(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.
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’.
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.