To Davy Jones’ Locker

To Davy Jones’ Locker

As if Somali pirates weren’t enough of a menace, they are now becoming cheeky, too. Last week, a group of them refused to free seven Indian crew members of the MV Asphalt Venture-in pirate custody since September-even after a $3.5 million ransom had reportedly been paid for the ship and its 15-member crew. Reports suggest the pirates are now demanding that their cohorts in India’s custody be set free.

This growing audacity shows the difficulty of bringing Somalia’s pirates to heel. Despite the presence of navies and coast guards of several countries, including India, in the region, the pirates have gone about their job with eminent ease, expanding deeper into the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean even as the Gulf of Aden became the hub of anti-piracy forces. The International Maritime Bureau said recently that pirate activity had reached an all-time high in the first three months of 2011.

It’s not as if Somali pirates are regular Jack Sparrows. They are caught and incarcerated by the dozens. But there’s a difference between eliminating foot soldiers and going after the big fish, and pirate warlords have been rarely identified, let alone apprehended. This has coincided with a broader failure to deal with the pirate system. International efforts to prosecute pirates or choke their supply lines are still nascent, stunted by the usual foibles of collective action. Until these collateral measures come into force, catching hold of sundry buccaneers may have little effect.

As a result, piracy in Somalia has evolved into a sophisticated economic model in an otherwise dysfunctional political economy, with even a stock exchange in Harardhere where shares in upcoming attacks are bought and sold. The larger cost of piracy—from ransoms to maritime insurance to spending on naval forces and security— has shot through the roof, too. A report by One Earth Future Foundation, a non-profit, in December estimated that piracy cost the global economy $7-12 billion per year.

India responded to last week’s debacle by rushing a frigate to the Somali coast, and a rescue mission cannot be ruled out. Yet such post-facto measures may win the battle, but not the war. With prevention of piracy becoming increasingly difficult, the focus needs to shift from protection to aggression. The risk is this might just prove too much for the landlubbers in New Delhi.

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