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Four Years Hence: A Review of the Coastal Security Mechanism

Dr Pushpita Das is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • November 26, 2012

    Anniversaries provide an occasion to assess the achievements and setbacks in any endeavour as well as formulate plans for the future. In this context, the fourth anniversary of the 26 November 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai provides an opportunity to review the measures that were put in place subsequent to the event to secure India’s coasts from sub-conventional threats. In fact, many of the measures had already been recommended by the Group of Ministers’ Report of 2001, but the government was not motivated enough to implement them because of lack of threat perception from the sea. The November 2008 attack, however, once again brought to the fore the vulnerability of India’s coasts and the urgent need for ensuring coastal security.

    During the last four years, the Indian government has made concerted efforts to build a robust coastal security mechanism. To begin with, the existing multilayered patrolling and surveillance arrangement have been furthered strengthened. The Indian Navy has been brought into the folds of the coastal security mechanism and entrusted with the overall responsibility of maritime security including coastal and offshore security. The Indian Coast Guard has been assigned the additional responsibility of patrolling the territorial waters as well as coordinating between the central and state agencies. The procurement and recruitment plans of the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard have been approved and funds sanctioned to provide both these services with additional manpower, assets and infrastructure thus enhancing their capabilities.

    For patrolling shallow waters, the Marine Police have been raised in the coastal states and union territories and these have been equipped with interceptor boats and other assets under the Coastal Security Scheme. Phase I of this scheme has been completed with the setting up of 73 coastal police stations, while Phase II is under way as part of which an additional 131 coastal police stations will be established. The Indian Customs, which patrols the sea up to 24 nm to prevent smuggling, has also been brought under the coastal security mechanism and is being provided with additional manpower and interceptor boats. An informal layer for surveillance comprising fishermen and coastal villagers has been added and institutionalised. These fishermen and villagers are organised into groups (Sagar Suraksha Dal and Gram Rakshak Dal) and trained to keep a vigil at sea as well as along the coasts.

    In addition, for protecting naval bases and adjacent strategic installations, a specialized force (Sagar Prahari Dal) consisting of 1000 personnel equipped with 80 interceptor boats is being raised by the Indian Navy. The physical security of India’s major ports is being ensured through the deployment of the Central industrial Security Force (CISF), whose personnel have been trained in seamanship to handle any threat from the seafront.

    For achieving near gapless surveillance of the entire coastline as well as preventing the intrusion of undetected vessels, the Coastal Surveillance Network project is being implemented. This project aims at providing real time surveillance up to 25 nm into the sea and involves the setting up of 46 static radars along the coastline – 36 in the mainland and 10 in the island territories. Phase I of the project is nearing completion; the installation of radars in the mainland will be completed by the end of November 2012, while those in the island territories are expected to be installed by March 2013.

    This project is supplemented by the National Automatic Identification System (NAIS) chain, inaugurated in August 2012, to track and monitor vessels by receiving feeds from AIS transponders installed in sailing vessels. The data generated by the static radar chain and the AIS sensors are being integrated with the data from the Vessel Traffic Management System (VTMS) installed in all major ports as well as in the Gulfs of Kutch and Khambhat and these are being shared with all agencies through the centralized National Command Communication Control and Intelligence Network (NC3I).

    Since the 10 Pakistani terrorists had hijacked an Indian fishing trawler MV Kuber to evade detection and sneak into Indian waters in the guise of Indian fishermen after killing the crew of the trawler, steps were undertaken to ensure the safety and security of fishing trawlers/boats and their crew. In this regard, all big fishing trawlers (20 mts and above) are being installed with AIS type B transponders. As for small vessels, a proposal to fit them with the Radio Frequency Identification Device (RFID) is being considered. Besides, all vessels in the coastal states are being registered under a uniform registration system and different colour codes for fishing trawlers are being assigned to different coastal states for easy identification.

