Post 26/11: Maritime security agencies lone rangers at work?

(This post was planned a day before the second anniversary of the November 26 2008 Mumbai attacks. But a slew of personal and academic commitments held me back)

Seated inside the plush office of a senior commander of a maritime security agency, I asked him if he was satisfied about how maritime supporting infrastructure has evolved ever since those attacks. Very confidently, he replied, “If there is an intelligence tip off today about a suspicious landing anywhere along the western coast, we can seal off the entire coast and nobody can enter without passing through us. But you have to give me a time frame within which such a landing may take place. It can be days or even weeks but not indefinitely.” So that is something for the intelligence agencies to chew on.

I re-phrased my question, asked him if there were issues within his domain which gave him sleepless nights. Looking at the floor, he took  a pause. I knew I had hit the right spot.

He then took me through a list of acquisitions taking place, multi-agency maritime exercises being conducted, government steps to regulate coastal villages by granting them i-cards and the like. “But all this is being negated by the red-tapeism and babugiri of the DG Shipping (Directorate General of Shipping). You media guys only hound us all the time but the bigger culprits are these babus in DG Shipping and state governments who are just not moving on our proposals,” he lamented. This avatar was visibly different from the earlier confident one.

At crossroads? Principal maritime security agencies like the Indian Navy & the Coast Guard feel they are fighting a lonely battle with the bureaucracy not keeping up. Photo: JUGAL PUROHIT

On discussions with officers of the Navy and the Coast Guard, this plaint was corroborated as being the single-most common and gravest sticking point in the enhancement of maritime security framework.

Essentially, the problem that the security forces face can be broken down into four broad features:

a. Merchant Shipping Information System: Primarily, the Navy wants the DG Shipping to enable sharing this data with their servers so that all information on maritime movements of merchant vessels, even those in our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and beyond, can be reflected on their systems. This system is linked with the Automatic Identification System (AIS) which gives data on the vessel’s course, speed, next port of call, tonnage and the like. This, the Navy believes will go a long way in enhancing its Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) and enable it to plan and implement better.

b. Role of a regulator: Ranging from merchant vessels, fishing boats, fishing trawlers, pleasure crafts, barges carrying sand and other materials, they are all out at sea but details on them are not available in one central location. Explained a Coast Guard officer, “We often apprehend sand barges. Shockingly, the crew operating has no license, no identification, little know how, zero equipment and we have a tough time figuring out which government agency has the ownership and registration details so that proper action can be recommended.” Security agencies have conveyed to concerned agencies that all details of maritime traffic be available at one window so that time is not wasted and effective penal action can be taken. Among others, the Maharashtra Maritime Board (MMB) has begun implementation so that a concerted database can be built up.

c. Port security: The level of seriousness with which the country’s two most premier ports treat port safety was revealed during the MSC Chitra – MV Khalijia III collision and subsequent oil spillage. Despite the spill taking place inside the port limits, the Coast Guard and Navy had to swing into action (whereas it is the port which is responsible to fight the spillage if it happens inside port limits). It thus is no surprise that security agencies are worried. In their recommendation to the DG Shipping, the agencies had pressed for the earliest implementation of the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) code. But it is still ‘work in progress’.

Coast Guard Ship Subhadra Kumari Chauhan fighting oil spill emanating from the MSC Chitra, a job which the Mumbai Port Trust should have done. Photo: TUSHAR MANE

d. Unregulated fishing: Ever since a fishing craft, Kuber, was used by the terrorists to evade Indian security agencies and land in Mumbai, the government has woken up to the need to register and regulate fishing activities. Security officials admit that steps albeit reluctantly have been taken in this regard by different coastal states. But a few sticking points remain. Thanks to the fishing community’s potential as a vote bank, several ‘hard steps’ against them are avoided by authorities even when say Coast Guard apprehends an Indian fishing boat, fishing very close to Pakistani waters. “We have highlighted how fishing authorities often stamp blank passes, which the fishermen are required to carry with them at sea. Such an approach negates our measures because tomorrow anyone can go to sea and we can’t do a thing about it,” said a senior officer of  the Navy. In fact, suggestions by agencies to make ‘no fishing zones’ around oil rigs and drilling areas and carve out ‘safety fishing lanes’ while entering the harbour have been gathering dust.

‘Shipping Ministry needs to get its act right’

Above mentioned four key areas have emerged, officers say, not out of some rulebook but out of maritime exercises carried out repeatedly along the country’s 7500km-long coastline. “We do state specific exercises because we need to involve the state police’s marine police and other departments. By this, at any point in time, we are exercising off one state or the other,” said an officer who has taken part in such exercises.

