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Hit And Run Case: Loss Of Lives At Sea Off Kerala Coast – Analysis


By Commodore R. S. Vasan

In another unfortunate incident on 01 March 2012, an unknown ship rammed against a fishing vessel Don 1 off the Kerala coast at night and fled the scene apparently even switching off its navigational lights after collision. The collision resulted in capsize of Don 1, death of two fishermen, two injured and three still reported missing.

When the reports last came in apparently the Navy, Coast Guard and the Shipping Ministry were still trying to establish the identity of the ship involved in the hit and run case. The Navy and the Coast Guard aircraft and vessels carried out extensive searches to locate the ship. According to latest reports, after detailed analysis, an Indian owned ship with Singapore flag, MV Prabhu Daya has been ordered to reach Chennai for establishing if the vessel was indeed involved in the hit and run case.

Location of Kerala in India
Location of Kerala in India

The following are the means available to the security agencies to establish the identity of the ship. A lot has been discussed about Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) which is nothing but total situational awareness of the happenings in the areas of interest. If all the components of the MDA are working then it would be possible to find the culprit. While it is possible that the concerned agencies are already working on these the means and methods available today are highlighted.

Automated Identification System (AIS). This system that is in use for many years enables establishing the identity of a ship along with its position by another vessel which is also equipped with AIS interrogator. The fitment of the AIS was made compulsory for all vessels above 300 GRT as part of the Safety of Lives Sea (SOLAS) mandates with the International Ship and Port Security Code (ISPS) that came in to being on 01 July 2004. AIS plots have increasingly assisted law enforcement authorities in establishing the location, identity, movement parameters and the call sign of a vessel in question. Since the timing of the collision and the position of the fishing vessel Don 1 is known it should be possible to compare the AIS plots and then home on to the offender.

INDSAR system. This is a system that was introduced by the Indian Coast Guard for voluntary reporting of ships entering the Indian Search and Rescue Region. The voyage reporting is made to the INDSAR center managed by the Coast Guard Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC),Mumbai through INMARSAT C by using code 43.This would enable the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) to establish which are the ships that are passing through its area of responsibility at a particular time and is able to provide timely assistance to the ships in distress. In conjunction with the INDSAR system, the Indian Coast Guard also has a system for reporting when ships are likely to cross with in 20 nautical miles of any of India’s Islands both in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. This reporting is done through the ISLEREP system.

This works both ways as the Coast Guard can also request another vessel in close proximity to proceed to the scene of accident and provide first aid help till the arrival of the Coast Guard units. If the vessel in question had reported its details on entering the SRR then again it would be able to establish the number of ships in the vicinity and then establish the identity at the time of the incident.

Radars. If it can be established as to which of the coastal/navy/coast guard radars/Long range Identification Radars were working at that time, either from ashore or from ships on patrol in the area, again there is a possibility of generating the plot for comparison with data provided by other means to pinpoint the ship that was involved in the collision.

VTMS. The Vessel Traffic Management System is again an active system managed by ports and has been given additional importance post the Mumbai terror attacks as well as the collisions that took place off Mumbai resulting in environmental pollution and blocking of the Mumbai harbour in August 2010.

Satellites. With the number of satellites that are in orbit, this again is another source that would help in such cases both by direct and by indirect means.

General observations:

Unfortunately, the shipping density close to the Indian shores has gone up due to the increased piracy attacks in the west Arabian sea. Various security agencies who are tasked with ensuring safe passage of a ship invariably are advising the ships to keep close to the Indian coast as they are aware of the increased vigilance by the Indian Navy and Coast Guard particulary post Mumbai terror attacks. The heavy traffic has resulted in interference in the legitimate fishing activities in the Exclusive Economic Zone of India.

This is the second incident in the waters off Kerala where innocent fishermen have lost their lives due to the negligence of the masters of vessels involved in the two incidents.

The fact that there are increased violations of the Rules of the Road and the vessels are not complying with international regulations is a great cause of concern.

The International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (the STCW Convention), and its associated Code enter into force on 1 January 2012, with a five-year transitional period until 1 January 2017. It would be necessary for all stake holders to ensure that the new provisions are meticulously applied to ensure that there are no violations by the crew in discharging their duties onboard a vessel.

The declaration by the Joint War Committee that the entire Arabian sea is risk prone has been contested by India recently. The idea of declaring the entire Arabian Sea as risk prone area would only assist the insurance companies who would hike up the premium for passage in these areas. There is a need to ensure that the JWC consults the local governments prior to declaring any area as risk prone.

There may be a need for India to proclaim certain areas as fishing areas where the movement of vessels is monitored, regulated and diverted if required. Traffic diversion schemes need to be reviewed to ensure that there is no interference with fishing activity.

