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Odisha’s Potential Role in Enhancing Security in the Bay of Bengal

Maj Gen Bhabani Das (Retd.) is Chairman of the Orissa Staff Selection Commission.
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  • November 13, 2017

    The Act East Policy and the intent to develop overland communication linkages through the North-Eastern States for enabling the seamless movement of goods and people between the South and South East Asian regions is a strategic necessity for India. This is because the emerging markets in South East Asia and the economies of strategically located countries like Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore along the Strait of Malacca are on an ascending spiral and have the potential to grow at a faster pace if connected with each other. This is a win-win situation for India because it is likely to transform the security situation in the north-eastern region by accelerating economic growth there. Enhanced Indian interaction with South-East Asian countries may also moderate Indian concerns about China’s influence in that region.

    Importance of Bay of Bengal

    As regards the maritime dimension of India’s Act East policy, it is important to note that the access to Southern and Western Asia from Eastern and South-Eastern Asia is through the Indian Ocean. India assumes special significance as movement of vessels in the Indian Ocean can be monitored from the Union Territories of Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep. While India has a pivotal role to play in maintaining and ensuring security in the Indian Ocean as a whole, in recent times China has shown active interest in enhancing linkages and influence in the countries of the Indian Ocean littoral. In this regard, an important area of the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, which is enclosed from three sides by the territories of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar has not escaped Chinese attention. India must wake up to the reality that its Eastern coast needs a different kind of security framework than the Western coast. The growing Chinese interest in Myanmar and Bangladesh, both of which are geo-strategically important as they cover the northern and eastern coastlines of the Bay of Bengal, makes a rethink in this regard imperative to ensure optimal security.

    A Special Force

    On India’s Eastern coastline, only Vishakhapatnam and Chennai are major ports with an adequate naval presence. The gap between Vishakhapatnam and the easternmost point along the coast is large and there is no viable force to safeguard the intervening area. Further, the vast coastal stretch northwards of Vishakhapatnam remains vulnerable given the absence of an adequate force presence up to Kolkata, which is not a seaport. Here, it must be remembered that although Western Naval Command is located in Mumbai with various Naval/Army deployments along the west coast from Goa to Porbandar-Jamnagar, terrorists still managed to penetrate the maritime security cordon on 26/11.

    Given this, in order to adequately guard the vast stretch of the land mass and associated coastline from Vishakhapatnam northward in conjunction with the Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Police of the states, there is a need to place a Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) contingent in the area, which should have amphibious capability as well. This will throw a maritime security arc in the Bay of Bengal to the sea-trade routes from Andhra Pradesh northwards till Myanmar and eastwards towards Thailand till the Strait of Malacca.

    Situating Odisha

    Odisha assumes special significance in this context. By virtue of its location, the state has a wider ‘line of sight’ covering all the places around the Bay. Unknown to many today, Odisha has had a rich maritime tradition and its geostrategic importance stands inadequately appreciated. The famous ‘Bali Jatra’, being observed with pomp and enthusiasm every year in Odisha during autumn, offers a reminder of the seaward forays of Odia sailor-merchants (called Sadhabas) and the nostalgia about it persists till today.

    During the Mauryan era, Emperor Ashoka used Odisha to send out Buddhist preachers to Sri Lanka and to countries of South East Asia. Ashoka’s influence extended from Sri Lanka to the Indonesian islands and even as far as Japan. There were established trade routes connecting Odisha to South East Asian countries. These routes need to be revived. A long coastline, ports, and availability of airfields all make Odisha a strategic asset that provides considerable leverage for securing India’s national interests and enhancing influence in South East Asia. There is also a cultural connect with South East Asian countries that can be revisited and tapped for strengthening the Act East policy.

    In addition to its coastline, ports and airfields, Odisha is also rich in mineral resources. Recent years have seen an appreciable infrastructure build-up in the state, the establishment of major steel plants and an oil refinery at Paradip, and the inclusion of Bhubaneswar in the list of the national plan for establishing Smart Cities. Further, Odisha is home to strategic installations such as the Chandipur missile testing range, Abdul Kalam Island, storage of strategic reserves of petroleum, IOCL Refinery at Paradip and steel industries. It must be appreciated that along with economic development, security threats also multiply. The recent terror related activities in the state, especially since 2015, show that Odisha is on the radar of global terrorist groups. Given all this, the presence of active military units carrying out regular training manoeuvres (even if it is for enhanced coastal security) should deter such groups.

    The Indian Navy is already engaged in the Sagar project and is planning to raise its security quotient along the West Bengal Coast by building facilities at Tajpur to deal with possible threats emanating from the north and east of the Bay. However, in view of the discussion above, there is a growing need for a military presence in the space between Vishakhapatnam-Andaman and Sagar Project/Tajpur, which can operate in coordination with the Navy and Air Force as a rapid reaction force (RRF). Such a force can focus on physical area domination, protection of possible landing sites, coordination with friendly neighbours and ‘add on’ to the taskforce in the Andaman Islands and greatly consolidate India’s security efforts in the Bay of Bengal. In the background of the recent terrorist action in Bangladesh and subsequent crack-down, the possibility of the migration of such radical elements to the coastal areas of Digha, Chandipur, IOCL at Paradip, Konark, or even Puri cannot be ruled out. Remaining underprepared for such potential threats will only add to our embarrassment if they ensue.

    The proposed force contingent must have the capability for beach landing, air transportation and a small detachment of Special Forces for high-risk missions. Accordingly, various components of the task force need to be adequately equipped and trained. As a corollary, such a contingent can also augment the capacity of the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) in the region.

    Leveraging Odisha’s location

    It is time to develop Odisha as a strategically important state and effectively use its location for security, surveillance and domination of the East coast with electronic and physical capabilities of all three services in conjunction with the Coast Guard and the state machinery. The fallout of all this will be enhanced national capabilities in multiple spheres and the provision of an impetus to Odisha’s development.

    As regards military training, Odisha provides the best possible menu in terms of types of terrain and weather conditions. While the temperature soars to 48-49 degrees Celsius in summer, in winter the mercury drops to the single digits in the western part of the state. Rivers provide water bodies and the state’s coastline is ideal for amphibious training. The state’s hills, with their jungles, offer the desired level of difficulty for combat orientation.

    The shortest aerial route from Delhi to Port Blair passes through Odisha. A dedicated force contingent, as proposed above, will give quality protection to national assets, and help promote the national interest in the neighbourhood. Moreover, the access routes to the Bay of Bengal by any hostile sea-borne elements can be better monitored by such a dedicated joint services task force, which will also provide a launchpad for and synergy to the forces in the Andamans.

    On the internal security front, the approximately 475 km-long long coastline will experience better security. It will provide better preparedness for emergencies like the 1999 super cyclone. At the same time, Odisha will also benefit in terms of development of infrastructure such as airfields, surface connectivity and construction of military stations. Needless to add, all this would generate employment opportunities for locals in various projects and boost economic activity.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.