The serial commandeering of Indian dhows by pirates in the Arabian Sea around the Gulf of Aden recently, has put the focus on the vulnerability of these vessels to hijack, especially with their flagrant flouting of guidelines, which also facilitates the endangering of other innocent shipping.
Indian dhows are mostly built and operated from ports like Salaya in Gujarat and ply ancient trade routes to ports in the Persian Gulf, East Africa and the Arabian peninsula coast on the Arabian Sea.
These dhows, some of whom can displace up to a 1000 tons, are designated as Mechanized Sailing Vessels (MSV), by virtue of which they have the advantage of easier conditions for registration and operation under the regulations of the Indian Directorate General of Shipping. With usually only Indian-made engines available to them, builders and owners of dhows have been increasingly towing these vessels across the Arabian Sea to ports in the Persian Gulf, for the purpose of fitting them with more sophisticated and powerful engines. This is usually done as part of a barter deal, where the supplier of the engine in the Gulf port, becomes a co-owner of the vessel and plies the services of the vessel for a number of ‘trade days’ in exchange for sponsoring the engine. By this, the engine supplier/Gulf co-owner has the use of the vessel for transportation of cargo for an agreed number of days.
The problem arises when this arrangement requires the dhow to traverse piracy-prone waters and often head to Somali ports like Bosaso and Kisimayo to deliver cargo.
According to a statement made by the Indian Navy today, most merchant vessels now transit through the Gulf of Aden under the protection of the large number of warships deployed in the region. “Only limited number of vessels operate off the East coast of Africa or Somalia. Several Indian Dhows, however, continue to engage in regular trade between Persian Gulf / India and ports on the East coast of Africa and Somalia. The owners and crew of these dhows are fully aware of the risks and dangers of operating so close to the Somali coast, but they continue to do so probably for commercial considerations,” said the navy. According to some sources in the Indian Ministry of Defense, the Directorate General of Shipping’s advisory, strongly recommending against transit by these dhows west and south across the imaginary line between Salalah in Oman and Male in the Maldives, is being flouted at will.
In these waters and while exiting and entering Somali ports, these dhows are often taken over by pirates and, being stocked for 15 to 25 days of sailing, are used by pirates as mother ships for launching attacks on more lucrative shipping targets. The navy’s statement read, “Pirates do not usually seek ransom from dhow owners, but dhows are attractive vessels for use as ‘mother ships’ to launch further piracy attacks on other merchant vessels.”
Lives are particularly placed at risk during the pirate boarding of the dhows and when, as a pirate mother ship, the dhow comes in the vicinity of the various naval warships in the area, which may decide to act against the dhow, considering it a pirate vessel. This happened in November 2008 when the INS Tabar sank a Thai vessel that had been taken over by pirates and was being used as a mother ship.
According to the Indian Navy, an average of 16 to 18 warships from various navies are deployed in the Gulf of Aden at any given time. The navy says that while the the number of successful piracy attempts has gone down because of this, it has also driven pirates deeper into the Indian Ocean on these hijacked dhows, which are satisfactorily suitable for supporting the pirates for such distances. “It is for this reason that dhow owners have been repeatedly advised to avoid the piracy prone areas off Somalia. Despite the advisories issued by the DG Shipping, Indian dhows continue to operate in these piracy infested areas, placing at risk the lives of Indian crew onboard,” said the navy.
The navy has also deployed the Guided Missile Frigate INS (Indian Naval Ship) Betwa, with an armed helicopter and a Marine Commando (Marcos) team on anti-piracy patrol, replacing the INS Beas which has returned to Mumbai. “She is the 16th Indian Naval ship to be deployed since Oct 2008. During this period, Indian Naval ships have safely escorted more than 930 merchant ships of different nationalities, with over 7780 Indians as crew. These include over 124 Indian flagged merchant ships. No merchant ship under the escort of an Indian Naval warship has been hijacked thus far and more than 15 piracy attempts have been prevented by Indian Naval warships,” said the navy.