Distress Alert System. ISRO and the Coast Guard joined hands to provide a hand held alert system in the event of any disasters at sea faced by the fishermen. Distress Alert Transmitter (DAT) was designed and fabricated and field trials carried out. Some of the fishermen in Tamil Nadu, A&N Islands, Karnataka etc., have been issued this alert system that could be activated in times of distress. It is evident that this may not have been issued to the fishermen in the entire country. If this was issued, then the fishermen would have been in a position to send out the distress alert that would have been monitored by the MRCC both in Mumbai and Kochi.


In the light of observations as above, the following recommendations are made for consideration by those charged with safety and security management at sea.

  • The need of the hour is to ensure that the existing ‘means and methods’ for identifying such offenders are reviewed so that there is no time lost in locating them. For this to happen, it is inevitable for the total MDA architecture to be fine-tuned with availability of real time inputs that can be processed at the Joint Operations Room as soon as the need is felt. The lack of real time surveillance and analyzing capability would impair India’s ability to intervene effectively in a developing threat environment and also delay apprehension of the offender as in this specific case where a marine offence has been committed.
  • The areas declared as risk prone by the Joint War Committe areas need immediate review by taking up the issue at the highest level both the Joint War Committee and also the IMO.
  • There is a need to declare traffic separation schemes close to our coast to ensure that smaller vessels and other craft are not endangered by the increasing density of shipping, fishing and other activities along the coast.
  • The fishermen associations would need to be informed about major changes and declaration of risk areas, traffic diversions etc., well in time so that they are aware of the route and the type of traffic in their areas of interest.
  • While a lot is being made about the effectiveness of Maritime Domain Awareness, the speed at which the culprit would be caught would indicate if all the components of the much touted MDA are working in the Indian context.
  • The distribution of the hand held Distress Alert Transmitter to all fishermen needs to be expedited. The cost of the equipment could be borne both by the State and the Centre.
  • While INDSAR was introduced as a voluntary reporting system, there may be a need to make it compulsory for all vessels for promoting safety of the vessels operating in the SRR of India.
  • The transition to the new STCW conventions that has come in to force from 01 Jan 2012 needs to be carried out with all the seriousness that it deserves to ensure that the ship’s crew are more safety conscious and respect the laws of the sea.

(The author is presently the Head, Strategy and Security Studies at the Center for Asia Studies at Chennai and can be contacted at [email protected] The views expressed by the author are his own)

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SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

One thought on “Hit And Run Case: Loss Of Lives At Sea Off Kerala Coast – Analysis

  • March 13, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    Commodore Vasan sir,

    A very comprehensive analysis of what we have and what we dont and what we can as a Nation, but dont seem to do it always!. Both the cases have been solved indegniously available MDA. We have all of them with various agencies and some of them are in the implementation stage…

    In the second case though it took a little longer because of conflicting reports of the vessel positions from two sources. The vessel was infact a INDSAR ship and making all reports. Though he is being painted in the media as a ‘rogue ship’ and all, Actually he is not he was in contact with the MRCC throughout, from the time contact was established after we received the distress call and we suspected him, till he had a MOB off srilanka and enroute Chennai. Master may have been aware of something amiss onboard but could not comprehend what happened!

    Kerala State chose to opt for the second low cost EPIRB solution (Cospas-Sarsat system) developed VSSC Trivandrum and manufactuerd by KELTRON. About 7000 of the 15000 epirbs ordered have been distributed. however, till date the fisheries have not been able to register them and tell us whom they have given. If at all they have, registered the owner details, training the fishermen in their usage, do’s & dont’s. This would have reduced the time taken for the MRCC/MRSC to be aware of the situation. Comparitively, the DAT is more robust, user friendly, more dependable and using the INSAT/Kalpana geo satellite, though till date only about 3000 nos have been sold/distributed. The States lack the will to do it. THis despite the ISRO-ICG Initiative to have demonstrated the working.

    What has however brought to the fore is the “eyes and ears”, primarily Navy/Coast Guard conducting regular coastal security exercises with the local police, fishermen the information reached the Coast guard ops room in the shortest and best possible time. The four digit nos 1554 and 1093 surely made a difference in limiting the time. Regular community interactions.

    Though we should not commend ourselves. Integrating various MDA sources available with various stake holders, POrts, Light Houses, Private Ports, ISRO, Navy and Coast Guard and regular interactions at a local level, sharing and avoiding me first attitude will definately resolve issues much faster.

    The one other observation, India’s poor response in IMO and lack of representation. And, we have not yet issued any Rules or orders under the MZI Act 1976 till date despite India enacting the Act much before the 3rd UNCLOS which came into force in 1982. This piece of legislation has been left untouched except a couple of Rules on fishing etc..

    One other observation, the NATO NSC/western countries declaring the Indian EEZ as a high risk area which makes the masters more cautious and also making them hugging the coast. There have been no single incident of a somalian type attempt except the decimation of teh mother vessel off Lakshwadeep. There is no measured response or rebuttal though it is nearly a year.

    Lack of respect for fishing rights in the continental shelf. Notifying of fishing grounds and laning under SN Rules.

    Last but not the least, we have not kept pace in the maritime world as we have done in the IT world and made a mark despite being a nation with long maritime history.


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