Dhows Of Doom

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Collusion between Indian ship owners and traders in Dubai has kept the waters along the Somali coast troubled, says  Shantanu Guha Ray

Busy route Most Indian merchant vessels need to pass through the Gulf of Aden

IT’S WELL said that what we do not fix we are doomed to repeat. Just like the failure to check Somali sea piracy. But at a recent conference in Mumbai, officials of the Indian Navy trained their guns less on the pirates and more on the Indian dhows that ply in those dangerous waters and, by all accounts, keep it troubled. These small vessels which operate between Somalia’s Salalah port and Male make a pile from illegal ferrying of goods, such as edibles and clothes, to the war-torn country in the Horn of Africa. The naval officials said most of the smuggling took place when the bulk of Indian merchant vessels were transiting through the Gulf of Aden, where a large number of Indian naval warships are anchored.

In the latest incident, wherein 121 Indian sailors were captured — 26 were subsequently released — all were from dhows. Last month, too, 10 dhows from Gujarat were hijacked by the pirates.

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DISQUIETING FACTS

INDIAN DHOW OWNERS ROUTINELY VIOLATE MARITIME TRADE LAWS AND OPERATE FROM DUBAI

THE TRADE IS TOTALLY ILLEGAL AND HOVERS AROUND $50-$100 MILLION EVERY YEAR

INDIAN DHOWS ARE UPGRADED WITH MODERN ENGINES IN DUBAI FOR THE JOURNEY ONWARD

SOMALI PIRATES HAVE BEEN USING THE DHOWS AS MOTHER VESSELS TO HIJACK BIG MERCHANT SHIPS

INDIA’S SURFACE TRANSPORT MINISTRY IS DEMANDING STRINGENT LAWS TO BAN SUCH ILLEGAL TRADE

LAST MONTH, 10 DHOWS FROM GUJARAT WERE HIJACKED BY THE PIRATES WHILE TRANSITING FROM THE GULF OF ADEN

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This is all due to the illegal trade that has been flourishing unchecked between Indian dhow owners and rich businessmen in Dubai for more than two decades. Senior officials from the Directorate General of Shipping and the Ministry of Surface Transport told TEHELKA that the bulk of the dhow owners — based in Veraval and Kutch in Gujarat — have been upgrading their boats in Dubai. Once they are been fitted with modern engines and loaded with cloth, salt and other small articles, these dhows (designated as ‘Mechanised Sailing Vessels’) set sail for Somalia.

Dhows, that normally weigh around 100 tonnes, are upgraded to 500-1,000 tonnes and fitted with modern engines and gadgets in Dubai. Some of the deals are also done via barter, where the engine supplier becomes a co-owner of the upgraded vessel and plies it in exchange for the engine.

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‘Somalia has been blacklisted by uae dhow operators. Indians must take a cue from them’

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ABDULGANI Y SERANG
National Union of Seafarers of India

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Indian naval officials say the wellequipped dhows are rarely hijacked for ransom. Instead, they are used as “motherships” for hijacking bigger merchant ships passing through the Gulf of Aden. Most of the dhows are released once they have burnt up their diesel or exhausted their stock of food supplies and drinking water. But the economic compulsions of their owners propel them right back into the troubled Somalian waters.

“The trade is not big, only around $50-$100 million a year. But because the dhows operate from Dubai, it becomes difficult for us to keep tabs on the boats. Had these been sailing from Kutch or other Indian ports, we would have regulated them,” says Captain Harish Khatri, India’s Deputy Director-General of Shipping, who attended the anti-piracy conference organised by the seafarers’ unions. Shipowners and maritime agencies say it is easy for the dhows — which fall in the category of merchant sail vessels (MSVs) — to bypass the rules. The boats can be easily registered at ports all over the country, unlike larger vessels that are required to follow stringent guidelines stipulated by the Directorate General of Shipping. This is what has made their serial commandeering by Somali pirates virtually child’s play.

IT’S A vicious circle. The dhow owners have only this illegal trade to depend upon — and since their movements are difficult to track and apprehend, they feel tempted to flout official guidelines. Consider that even though 95 Indian sailors from nine small ships are still hostages of the pirates, they have shown no signs of changing their ways. However, moves are now afoot to find a foolproof strategy to safeguard vessels plying along Somalia’s lawless coast.

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‘The dhows operate from Dubai and hence it’s difficult to keep a tab on these boats’

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CAPT HARISH KHATRI
Directorate General of Shipping

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“We are now insisting that specialised drills be made mandatory,” Captain Kenneth Sajnani, general manager (operations) of the Mumbai-based Tolani Shipping told TEHELKA on telephone. But others are less sure that this is the right way to check the menace. “I fear that such a strategy will only help in kicking off an arms race. Already, the pirates are armed with sophisticated weapons and used to wartime conditions,” argues Abdulgani Y Serang, general secretary of the National Union of Seafarers of India.

Serang advises Indian dhow owners to take their cue from their counterparts in the UAE who — plagued by frequent pirate attacks — have blacklisted Somalia and stopped all trading exchanges with the country. It was, after all, the trade embargo that saw Somali commodity prices shoot up to dangerous levels. But while that only hurts ordinary people, this is the language the Indian dhow owners will need to speak more often till an enduring solution is found.

WRITER’S EMAIL
shantanu@tehelka.com

 

 

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