Piracy is by now the biggest threat to commercial shipping off India’s western coast. “Incidents” have multiplied manifold since the past year even as the zone in which pirates operate has come much closer to the country’s shores. The menace is no longer restricted to the area off the coast of Somalia and its adjoining waters.
The solutions put forward so far—from more intensive patrolling to security for convoys to naval engagements with pirates—have either been ineffective or half-hearted. In the midst of all this, another “option” is now being explored: a package of legislative measures to check piracy. As with many other laws, it is not clear how this will check the problem. Under the proposed Bill, one that may be introduced in Parliament in the monsoon session, the Indian Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure will be amended to define piracy as a crime and also specify the punishment it will attract. Then, in addition, the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard may be given more powers to tackle pirates.
Arresting pirates and putting them in jail is only one, very partial, step. This will not deter them in any way: the number of individuals who take to piracy is very large and the incentives that drive them are simply beyond the reach of any domestic law. Somalia is on the top of the index of failed states for 2011, released by the journal Foreign Policy. For all practical purposes, there is no “state” in that country, just a collection of warring factions in Mogadishu. The extent of economic collapse is simply difficult for our policymakers to imagine. It makes much more sense for an average Somali living in the coastal area of his country to seize a ship, hold its crew hostage and demand money. The risks are few, the gains much higher.
India has simply not been interested in implementing more coercive solutions. These efforts have either been half-baked, disinterested or plainly incompetent. The catalogue of failures is too wide. Before embarking on another meaningless solution and then presenting it as a solution, the Union government should think harder than it has been, so far.
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