For most part of his two hour long press conference, Admiral Devendra Kumar Joshi, Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) seldom launched himself into a response with gusto. Perhaps a mark of well preparedness from his public relations team, hardly any question thrown his way invigorated him. But there was one moment which stood out.
Addressing his second annual ‘Navy Day’ press conference, Admiral Joshi was asked for his perspective on continuing designation of ‘High Risk Area’, an International Maritime Organisation (IMO) zoning based on the extent of impact of the now rapidly declining Somalian piracy – a zone which unfortunately for India, extends right till her western coast.
He drew himself back a little before re-launched himself, as if he had been awaiting this question. What he then went on to say came across as the biggest possible warning that a repeat of November 26 Mumbai attacks, or something much worse, is more closer than to hitting India than what people would like to believe.
It was a little complex but he began.
“The net effect of this HRA which is virtually touching our west coast is that most merchant vessels transiting now feel compelled to sail by hugging our coast, something that they have no reason to do. In the last two years, we have demonstrated that no piracy attack has taken place 450km from our coastlines. Yet HRA remains, making us all pay more towards insurance. Mentally also it is not a comfortable feeling,” he stated. This situation then brings in the spectre of private armed guards who provide security to merchant vessels.
“Entirely unregulated,” is how he described floating armouries from which these guards operate. “Each of these armouries should have an IMO number and all littoral states should be given all information on the movement of arms and armed personnel onboard. Today, not a single nation has a handle on that,” he declared. “Today all of this has become a loose-knit structure with obvious security implications for us,” he added.
What the chief essentially wanted to say was the very close to the coast of India there are armed men moving onboard ships which your navy or the nation have no information on. If even one group of such men turn rogue then there is a high degree of damage.
If that did not scare you, here is more. “Navy has information that ‘combatants’ (read as serving armed forces personnel) are also taking up temporary jobs onboard such vessels,” he stated without identifying which countries he was referring to. With the chief having spoken on this, senior naval officers did not want to elaborate on this any further. Whether he was referring to the radicalized serving elements of the Pakistani armed forces is something that was not clear.
“What the chief has said is that we have no clue on the number of arms, ammunition, armed men onboard floating around our waters. Read this with the fact that our coastal security net is still nascent and you have a sure-shot cause for concern,” said an officer.
Admiral Joshi, when asked if the maritime wing of the Lashkar-e-Toiba was active on Pakistani soil, in training more cadres for a maritime assault on India, he nodded and replied, “There are groups with interests inimical to India. We are closely monitoring them to the extent possible in terms of getting intelligence.”
When this situation was put before the Ministry of Shipping, which undertakes regulation in this relevant sector, no formal response was provided. Staff at the residence of shipping minister GK Vasan said he was traveling. An official contacted at his ministry admitted to there being ‘hardly any regulations’ and admitted to a ‘incident-specific, reactive approach’. “There are measures still under considerations. Navy has suggested many initiatives and we hope some of them will be in place soon,” he replied.
In a nutshell:
1. Work order and by implication, the job of salvaging the sunk submarine INS Sindhurakshak may just be announced any day now as the navy is about to conclude final set of negotiations with three firms which have submitted commercial bids.
2. Aircraft Carrier Vikrant, under construction at Cochin Shipyard is likely to join the navy by 2017.
3. Navy to soon take a call on the future of INS Viraat, India’s sole operational aircraft carrier as keeping her afloat is costing the navy a lot given its ageing hull and maintenance of Sea Harriet jets.
4. All 45 ships of the Indian Navy under construction are being built at Indian shipyards, private and public thus marking a high point in the indigenization program.
5. A draft coastal security bill has been prepared which looks at strengthening coordination between centre and state on the subject. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) will steer this.