    Furthermore, Distress Alert Transmitters (DATs) are being provided to fishermen so that they can alert the Coast Guard if they are at distress at sea. Coastal security helpline numbers 1554 (Coast Guard) and 1093 (Marine Police) have also been operationalised for fishermen to communicate any information to these agencies. For identification of fishermen at sea, a scheme for issuing identity cards has been launched and till date the biometric data of 16 lakh (90 per cent) fishermen have been captured. The data generated will be fed into a single centralised database (NC3I), thus creating a composite picture for Maritime Domain Awareness. And, most importantly, to supervise the implementation of these measures, the National Committee to Strengthen Coastal and Maritime Security (NCSMCS) under the chairmanship of the Cabinet Secretary was constituted in August 2009.

    Despite such an elaborate mechanism, several breaches – such as the drifting of ships like MV Pavit and MV Freedom into Indian waters – highlight certain inherent inadequacies and shortcomings of the system, which in turn have impaired the effectiveness of the system. One of the main shortcomings is the lack of coordination between various agencies engaged in coastal security. Even though several joint coastal security exercises have been conducted and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) formulated to create awareness about sea-borne threats and thus achieve coordination among the relevant agencies, these measures continue to prove inadequate in overcoming the strong forces of dissonance stemming from turf wars, the lack of proper communication channels, personality driven initiatives and insufficient appreciation of the threat.

    Another factor undermining the effectiveness of the coastal security mechanism is differing perceptions among various stakeholders about their roles in ensuring coastal security. Curiously, every agency that is engaged in coastal security feels that the task is an additional responsibility that has been thrust upon it. For instance, many in the Navy contend that its principal duty is to defend the country during wars and enhance its blue water capabilities rather than carry out law enforcement duties for which it has neither the training nor the assets. Some naval officials also feel that they have been assigned responsibility without power and demand the establishment of a single point authority vested in their service. In the case of the Coast Guard, officials argue that their principal mandate includes only search and rescue, aid to navigation and pollution control at sea, not coastal security duties. Likewise, the Marine Police and Customs assert that they do not have the wherewithal and, more importantly, the mindset to perform coastal security duties. Some of the coastal states have not yet accorded coastal security any priority as they do not perceive any threats from the sea. Most argue that coastal security should be the responsibility of the Centre since they do not have the resources to raise additional manpower, boats, fuel and other infrastructure required for securing the coasts. This indifferent attitude towards coastal security percolates down to the district and sub-division levels resulting in their poor participation in various coastal security coordination meetings and thereby adversely affecting information sharing and coordination at the ground level.

    Resource crunch and lack of proper training are other impeding factors. Insufficient funds have stalled the procurement plans of the Navy and Coast Guard. As a result, both these services are woefully short of manpower and assets. For instance, the short term and perspective plans of the Coast Guard have not been approved since the mid-1980s. At present, the Coast Guard is operating with a 48 per cent shortfall in ships and vessels, a 68 per cent shortfall in air assets and 42 to 46 per cent shortfall in manpower. Similarly, the functioning of coastal police stations is also hampered by the lack of technical manpower as well as fuel for interceptor boats. The absence of trained personnel adept at coastal patrolling and sea combat operations among the Marine Police, Customs and CISF is severely affecting their efficient performance of coastal security duties. The short duration training in seamanship imparted is inadequate for their personnel to find their ‘sea legs’.

    Yet another factor that could potentially interfere with the effective functioning of the mechanism is growing discontent among fishermen. Fishermen are considered the ‘eyes and ears’ and therefore an integral part of the coastal security mechanism. However, perceived highhanded behaviour of the security agencies coupled with the loss of traditional fishing harbours to security and strategic establishments have generated a sense of disaffection among fishermen communities. This trend could hinder the flow of vital information from fishermen to the security and intelligence agencies.

    On the whole, while India has put in place a comprehensive mechanism for securing the country’s coasts, there is still a great deal to be done in terms of addressing issues relating to perceptions, resources as well as organisational management to ensure effective coastal security.