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Whither Coastal Security?

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, 2009

    As India observers the first anniversary of the November 2008 Mumbai carnage, it is time to take stock of the coastal security system. The Mumbai 2008 terror episode not only laid bare the wide gaps in the Indian coastal security apparatus, but also brought to fore the lackadaisical attitude of the governments, both state and central, towards coastal security. Coastal security, a hitherto disregarded issue, became important only after the Mumbai 2008 terror attacks. Until then, securing the country’s land borders remained the dominant discourse on national security, with India having fought three wars with Pakistan and a border war with China as well as continuing to grapple with various threats emanating from across the borders such as terrorism, infiltration, smuggling of arms and drugs, etc. Though activities like smuggling and refugee flows through the Indian coasts posed a challenge to security, these were not considered grave enough to merit concerted attention.

    Threats to India’s coasts, today, are mainly sub-conventional in nature. Terrorist attacks on vital installations located along the coasts such as oil platforms, atomic power plants, naval bases, industrial hubs and cities, causing extensive damage feature as the most potent threat. Smuggling of drugs, arms and explosives via the sea route by criminal groups forms the second set of threats. Criminal groups engaging in these activities not only breach the security of the coast but also network with terrorists and provide logistical support for terror operations. Indian coasts are also vulnerable to illegal inflow of both migrants and refugees from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, especially along the Odisha and Tamil Nadu coasts. Though such people do not pose a direct security threat, the probability that terror operatives can sneak into the country in the guise of migrants or refugees remains. Finally, numerous fishing boats which venture into the sea each day also pose a security threat as many such fishing boats could be used for smuggling in arms and infiltrators. The situation is aggravated by the fact that checking every one of these tens of thousands of boats for suspicious cargo is almost impossible.

    The first step in addressing these challenges is to comprehend the enormity of the problem. Awareness about the need to strengthen India’s coasts first arose in the wake of the 1993 Mumbai serial bomb blasts, when it was established that the explosives used were smuggled in through the Raigad coast of Maharashtra. The government’s response at this time was limited to launching Operation Swan in September 1993, which was aimed at preventing the landing of contraband and infiltration but only along the Maharashtra and Gujarat coasts. Curiously no initiative was taken to put in place a security architecture for the entire coast. It was only after the Kargil Review Committee’s recommendations that the Government launched the Coastal Security Scheme in 2005-06, which was a comprehensive scheme for securing the country’s coast. The Rs. 371 crore scheme envisaged establishment of a series of coastal police stations and check posts in all the nine coastal states and union territories to strengthen patrolling along the coasts and shallow waters.

    But only the central government seems to have understood the importance of securing the country’s coasts and accordingly initiated plans to put a system in place. Most governments of the coastal states remained indifferent to this security imperative. Barring one or two, none of the coastal states showed any enthusiasm in implementing the coastal security scheme. Many even requested the Centre to shoulder the entire responsibility for coastal security since they did not have the financial wherewithal for this purpose. Their indifference can be gauged from the fact that neither land (for construction of coastal police stations) nor interceptor boats (for patrolling the coasts) was acquired. In addition, the state police force, which is at the cutting edge of maintaining internal security, came up with the excuse that the Police are a land based organisation and therefore should not be burdened with coastal security. No doubt, such an attitude greatly helped the perpetrators of the Mumbai carnage reach Indian shores without difficulty.

    The Mumbai terror attack was so immense that it compelled the central government to announce a slew of measures to revamp coastal security, including:

    • entrusting the responsibility of guarding the coast to the Coast Guard and overall responsibility for maritime security to the Indian Navy
    • augmenting manpower and assets of those involved in coastal security such as the Indian Navy, the Coast Guard and the Marine Police force
    • creation of sagar prahari bal, and early procurement of interceptor boats, offshore vessels and helicopters
    • installation of transponders on all sea faring vessels
    • establishment of a chain of radars and AIS (automatic identification system) along the coastline to track approaching vessels
    • issue of unique identity cards to all coastal villagers
    • establishment of joint operation centres for coordination in intelligence sharing.

    A year hence, only a handful of these measures have been fully implemented. These include the operationalisation of four joint operation centres at Mumbai, Visakhapatnam, Kochi and Port Blair, the setting up of a new regional Coast Guard HQ at Gandhinagar, the establishment of 64 coastal police stations, and providing 42 interceptor boats to various coastal police stations. Other measures such as the establishment of the radar network, constitution of sagar prahari baI, acquisition of interceptor boats, offshore patrol vessels and helicopters for the Coast Guard and Navy, are yet to be implemented. The creation of a Maritime Advisory Board with a Maritime Advisor still remains on paper. The issue of lack of coordination between various agencies involved in coastal security also remains unaddressed. Most of the governments in the coastal states remain indifferent to coastal security.

    In this context, the central government has its work cut out. Hastening the process of establishment and operationalisation of the remaining coastal police stations, delivery of 152 interceptor boats and setting up of 15 new Coast Guard stations, resolving the issue of command and control between various agencies, prodding state governments to cooperate and encouraging greater information sharing among them, and plugging various gaps in the coastal security system are some of the important steps it has to undertake immediately. All these efforts will, obviously, take time to bear fruit, as years of neglect cannot be corrected overnight. Most importantly, state governments have to be coaxed and cajoled into actively participating and cooperating with the Centre in a national endeavour to secure India’s coasts.