The long festering problem of Somali pirates and their abduction of Indian seafarers finally received the attention of the Indian government when the Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh met some of the family members of the hostages on Thursday, March 10 in New Delhi. 

Currently as many as 53 Indian nationals are being held hostage by the Somali pirates in different locations and are part of the crew of six merchant ships.

The objective of the pirates is to obtain hefty ransom money running into millions of dollars in exchange for the hostages – and this has become a lucrative business model for the pirates and their support base. Technically the onus for the safety and welfare of the any seafarer devolves upon the ship owners and in most cases many hostages – of different nations – have been released when this money was paid to the pirates. However in recent years, the scourge of piracy emanating from the failed state of Somalia has assumed disturbing proportions and Indian seafarers have been badly hit.

What is regrettable about the current development is that the problem of Indians being taken hostage in this manner is not of recent origin. As far back as February 2006 the first Indian hostages were captured by Somali pirates from the MV Bhakti Sagar and at the time, their release was obtained through payment of ransom money.  In the intervening years there have been many instances of Indians being taken hostage in this manner by Somali pirates.

In October 2008 after a series of such abductions, the Indian Navy was deployed on anti-piracy patrol off Somalia and some early successes were achieved. For instance the action of INS Tabar, an Indian warship that engaged with a Somali pirate ship and sank it is often highlighted – but this was short-lived.  Soon thereafter India had to deal with the Mumbai 26/11 tragedy – and the vulnerability to national security and that of Indian nationals from the maritime domain was self-evident.

Logically the Indian security apex ought to have taken a holistic view of the various challenges emanating from sea and created an appropriate national capacity and posture to preempt such challenges. Sadly this has not happened in an effective manner and since 2009, the problem of Somali related piracy has only increased. The tally of   Indians captured and then released over the last three years is:  34 in 2009; 56 in 2010; and 13 todate in 2011.

However apart from endangering the lives of Indian seafarers, which is cause for deep anguish for the family members, India’s comprehensive national security is affected in another manner which is even more serious – and this aspect has not received the attention it deserves.

Taking into account the steady increase of  Somali piracy incidents – some very close to the Indian island chain of the  Lakshwadeep, the London based JWC (Joint War Committee)  which comprises the  major maritime insurance firms and security  consultants  have down-graded the security index of the Arabian Sea. As per an official notification, of the JWC, from January 1, 2011 the Arabian Sea upto 75 degrees longitude has been declared unsafe and classified as “areas of perceived enhanced risk”.  (To place this in context, the port of Mangalore on the Indian west coast is located at 74 degrees longitude!) Consequently additional war risk insurance is levied on every merchant ship sailing these waters.

This down-grading has two implications. On one hand it casts doubts about India’s ability to ensure the safety of the sea-lines of communication next to its coast – which is a poor reflection on the overall military profile of a major regional power. This is as serious as declaring that the region 20 kms outside of Delhi is robber-prone and unsafe – and hence trucks carrying goods will have to pay a theft-risk premium.  If this had happened, the Indian populace and legislators would have taken the government of the day to task. Yet it is an indicator of India’s tenacious sea-blindness that very few people have realized the enormity of the JWC assessment.

But the deed is done – and over the last  ten weeks, every ship that touches an Indian port has been paying this extra  war risk premium – and the cost is being passed on to the common Indian citizen – who is not even aware of this surcharge. For a country that is seeking to enhance its external trade – which has to move by the medium of the sea – this indifference is deplorable but alas, entirely predictable.

National security challenges are rarely assessed objectively and holistically – and the legislature is poorly informed about these issues. The bureaucracy works in insular stove-pipes and one department or Ministry rarely engages with the other. Thus we had the sad spectacle of the families of the hostages being made to run from one Minister to another, only to be told that no one was willing to take responsibility for what was happening to the hostages.

Thus it is only now that the government has set up an inter Ministerial group to address the piracy issue in its entirety including the legal, operational and human security aspects. One can only hope that  there will be some tangible results soon – if not, the media may also succumb to fatigue – and the piracy challenge will fester.

At the end of the day, it is a sad reflection if vital  national security issues receive attention only through media advocacy.