The Bay of Bengal is a nature’s gift to 116 million people of Bangladesh. The socio-economic lifeline of the country is inseparably linked to the Bay which provides passage to 95 per cent of its trades and offers livelihood to almost 30 million people. The sea has assumed great importance following successful delimitation of maritime boundaries with Myanmar and India. The disputes concerned delimitation of the territorial seas, exclusive economic zones and continental shelves in the Bay of Bengal. Economic implications of this delimitation are countless. Safety and security are two aspects that need priority now.
Of late, reports of rising piracy in the Bay of Bengal, as reported by the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) Information Sharing Centre (ISC), has triggered concerns in different quarters.
It is true that such piracy is sure to impinge upon Bangladesh’s sovereign right to explore, exploit, conserve, and manage living and non-living resources of water column, seabed and subsea strata and economic activities, such as the production of energy from the water, currents and winds within 200 nautical miles of exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The verdicts of international courts have given the country an exclusive right to carry out fishing in its area of jurisdiction. Bangladesh can now effectively ensure conservation of fishery resources by enforcing appropriate regulations about the season for harvesting, types of vessel and equipment that can be used and institute cooperative measures regarding straddling stocks and highly migratory species.
Bangladesh now has the rights to explore and exploit all living resources in its area including the sedentary species like corals, scallops, sponges and mollusk. It also has the legal rights to explore nonliving resources of the sea bed and subsoil such as cobalt, copper, manganese, nickel, ferromanganese nodules, and gas hydrate deposit in the continental shelf extending beyond 200 nautical miles. But piracy will make such efforts hazardous.
The ISC has said, piracy and armed robbery in the Bay of Bengal along the country’s coasts, especially near sea and river ports, doubled in 2014 as compared to those in 2013. The number of such incidents rose from six in 2013 to 11 in 2014. Of the total, eight occurred in sea near major Chittagong port. “In most cases, the robbers boarded the vessels in groups of five to ten, except in some cases when the robbers approached in a relatively larger group of 30 which happened in the incident involving Malta-registered bulk carrier Loyalty,” the report mentioned. Robbers carried knives but in most cases, they were not violent. However, sharing the concern of the ReCAAP ISC, the Ministry of Shipping has asked the Department of Shipping and the Chittagong Port Authority to take steps to combat robbery along the Bangladesh coasts and near the ports.
It is really surprising that Bangladesh has failed to tackle raids by pirates and robbers despite the fact that it has smaller coastline than that of neighbouring India which has 7,516 kilometres of coasts and 12 major ports. India has 200 non-major ports but only nine incidents of piracy occurred there last year.
It is time that Bangladesh adequately equipped its maritime security agencies with appropriate capability. This would have long lasting impact on the expansion of maritime activities and rapid growth of its economy.
Capacity building of Bangladesh Navy and Bangladesh Coast Guard with appropriate hardware and manpower should be undertaken and the personnel should be trained and organised to meet the future challenges of ensuring the safety and security of the users of sea. Special emphasis should be given on enhancement of sea surveillance and management of sea resources.
To ensure all these, a national maritime policy is the need of the hour to explore, protect and make the best use of the Bay of Bengal. It is a must now to enhance the capacity of Bangladesh Navy and the Coast Guard to protect Bangladesh’s interests in the Bay. The government can form a single authority that can be called National Maritime Commission to coordinate its agencies and stakeholders operating in the Bay.
A well-thought-out maritime policy is a must not just for ensuring security and exploring resources but also for taking decisions during disasters, accidents and salvage operations in the Bay of Bengal. Even Finance Minister AMA Muhith is aware of such a need. He told a recent seminar that Bangladesh needed to make the best use of its sea resources. But he frankly admitted that it is not possible for the country to explore seabed resources at this moment, as it lacks the capacity to do that.
Sadly, no governments from 1991 to 2008 gave importance to the Navy. Its budget was always much less than the other two forces. However, the present government has been giving emphasis on strengthening the Navy. It is time for the government to purchase an Oceanographic Survey and Research vessel to increase its capacity for sea research. Bangladesh still lags far behind other South Asian countries such as India and Pakistan in the maritime sector.
Making the Bay of Bengal free from clutches of pirates and robbers is critical at this time when the government is going for a deep seaport. Such a deep seaport will turn Bangladesh into a hub of booming trade and commerce in the region. But such a rosy future of the country will surely be turned dark if piracy and robbery are not curbed permanently.
Badly needed is the country’s thrust on building close ties with member-states of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) for making the Bay free of piracy. The IOR-ARC has the necessary mechanism to curb it in a coordinated way.