Author : Abhijit Singh

Originally Published 2018-11-26 08:50:37 Published on Nov 26, 2018
After 26/11: Why India’s coastal security project remains a work in progress a decade later

The tenth anniversary of the 26/11 attacks calls for an assessment of India’s coastal security preparedness. The incident still scars the collective consciousness of Indian security agencies, where many officials believe the terrorists’ breach of Mumbai’s coastal cordon was a tragic slip-up.

In its aftermath, the attack triggered a radical overhaul of India’s coastal defence architecture, prompting a three tier security arrangement, with the navy, the coast guard, and the marine police jointly safeguarding India’s near seas. An existing Coastal Security Scheme (originally instituted in 2005) was expedited, with greater fund allocations for coastal infrastructure, including police stations and radar stations along India’s coastline.

A decade later, the coastal security project remains a work in progress. Despite some success in key areas, the littoral apparatus remains riddled with loopholes. As a recent CAG audit report pointed out, a majority of the projects are lagging, with only a fraction of the allocated funds utilised properly. Meanwhile, persistent flaws in the existing architecture threaten to unravel gains made in recent years. From the under-utilisation of patrol boats to delays in the creation of shore-based infrastructure, through to manpower shortages and unspent funds, the report paints a dreary picture of coastal policing in India’s near seas.

One reason for the uneven nature of the coastal security narrative has been the differing priority of maritime security agencies. With an expansive conception of maritime security, the Indian navy views big ticket initiatives as the way forward. From joint operational exercises, to the setting up of coastal radar chains, the National Command and Control Communications Intelligence Network (N3CIN) and a maritime domain awareness plan, the navy considers high profile undertakings as the real measure of success in securing the littorals.

In comparison, coast guard officers sound more circumspect, cautioning against an overestimation of progress. While acknowledging improvements in force strength and inter-agency cooperation, the latter emphasise the structural nature of challenges, which, they insist are hard to address through high technology initiatives alone. What doesn’t still quite work, they point out, are near-coastal patrols, and a marine police unwilling to fully integrate into the coastal security chain. It doesn’t help that state governments remain largely disinterested in the endeavour.

A second flaw is the continuing absence of an apex maritime authority in India. The involvement of a large number of maritime agencies requires a full-time coastal security manager. Even though the National Committee for Strengthening Maritime and Coastal Security (NCSMCS) has been moderately effective in coordinating matters related to coastal security, officials say, it is at best an ad hoc arrangement. Unfortunately, a coastal security bill with a proposal to form a National Maritime Authority (NMA) has been caught in red tape since 2013.

Meanwhile port security and coastal fisheries management continues to be sub-par. According to a 2016 report, out of India’s 227 minor ports, 180 have minimal security, with 75 having no security cover at all. Many Indian ports do not also comply with the International Ships and Ports Facility (ISPS) Code that prescribes measures to protect all ships and vessels against acts of terrorism. Beyond lacking basic security gear – such as radiation detection equipment – a majority of Indian ports accept no liability for failure to provide safety measures against terrorist acts. Oddly, there is no comprehensive Indian law that outlines such a need.

This is not to suggest a breakdown of order in coastal waters. Security presence in the littoral seas has improved considerably, with frequent exercises between the navy, a much strengthened coast guard, Customs and other agencies. The inclusion of the fishing community – as the “eyes and ears” of coastal security establishment – has been a clear positive, even if authorities are still struggling to install tracking devices on 2.22 lakh fishing boats, that would help identify the latter as friend or foe.

Meanwhile, interoperability between the navy, coast guard and state police has improved considerably, illustrated in ample measure by the “Sagar-Kavach” exercises. According to media reports, Indian security agencies plan to evaluate responses of nine different stakeholders and agencies by undertaking a first full-spectrum test of coastal security in January 2019. This includes non-traditional challenges such as arms and drugs smuggling, human trafficking, IUU fishing and marine pollution.

Yet, many believe the touchstone of India’s coastal security competence lies in the agencies’ ability to deal with the threat posed by Pakistani non-state actors. Last month, an intelligence report indicated that the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was preparing to strike Indian ships and coastal facilities. Pakistani militant commanders are reportedly training their cadres for ‘samundari jihad’ (Seaborne Jihad) in the Indian seas. The threat of militant ‘frogmen’ attacks on Indian shipping has prompted the navy to install layered harbour defensive grids.

Overall, India’s maritime managers appear better prepared for the complexities of coastal security. Beyond upgrading and fine-tuning processes, security planners seem more discerning of unfeasible proposals, such as the creation of a coastal border police force – a central agency with no legal and investigative teeth.

Slowly, but surely a consensus seems to be evolving that the country’s diverse coastal challenges call for a multi-pronged approach and active collaboration between existing agencies, with fully aligned visions, and a unity of purpose.

This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.

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Abhijit Singh

Abhijit Singh

A former naval officer Abhijit Singh Senior Fellow heads the Maritime Policy Initiative at ORF. A maritime professional with specialist and command experience in front-line ...

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