A typical exercise will involve a Red team, the purpose of which is to try and infiltrate using the sea route and Blue team, which prevents them from doing so. All of them are essentially from several government agencies but often are clad in civvies as their role demands.

At the end of every such exercise, a detailed de-briefing is done about what went wrong and where improvements can be done. “It is from here that these strong convictions have emerged and to ignore them would be perilious,” said a senior naval officer. He added that ever since such exercises began, almost 15 months ago, these suggestions have been repeatedly made to agencies like DG Shipping, Ministry of Shipping and concerned state governments and while state governments have moved, it is the Shipping Ministry which needs to act and fast.

DG Shipping: It is happening

When asked, the present Director General of Shipping, Dr Satish B Agnihotri, IAS, said, “At present, we are sharing information with the Coast Guard, if the Navy wants to be linked, let them inform us and we can swiftly involve them as well.” He was referring to the Long Range Identification and Tracking system (LRIT) which keeps a tab on shipping cargo which comes in 1000 nautical miles from any point of our coastline. LRIT indeed is a shot in the arm simply because of the sheer distance it grants you an eye on. Dr Agnihotri added, “Already all Indian flag vessels have signed in for LRIT and we are keeping tab on their movements. About foreign flag vessels, unless they sign the required agreement with us, we may not be able to monitor them.” But there too DG Shipping claims they are trying to sign up more and more number of nations, so that all foreign flag vessels’ positions are known every 6 hrs to our agencies.

On the subject of ISPS, it was informed that survey has begun of which the first round has been completed for 13 major ports and 40-odd non major ports. The survey being conducted by Indian Registrar of Shipping (IRS) will again come up for review this month. At present, however, the stress will remain in implementing ISPS code where EXIM cargo is expected and delivered from. “We are playing the role of a regulator well. if there are any issues, we (including maritime security agencies) can sit together and sort out,” Dr Agnihotri added.

Coastal Security Scheme PART II

The Ministry of Home Affairs-sponsored second leg of Coastal Security Scheme will take off April 2011 onwards. Under the new scheme, 131 Coastal Police Stations, 180-odd vessels alongwith Rs 15 lakh per coastal police stations for computers, stationary etc will be handed out. This scheme will be implemented across the 09 coastal states and 04 union territories at a total cost of Rs 1579 cr. This is in addition to the 73 coastal police stations and 204 vessels included in the first phase of the Coastal Security Scheme.


One thought on “Post 26/11: Maritime security agencies lone rangers at work?”

  1. Your report ‘Post 26/11: Maritime security agencies lone rangers at work? is an important piece of information which needs to be seriously deliberated at the highest decision making levels. It is a tradition that whenever something terrible happens, either the men in uniform or some politicians are at the receiving end.

    But what about the bureaucrats – the colonial baggage inherited by our country and still continues to depend on them. There has not been a single instance post 26/11 or any other terror related incidents where we have made bureaucrats accountable and punished for their timely inaction. This despite knowing that their sitting on vital security related files resulted in the country losing some of the finest policemen in the Mumbai carnage and we continue to loose men and women in North East (NE) and Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).

    Getting on to the serious aspect of coastal security – let me say routine patrolling or sudden aggressive patrolling of the high seas isn’t a wise solution. Remember the perpetrators of 26/11 as well as the sponsors-cum-conspirators in Islamabad don’t believe in the game of fair play. They are an indecent enemy you have and one needs to be always on the guard when one has to confront their designs.

    The seizure of two Pakistani vessels and crew is another grim reminder that enemies across the international waters are making persistent efforts to test your vigil and preparedness. Only time will reveal whether the detained crew are genuine fisher folks or decoys sent to conduct recce.

    Reports after reports and media debates have assured the Indian public that all is fine and the Navy and Coast Guard are monitoring our coast line 24 X7, which is humanely not possible and we don’t have the large Naval infrastructure to do so. But one thing that needs to be done on an urgent basis is to divide the coast line from North Kerala to Gujarat into several zones for better and swift patrolling.

    It is no secret that Pakistan is using the religion card to influence and lure large number of educated Muslim youths from Karnataka and North Kerala. Some of the recent incidents have proved that aspect also. In view of these developments, the Navy and Coast Guard will have to conduct patrols in an unpredicted manner to create an element of surprise for those trying to monitor our movements. Rather than heavily concentrating on the sea lanes stretching from Maharashtra to Gujarat.

    If we can’t prevent these elements crossing the waters on to our coast – atleast we can deter, delay and disrupt their designs by conducting unscheduled aerial as well as sea patrolling thereby making them unsure of their ability to strike at us.

So, what do you think about it?

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