A Russian yacht recently entered Indian waters without authorisation and, undetected, dropped anchor barely 500 metres from the shore near a location no less prominent than the Gateway of India in Mumbai. Till this point, it had escaped security scrutiny. This is eight and a half years after the 26/11 attacks, which were initiated after infiltration from the sea, and after coastal security was declared to be one of India’s highest counter-terrorism priorities.
The 390-tonne US-owned Seaman Guard Ohio, operated undetected as an illegal anti-piracy ‘floating armoury’ in Indian waters for 45 days, prior to its detention off Tuticorin on the Tamil Nadu coastline on October 12, 2013, while illicitly refuelling on subsidised diesel.
In 2011, three massive vessels drifted into Mumbai, unnoticed by the multiple layers of security purportedly established after 26/11. They included the container ship MV Wisdom, with a deadweight of 7,025 tonnes, which drifted onto Juhu Beach that June; the 1,000-tonne MV Pavit, a month later, which ran aground at roughly the same location. In the latter case, the police were informed well in advance by local fishermen of the drifting transport, but failed to respond for nearly 14 hours. Again, that August, MV Rak, carrying 60,000 metric tonnes of coal and 340 tonnes of fuel oil, sank 20 nautical miles off Mumbai, causing a major oil spill.
These may appear to be occasional aberrations — but so was 26/11. These incredible incidents demonstrate that existing coastal security systems lack the capacities to detect and respond to a breach by relatively massive vessels, leave alone the detection and neutralisation of a terrorist infiltration on a small fishing boat.
While we may take consolation in the fact that there have been no subsequent attacks from the sea since 2008, the sobering reality is that our vulnerabilities remain undiminished, despite numerous proclamations of improvements and hundreds of crores spent.
A six-year Coastal Security Scheme (Phase 1) was implemented between 2005 and 2011 at a total cost of Rs 646 crore, to establish a network of coastal police stations, check posts and outposts, backed by an array of interceptor boats and motor vehicles, as well as a range of other equipment. A second phase, originally intended for completion in 2016, with a sanctioned outlay of Rs 1,579 crore, remains substantially incomplete.
Over the three years between 2014 and 2017, the total expenditure on strengthening coastal security totalled a paltry Rs 110.73 crore, and some of this money has been poorly spent. An October 2016 Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report noted that in Odisha “as against patrolling of at least 81,000 hours during 2012-15 as per norm, the actual patrolling hours were only 2,805 hours (3.46 %). The shortfall in patrolling hours ranged from 93.43 to 99.44 %.” In Maharashtra in late 2016, of 19 projected coastal police stations, work was yet to start on seven; of 2,134 personnel appointed there, just 916 had been trained by the Coast Guard as intended, and 57 % of the total could not swim; of 61 functional boats available, 34 did not have GPS devices; and, of 426 bulletproof jackets required, 170 were available.
Several institutional changes have been brought about to improve coordination and intelligence, including a three-tiered security mechanism under the coordination of the Indian Navy, and a specialised desk in the Intelligence Bureau to handle maritime intelligence. A biometric identity card scheme for fishermen and a colour coding scheme for their boats has been partly implemented, with glaring deficits. A coastal surveillance system of 74 automatic identification system (AIS) receivers and 46 radars is due to be expanded to plug remaining gaps.
Among a range of glaring lacunae, the greatest is the absence of a comprehensive system for identifying all vessels in Indian waters. The AIS is only effective if every such vessel is fitted with a transponder. At present, a notification has been issued for all vessels above 20 metres to be fitted with transponders, and has been partially implemented. There is no provision for vessels below this length — which constitute a majority of all boats in coastal waters at any point of time, and would be the likely transport to be used by terrorists.
Governments continue to congratulate themselves on the ‘comparatively better’ coastal security as a result of their erratic efforts, but the reality is, we are safe more because of the shifting priorities and calculus of our enemies, than because of any dramatic reduction in our vulnerabilities.