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India’s coastline continues to be vulnerable

Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab

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.”

Currently, Phase II of the Coastal Security Scheme is underway and under this, 38 additional radar stations and eight mobile surveillance systems, apart from vessel traffic management system (VTMS) connectivity at the Gulf of Kutch and Gulf of Khambhat is being implemented as part of the Coastal Surveillance Network. This is to ensure gap-free surveillance of the coastline.

Of course, government has also approved additional assets for the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) under a ‘definitive five-year action programme’ which envisions a 175-ship and 110-aircraft force by 2022. According to a recent report by FICCI on coastal security, ICG ‘currently operates 130 ships consisting of 60 offshore patrol vessels, fast-patrol vessels and pollution-control vessels, 18 hovercrafts, and 52 smaller interceptor boats/crafts. The air assets consist of 39 Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft, 19 Chetak choppers and four Dhruv advanced light helicopters (ALHs)… the Coast Guard has 65 ships and interceptor crafts/boats under construction and has planned the acquisition of 30 helicopters. Further, 16 indigenous Dhruv choppers have already been ordered from Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, and the procurement of 14 twin-engine EC-725 tactical choppers from Airbus is in the final stages of approval. The force is also looking for six more maritime multi-mission surveillance aircraft and the establishment of five air stations/enclaves’.

The 26/11 attack had two detrimental effects on the way Indian planner viewed the sea. One, since the terrorists came via the ocean after way-laying a commercial vessel, the focus of all coastal security effort remains on preventing another such attack. Hence, huge resources and effort has been put in ensuring that the Indian coastline becomes impenetrable, despite senior naval officers admitting that it is an unattainable objective. Unfortunately, they have not been able to convey this to the government in a convincing manner.

The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) report says that year on year since 2009 government has been increasing the budgetary allocations for coastal security. The reports say that ‘in the last three years too, allocations have gone up from Rs 60,393 crore in 2014–15 to Rs 63,581 crore in 2015–16 and Rs 72,527 crore in 2016–17. This upward trend has continued during the current year with allocations reaching Rs 80,476 crore, a hike of around 11.5 per cent in comparison to the previous year.’

Clearly, this is being done at the cost of something else, in this case the Indian Navy. And that has been the second detrimental effect of 26/11. Not only have the critical naval acquisitions been hanging fire for a long time, including helicopters, submarines and minesweepers, the existing naval platforms have been pushed into the coastal surveillance duties. It doesn’t take genius to see that when your focus has been narrowed on something so close to home, you are likely to overlook the big picture. Conversely, had the naval modernisation continued apace, with better surveillance and reconnaissance systems, it would have added to the deterrence value of the service.

Ironically, only in India can the sea induce a defensive mind-set. Ever since the humans were able to put a barge in the water and make it float, sea has offered unlimited possibilities — of the new world and the new life. The voyagers on the sea were unencumbered by the limitations of the land. This inheritance of seamlessness determined the manner nation-states regarded their navies. They were representative of national power, ambassadors of goodwill and facilitators of economic activity.

The pre-colonial India was no different. Indian mariners ventured forth both to the east and the west of the Indian coast, though the military side of the power was upended by trade and commerce. Perhaps, it was this history of commerce taking precedence over military combined with the insecure land borders that India inherited post-Independence that our policy-makers could not figure out what to do with its navy except hold it as a showpiece. The siege mentality that the land borders induced, didn’t allow Indian thinkers and politicians to regard navy as a strategic instrument of national power, sporadic incidences like boat attack on the Karachi harbour and the intervention in Maldives notwithstanding.

This explains the national indignation at navy’s failure to stop the 26 November 2009 attack on Mumbai, when 10 terrorists held the nation to ransom for nearly three days. Since the medium of infiltration was the sea, the popular sentiment was to hold the navy accountable for the breach. Nobody, including the government, had any real understanding about navy’s peacetime role. Hence, the navy was made the ‘designated authority’ responsible for complete maritime defence, with both coastal and offshore security under its control. A responsibility with long-term consequences.


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