In a recent statement to the parliament, the Minister for State for Home Affairs stated that threats to major coastal cities from pan-Islamist terrorist outfits continue to exit. And he added that the government is ably prepared to respond to such threats. Notwithstanding such a claim by the government, doubts about the robustness of India’s coastal security mechanism continue to linger; doubts that have been proven right by a series of events off the Mumbai coast in the last few months.
Firstly, on June 12, 2011, a cargo ship M V Wisdom which was en route to Alang in Gujarat drifted towards the Mumbai coast after breaking its tug and eventually got stranded in Juhu beach. This incident was followed by another involving a Panama flagged ship, M V Pavit, which ran aground near Juhu beach on July 30, 2011 after having been abandoned by its crew a month earlier near Oman. The most worrisome part in this episode was the fact that this ship drifted in the Indian territorial waters for nearly 100 hours and remained undetected by the navy, the coast guard and the coastal police - the three agencies entrusted with the responsibility of coastal security. A few days later, on August 4, 2011, yet another Panama flagged oil tanker, M V Rak with 60,000 metric tonnes of coal and 340 tonnes of fuel oil on board sank off the coast of Mumbai. The sinking ship discharged more than 25 tonnes of oil resulting in a major oil spill and thereby endangering marine life in the area.
These incidents of ships running aground, adrift and undetected off the coast of Mumbai have added a new dimension to the existing coastal security concerns. Mumbai and its adjoining coastal areas are no strangers to such breaches by anti-national elements, and they have endured the consequences for decades. The most spectacular was the November 26, 2008 incident when 10 terrorists from Pakistan landed in Mumbai’s shores and carried out one of the most horrendous terror attacks in the world. A similar terror attack was carried on 15 years earlier when a series of bomb blasts devastated Mumbai. The explosives used in these blasts were smuggled in through the Raigad coast. In addition, Mumbai and its adjoining coasts have remained a favoured route for large scale smuggling of gold and silver in yester years and drugs, arms and explosives in recent years.
The government’s approach towards coastal security has always been reactive and top down. Corrective measures were undertaken only after a major incident and implemented without preparing the environment at the ground level and thus enable them to function effectively. To begin with, large-scale smuggling along the western coast had compelled the government to establish the coast guard in August 1978 with a mandate to protect the maritime and national interests of the country as well as to assist in anti-smuggling operations. But the 1993 serial blasts in Mumbai highlighted the fact that an inadequately manned and ill-equipped coast guard alone cannot safeguard the coasts. Instead of addressing the fundamental issue of lack of manpower and inadequate equipment, the Indian government launched a new scheme to cater for the terror challenge. This was Operation Swan, launched in August 1993 to prevent clandestine landings along the Maharashtra and Gujarat coasts. It was a three layer security arrangement involving the navy, the coast guard and a joint patrolling team drawn from personnel belonging to the navy, coast guard, state police, and customs. While the underlying idea appears doable, the fact remains that Operation Swan has not resulted in a single seizure even after being for 18 years. Inadequate attention paid to overcome the basic problems of coordination, manpower, equipment, and motivation among the various concerned agencies at the ground level has been the main reason for this failure.
Even as Operation Swan was in progress, the Indian government launched yet another ambitious project - the Coastal Security Scheme in 2005, which involved setting up a series of coastal police stations to strengthen the surveillance infrastructure along the coast. The scheme was, however, a non starter because the coastal states did not display any enthusiasm in implementing it as they did not perceive any threat to their coasts. Despite Mumbai being a preferred target of the terrorists, Maharashtra too implemented the scheme only in a piecemeal manner. Moreover, the decision to set up coastal police stations with a mandate to patrol shallow waters gave an excuse for the navy to withdraw from joint patrolling immediately. Thus, coastal defence along Mumbai was rendered weak, giving an opportunity for the terrorists to strike.
The severity of the 26/11 incident compelled the Indian government to take several measures to overhaul the coastal security apparatus. Yet again it insisted that the navy and the coast guard should pool their resources to guard India’s territorial and coastal waters. It also instructed the state governments to establish coastal police stations and ensure that manpower and interceptor boats were provided to them.
Over the last two years, various measures to strengthen coastal security have begun to be gradually implemented. For instance, the navy has assumed the responsibility of coastal security and has set up four joint operation centres for better coordination. It has also increased surveillance patrols along the coast and has been conducting several joint coastal security exercises. The coast guard, likewise, has set up five coast guard stations along with a regional and a divisional head quarter and is in the process of setting up four more stations. It has also inducted several offshore patrol vessels which have helped in stepping up patrolling along the coasts and territorial waters. Similarly, under the coastal security scheme, 72 coastal police stations have been operationalised and an additional 154 police stations are in the process of being established in two phases. Around 183 interceptor boats have been provided to the police stations and their manpower is being enhanced.
However, incidents of ships drifting in the country’s territorial waters undetected raise questions about the effectiveness of all these measures. Here, it is important to reiterate that the problem lies not in the measures adopted but in the inadequate attention paid to the functioning of the system at the ground level where the actual action takes place. For example, a series of coastal police stations have been operationalised, with some having adequate manpower and interceptor boats. Still these police stations have been unable to function effectively which was evident during the MV Pavit incident. There are reasons behind such failure.
Firstly, sufficient attention has not been paid to provide these police stations with essential requirements such as proper training to their personnel for sea operations, adequate fuel and funds for the running and maintenance of the boats, buildings for police stations, etc. Secondly, the respective jurisdictions of the coastal police stations and police stations located near the shores have not been communicated clearly to the personnel on the ground, leading to widespread confusion. Thirdly, information sharing and coordination between the marine police, coast guard and navy remain a problem. At present whatever coordination or information sharing takes place between the three agencies is largely based on personal rapport between the concerned officers. But this rapport has to be institutionalised. And most importantly, if India’s coastal security has to become strong, it is essential for the police forces in the coastal states to shed their land centric outlook and turn their attention to coastal security duties as well.