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Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Piracy redux - April 2011

The Indian media has been generally shy and quiet about seaborne piracy issues lately, barring reportage every now and then on Indian Navy action, as well as reportage on the status of the captured pirates. Coverage on the reality onboard hijacked ships has been less than scanty, one reason being given is that it is being done to protect the lives of those still in captivity, as well as to prevent further hindrance to negotiations.

Likewise, governance in shipping in India, which means the DG Shipping and allied offices, have also adopted a policy of staying below the radar as far as piracy is concerned. Quiet back-door negotiations and discretion are the buzzwords of the day, it would seem, with everybody being advised to stay away from the media.

All this would be well said and done if issues were reaching some form of closure as well as sustainable resolution. However, reality is that things are going from bad to worse, and across a variety of parameters. Pirates are reaching out further and deeper into the Indian Ocean as well as striking closer to the coasts of countries not just in Africa but also in and around India. The SUSAN K, for example, was hijacked just 35 miles off the Omani coast, and reports of attacks from close to the Indian coast have been filtering in.

Reports on how seafarers are being tortured onboard, as well as beaten or even killed, are also filtering through. Pirates seem to have gone forward from treating captives reasonably well to outright violence and terror. One case of "keel hauling", where a seafarer was tied to a rope and then pulled across the bottom from one side to the other has already been reported - pulled too fast, the barnacles would rip him apart, and pulled too slow, he would drown.

Other cases, involving Indian seafarers, include a Chief Engineer and a Master being locked up in the fridge room for half an hour at 17 below zero centigrade - hung to the meathooks so that they could not move. There ave been a few cases, reportedly, of people being tied naked on to a hot steel deck, with heat applied to the genitals. Being hog tied with wires being tied around the genitals has also been reported. A few cases of seafarers having been killed have also now surfaced. And ofcourse, the regular beatings as well as terrified calls home, with automatic weapons going off in the background.

It is also obvious that the issue of vastly increased insurance costs are now beginning to impact all parties concerned - and will not remain something that the shipping lines and ship owners/managers can hope will just go away somewhere else. Furthermore,the various naval forces involved are also reaching a point where they soon will provide assistance preferably to ships which have taken some pre-emptive action on their own, so that they can board and take action in case of pirate attacks basis certain minimum guidelines and safety precautions followed by the ship itself.

One of these preventive defence measures has to do with what is called "citadel". Till now, for many ship's crew, that meant a re-modified steering gear, with access to the after-peak tank for sanitation purposes. Or being cooped up inside a control room. Either way, the pirates have been smoking people out, or simply breaking through the steel doors using explosives or basic tools. Maximum period of safety would, typcially, be a few hours.

It is increasingly clear that something more will have to be done. Just a few fire-hoses and axes are not enough anymore either. From making the bridge bullet-proof, to installing stern facing radars for coverage of vessels coming up from aft, and installing electric barbed wire running along the shipside at the bare minimum to vessel hardening by making the complete below decks accomodation area into a citadel which is explosion proof and more.

Idea is in brief to provide the complete ship's company an opportunity to move into a secure area, in case all other options including armed guards have failed and the vessel has been boarded by pirates, where they can remain in communications as well as see what is going on for a period of atleast 3 or 4 days. This will also imply that due care has to be taken for ensuring safe ventilation and de-activation  of halon or other gases used variously for fire-fighting and otherwise.

The 3-4 day period is important because naval intervention in case of piracy attacks in the further reaches of the ocean will often take that much time.

It is important for seafarers and ship owners/managers as wel as flag state and port state authorities to come together and find ways to resolve these issues. And soon.

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