98 phantom vessels could pose real threat off India’s western seaboard

The owners of these vessels had failed to respond to the search.

Written by Smita Nair | Mumbai | Published: May 16, 2013 3:47:10 am

Nearly a hundred dhows and barges could be prowling silently in the waters of the Arabian Sea off India’s west coast,undetected by authorities as they travel to and from ports in Pakistan and the Middle East.

The shipping ministry’s Mercantile Marine Department (MMD) believes that these vessels — which are registered with the department but cannot be physically traced — no longer exist. But the Coast Guard is not so sure.

At a high-level security meeting called by Maharashtra Chief Secretary J K Banthia on April 6,it was revealed that a massive three-month security exercise had failed to establish the locations of 98 of 100 vessels registered with the MMD in Mumbai,officials said.

The owners of these vessels had failed to respond to the search,the meeting — convened in the aftermath of the seizure of the dhow M V Yusufi off Colaba with its mysterious Thuraya satphone and cargo of goats — was told. Top Coast Guard and MMD officials attended the meeting.

The Coast Guard has now called for an urgent monitoring mechanism for these phantom vessels,most of which sail from ports along the Gujarat coast. Most of them likely dock at minor ports with lax rules for their annual surveys,during which officials are supposed to check the vessels’ papers and equipment.

The Coast Guard has also informed the Maharashtra government that it has found,during a separate exercise,that only one of the innumerable dhows sailing up and down the coast — MSV Padmavati — was fitted with the mandatory security equipment,Automatic Identification System (AIS).

“From the Coast Guard’s perspective,until the whereabouts of the 98 dhows plying between Middle Eastern waters and India are confirmed,they remain security threats,” a security official said. Maharashtra DGP Sanjeev Dayal confirmed that the issues had been flagged,and that multiple agencies were working on them.

MMD officials have told the government that AIS equipment should be offered at subsidised prices to the owners of dhows. “A small sailing vessel without an AIS poses serious security and terror concerns. It is a moving vessel with no information,and is considered a floating threat,” an official said.

The Yusufi had no AIS and claimed it was headed to Sri Lanka,even as it approached Mumbai. A functioning AIS provides all information about a vessel,including its identity,type,position,course,speed and navigational status. Following a coastal security review after the November 26,2008 terror attacks in which an Indian fishing trawler was used by terrorists,the Directorate General of Shipping had issued mandatory guidelines on AIS.

In May 2009,the directorate general asked all vessels longer than 20 metres to obtain Maritime Mobile Station Identification (MMSI) numbers for AIS.

Neither order has been complied with,Coast Guard officials said.

According to the Coast Guard,it was in 2003 that the last sailing vessel was registered with the Mumbai MMD. Captain L K Panda,principal officer,said most of the dhows now exist only on paper. “We wrote to all the dhow owners registered with us. We have waited for three months,and no one has responded from 98 vessels. We will cancel their registrations and send the details to the Coast Guard,” Captain Panda said.

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