surveying deckheads horizontally, they’ve been hit so often and so badly in the past that the reality of piracy does not strike them, it cannot happen to me. People coming back after being released from months under pirate control vanish off the radar rapidly – and many don’t get jobs at sea again for a variety of reasons. Yes, there are a few survivors hanging around the clubs and offices waiting to score a beer, or some money, while they relate and re-tell their tales, but they are simply not making the numbers and the right kind of waves. It is a bit like the family relative who has a sad story, is disfigured and ugly as well as full of woe, we all feel sorry for him, but we would rather not have him ride in our car to the family get together.
And thirdly, not just here in India, but in many other parts of the world, fatalism comes with the territory, as does tunnel vision. This, again, is something that the present generation of perception makers in the West with their quaint black and white notions on selective human rights (Libya Dictator bad man, Saudi Dictator good man) do not seem to get to grips with. Kismet plays a large part in our lives, and nothing seems to take this option further than being at sea on substandard ships sailing at reduced optimal manning levels, so what can a couple of pirates do that an FOC rust-bucket can’t. Be aware, there are jobs being offered on “LPSV” (Large Pirate Support Vessels) in some ports in Asia, and people apparently accept. Just like young men from this part of the world accepted jobs as cleaners and cooks in Afghanistan and Iraq – it didn’t matter to them which side they worked on as long as the money reached home.
Right and wrong, pirate and banker, these are shades of grey which do not cut much moral ice with many people. They would love to be what are called investment bankers, but failing that, they see no reason in not putting similar skillsets at work for what is called piracy, too. Listen to “Ride Across the River” by Dire Straits, who sang it very well, indeed.
Having got this off my chest, another truth is this – things are changing now. There are people who simply refuse to want to go back on deep-sea voyages ex-India anymore. One indication of this is that the lower-paying, fully-taxed, jobs on coastal ships are suddenly full. No more room, thank you – and ‘till a year ago, you couldn’t get healthy people with two or three working limbs and decent eyesight to go near some of these coastal ships in India. That’s a solid truth, too.
Which brings us to the Government, currently busy pretending they don’t know that others know, that they know who actually whacked and hid somewhere in Europe on a small island or similar, what sounds like the total of all national turnover revenues since the British left – and therefore expect everybody to continue believing that the British are still responsible. It is very difficult to explain to our Government in India that even the British don’t believe that Cameron or Major before him had the skills to be able to do so. But we digress; we need to get back to the pirate kind of pirates, not our friendly colonial versions and their cohorts back home.
I am therefore directed to inform you, in triplicate, that the Government of India is currently busy passing the buck. Frankly, that is how it has always been, committees are appointed, reports sought and distributed and modified and discussed and opined on, mostly ending with a sumptuous dinner for all including the drivers. The Shipping Ministry issues notifications and adds another day to the SSO course that shippies on board are supposed to wave at the pirates; the Defence guys have their ships out there, but distractions like Libya have them racing up and down Suez like Iranian butter, and the External Affairs Minister rattled off Portugal’s speech the last time he went to the United Nations, so we know what he’s got upstairs is probably better than the khat the pirates chew.
But yes, the Government will do something someday soon, we just don’t know what and how, since it is probably an important secret matter of State impacting security so as honest citizens we are supposed to drink our tulsi ka juice and go to sleep in the corner, Government has said it will all be OK, it is OK. Not for nothing was George Orwell born in Motihari, Bihar, India. Truly, Big Brother’s best hope has been to officially hope that the pirates will have a change of heart towards Indian citizens currently in their captivity. In any case, who told them to go to work on ships; couldn’t they have stayed back and voted? Or paid bribes. Or something.
And then there are the shipowners. Here’s how it goes – the silence from Indian shipowners has always been and is even now, resounding. They have an association; it is called INSA, short for Indian National Shipowner’s Association. Their charter has not changed since they were formed, and it had more to do with disagreeing with the Government from London those days, to try and benefit Indian shipping. The Brits have come and gone, we hope, but INSA is still disagreeing with Government. Anyways, they are a strange bunch, and so we really don’t expect to hear much from them on the subject of countering piracy. Other than the dinner after the meetings, of course, somebody has to pay the bills.
Which leaves – nobody, Nil, Nada. Nobody else cares about things.
Wait – one lot does. There is always the grapevine to take into account and usually they are also closest to the truth.
And the grapevine says that this is no longer piracy. Nor is it somebody’s idea on how to collect tolls and taxes.
The grapevine says that the larger money managing corporates of the world have got into the game. As of now the skillsets are being refined in and around the Horn of Africa – but once finessed, the next locations could be anywhere. South Med, Malacca, South China Sea, East Africa, West Africa, Bay of Bengal – even the North Sea, remember the amazing case of the “Arctic Sea”, anybody? After all, I did say I had a background in technology – and that was in the payment processing industry. Some of what I have uncovered is not in any way different from the way, for example, some types of legit businesses make and move money on the flesh and porn business. Or the way multiple small remittances are moved across borders for making payments in the narcotics business. In billions of dollars every year.
Piracy in the Indian Ocean is increasingly another form of business rapidly going legit by simply being there. And seafarers have always been Giffen goods, replaceable, that’s the truth too.

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