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India’s coastline continues to be vulnerable

Nearly a decade after the terrorist attack of 26 November 2008 in Mumbai coastal security remains a work in progress. If the recent report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) is anything to go by, then work has not even reached the half-way mark yet. Worse, even the allocated monies have not been fully spent. For example, CAG found that under the Coastal Security Scheme (announced after the November 26 attack), the Andaman and Nicobar administration (under a Lt Governor) was allocated Rs 32 crore, of which only 14 crore have been utilised.

The story is more or less similar in acquisitions as well. The ministry of home affairs (MHA) had sanctioned Rs 302 crore for the acquisition of 10 large vessels and 23 rigid inflatable boats (RIB) for coastal surveillance. These vessels were to be assigned to the 10 marine operational centres (MOC), which were also approved. However, eight years later, the acquisition process has only just started, with tenders being finalised only last year. As far as MOCs were concerned, out of sanctioned 10, only one has been operationalised and four are still at the tendering stage. The remaining five have not even got off the drawing board.

One doesn’t need the CAG report to realise that almost a decade after the attack in Mumbai, Indian homeland remains vulnerable. The island territories of Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) as well as Lakshadweep are worse. Of India’s 7,517 km long coastline, the island chains of A&N and Lakshadweep account for 2,094 km, with A&N alone being 1,962 km long. Not only are these islands far from the mainland, they are sparsely populated and widely scattered. For example, of the 349 islands that form the A&N chain, the southern-most island is barely 150km from Indonesia’s Banda Aceh. Incidentally, till a decade ago, Banda Aceh was the hotbed of extremism, with several Indonesian radical groups, some even pledging support to al Qaeda, making it their home. Most of the A&N islands are densely-forested with barely any human population. And even where remote tribes live, their numbers are miniscule, rendering most of the southern islands in the Nicobar chain extremely vulnerable.

The Lakshadweep group of islands in the Arabian Sea are equally remote. Almost 400km from south-western coast of India, the southern-most Lakshadweep island Minicoy is a mere 211km from Maldives’ Makunudhoo island where China was reportedly building a submarine repair yard, though recent reports suggest that Chinese presence in Makunudhoo will be benign and amount to a mere joint ocean observation station. For some, a Chinese observation station so close to the Indian mainland would be a matter of grave concern. Anyhow, Lakshadweep comprises 36 islands, of which only 11 are inhabited and only nine of those have substantive population. The rest are bare and hence vulnerable.

The Indian Navy is conscious of the onerous task it has by way of coastal security. As Commander in chief Andaman and Nicobar, Vice Admiral Bimal Verma told FORCE, “As far as these islands are concerned, the kind of surveillance assets that are required to keep every inch under check is practically impossible. Finally, it comes down to the eyes and ears of the very aware citizenry, from the fishing community to the merchant shipping.”

And this continues to be the weak area. In a conversation with FORCE in November 2017, Flag Officer Commanding in Chief, Western Naval Command, Vice Admiral Girish Luthra said, “While we have come a long way since 26/11, coastal security is still a work in progress. One area where we have made very good progress is inter-agency coordination. From state governments to fisheries departments, customs, ports, Navy, Indian Coast Guard etc all stake-holders for coastal security are working very well. The Joint Operational Centres have been set-up. Coastal Radar Chain, National AIS Chain and National Information Centre have been set-up. We are doing joint coastal security exercises. The intelligence generation from our coastal areas is good. But still there are some weak areas, including tracking of fishing boats. Also, regulating fishing in the manner that we can keep track of all activities is being progressed.”

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