April 23, 2009

Peripheral Vision: The Somali sideshow

The Bollywood ‘item girl’, so called because she appears titillatingly clad in a song and dance number and thereafter disappears from the movie forever, has some things in common with the maritime industry. Both hit the headlines sporadically, and both hit them for the wrong reasons. Or so I thought until recently.

I now think that there may actually be some advantages to the shipping industry from the headlines generated by Somali piracy. Granted that the recent coverage of the Somali crisis in the Western media (including the conservative Economist) is precipitated by (gasp) American ships and nationals having being held hostage. Regardless, it is not often that you hear, within the span of a week, the US President talking about a resolve to end piracy and the US Secretary of State bringing out a four point programme to fight it.

The disadvantages of the media coverage of issues like piracy (or criminalisation or oil spills, for that matter) are well known; the reputation of the industry as a dirty and shady one obviously gets exaggerated by the fact that it never gets any positive publicity, and, indeed, does not even seriously attempt to promote it. However, the main advantage of all the media spotlight on piracy is this: the average Joe on the street may now understand much better why shipping is such a critical industry to global trade and how ships and seafarers are almost indispensible to his daily life. Because, if the security of shipping lanes is not critical, why is the Somali issue now being described as a ‘global crisis’? Why are the navies of the most powerful countries in the world out there? And why is the President of the most powerful country in the world personally involved?

If Joe finally realises this criticality of the maritime industry, it can only be a good thing. Much like the starlet in the movie, bad publicity may turn out to be better for us than no publicity at all.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines and in a heartening sign far away from all the drama in the Indian Ocean where their compatriots form the largest number of hostages held by pirates, there is no let up in Filipino sailors wanting to go out to sea. The country claims to supply a third of the world’s seafarers; recruiters in Manila say that, with higher pay on offer, there is no shortage of mariner availability even for Somali waters. Economics and human resilience prevails once again. The desire to provide for one’s family overcomes all else.
Anybody who has been fortunate enough to visit a Filipino seafarer’s rural home, as I have once, knows how much respect a seafarer gets in those closely knit communities. This respect even extends to a large city like Manila, where it is not uncommon for an earning seafarer to look after entire families of distant relatives who are earning low local wages or are unemployed.

One result of all the positive attention seafaring gets out there is this: at the end of 2008, the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines revealed that Filipino sailors had sent home a record 2.393 billion dollars home in the first nine months of 2008: a whopping 43 percent increase over the previous year. Staggering figures, indeed.

It is symptomatic of the low importance given to seafaring in India that we cannot produce similar (or even remotely reliable) statistics: we do not even have a reliable mechanism to compute the number of serving Indian seafarers in the global fleet. Seafaring as a profession is ignored by the public in India and is far from a profession of choice for most of the young. I will agree that even rudimentary proficiency in the English language can be a minus in India for somebody who wants to go out to sea from within a rural setting, but the argument that this is the main reason for officer shortage (or the decreasing global market share of Indian ratings) is disingenuous. The fact is that with minimal government and private involvement towards attracting youngsters into the industry and a lack of willingness on the part of seafarer employees to go the extra mile during their contracts, India is losing out big time. If we do not address this quickly, the results will be ominous and obvious. Ships will continue to sail; they will just do so with fewer Indians on board.

Far away from the Philippines, two news items from the US caught my eye recently. In the first, the New York Times reported, in a small two line aside in an article on piracy, that Filipino sailors on one ship had thrown tomatoes at pirate skiffs in a failed attempt to repel them. In the second, the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in the US says it will now train its cadets in small arms and handguns because many merchant ships may carry arms against pirates in the future.

I think that one fallout of Somali piracy will probably be, in the near future, that any small group of criminals (and larger groups of terrorists) anywhere in the world will realise that it does not take much to hijack merchant ships for staggering ransoms. A boat, a couple of grenades, an assault rifle or two and perhaps an RPG thrown in is enough to walk away with a couple of million dollars in tax free cash. An excellent return on investment, as the good folk in Puntland will verify.

The industry will, in response, have to revisit the debate on the possibility of arming crews before this threat widens. Although I do not know which way the debate will go, I do know this: Much like a country that cannot or will not defend itself, a ship which will not do so is nothing.

I have, suddenly, another awkward thought as I write this piece. Whatever happened to the ISPS code in the midst of all this Somali mayhem? Are we still peddling it, and if so, why? Kindly be patient while I summarise events for clarity: Today, millions of square miles of the ocean are threatened by armed criminals with known (and stated) links to terrorists. Tens of ships, boats and yachts are hijacked for months on end with a couple of hundred sailors held hostage at any given moment. This is the kind of stuff the ISPS code was supposed to address, one would have thought. It has, obviously and somewhat spectacularly, failed to do so. Even if the ISPS was not really supposed to address this, as many will claim, the fact is that piracy is a huge security threat to global shipping, more so if I throw terrorism in the mix. It is just a matter of time before, as an example, somebody decides to blow up a VLCC or ram it into a breakwater somewhere; it seems so simple to do so. Why, then, is nobody doing something about modifying or repealing the useless ISPS code? Is it because admitting to impotence is too embarrassing?

I suggest that we should at least add a line or two to the Code. Something like, “The ISPS code will obviously cease to be in effect once the vessel is hijacked. It will resume being in force after the ransom has been paid, or as soon as is practicable thereafter.”

“And it shall apply only to the survivors of the hijack, if any.”