Their future seems pretty bleak. K V Prakasan, Unnikrishnan Pillai, S Sudheer and Harjeet Singh, all ex-servicemen in their 40s, opted for jobs as security guards on board M V Seaman Guard Ohio. Unnikrishnan had worked for barely 19 days and Prakasan had completed just two months on Seaman Guard Ohio when the Sierra-Leonne flagged floating armoury chartered by AdvanFort, a private security firm based in Washington, DC transgressed into Indian territorial waters on October 2013 and they were arrested.
Shortly after that, the US-based maritime security firm terminated their services. With a decline in piracy attacks in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea, the maritime security business world over has dipped from US $ 6 billion to about US $ 1 billion. Few firms can now afford to hire security guards and floating armouries are floundering in high seas without much business.
The maritime security firms or private military security companies (PMSCs) are downing shutters. “There’s not much profit in the business anymore,” said Mumbai-based maritime security expert Captain Alok Kumar. There are just two or three such firms in India that provide security personnel. At the peak of business, Captain Kumar’s Alphard Maritime Security firm had hired 250 security guards, drawn from a pool of ex-service men. They are trained for fitness and weapons handling besides being educated on standard operating procedures during potential piracy attacks on the high seas.
“With piracy attacks coming down significantly, we had to downsize to 150 security guards” said Captain Alok. In 2012, at the height of piracy attacks close to the Somalian coast, business on the high seas was booming. Maritime security firms sprung up in the UK, the US and smaller countries like Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malta and Estonia. More than 5,000 armed guards provided security to commercial ships plying on the piracy-prone sea lanes to protect them from hijacks and hostage situations.
In October 2013, the Seaman Guard Ohio was intercepted a few nautical miles off Kanyakumari by the Indian Coast Guard. It had 10 crew members and 25 security guards, including Indians, Britons, Estonians and Ukranians. It carried on board 31 assault rifles and 5,000 rounds of ammunition, triggering a scare along the Indian coast. All of them were convicted to five years imprisonment by a district court before being acquitted by the Madras high court recently.
The floating armouries – say more than 30 around the world – loiter in international waters, waiting for business from customers that include merchant ships requiring protection. They are stationed in the waters off Sri Lanka, Sudan or the United Arab Emirates. “Sri Lanka, Oman, South Africa and Madagascar allow them to disembark and store their weapons in government armouries at a cost. A few years ago, Sri Lanka charged floating armouries anywhere between US $ 5000 and US $ 6000 to disembark,” said Captain Alok. Perhaps, that could be the reason why Seaman Guard Ohio was still stocked up when they strayed into Indian waters, he said.
For the four guards, three from Kerala and one from Punjab, having lost four years of their life, they are exploring other maritime options. There were also a few Indians among the crew. “We are trying to rehabilitate them. They are worried about their future. Their certificates have expired and it is not easy for them to sail immediately and support their families,” said Manoj Joy, Port Chaplain, Sailors’ Society. “This has put psychological pressure on the seafarers. We will continue to counsel them and offer them help to rebuild their lives,” said Manoj.