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Our maritime safety is adrift

There was talk of beefing up coastal surveillance after 26/11. But today we remain as vulnerable to terrorist attacks along our coastline as we were in 2008, writes Ajai Sahni.

india Updated: Oct 30, 2013 23:57 IST
Ajai Sahni

It is nearly five years since the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks, which many said would be a turning point in India's policies and strategies on terrorism. Many proud slogans were coined and 'Never again' and 'zero tolerance for terrorism' were the most famous among them.

Pakistan was warned that there would be no talks and no 'normalisation' of relations until the planners of this atrocity, all based in Pakistan, were brought to justice, and 'the infrastructure of terrorism is dismantled'.

It was not many months later that India was importunately approaching Pakistan to restore the 'peace process', despite no evidence of compliance with its 'basic preconditions'.

Within India, slogans like 'never again' and 'zero tolerance' were translated into vaunting rhetoric on strengthening the security system.

With the breach in the 26/11 attacks coming from the sea, there was enormous rhetorical focus on strengthening coastal security, and much has been claimed by governments thereafter of measures taken to secure this objective.

Five years later, however, it would be necessary to concede that, fitful efforts notwithstanding, we remain as vulnerable to terrorist attacks along our coastline as we were in 2008.

The latest and dramatic evidence of this vulnerability came with the discovery of the 390 tonne Seaman Guard Ohio, owned by a private US firm, AdvanFort, which its commander admitted had been functioning undetected as an illegal 'floating armoury' for merchant vessels in Indian territorial waters for 45 days prior to its detention along the Tamil Nadu coastline, on October 12.

Thirty-five weapons, including 34 rifles, one pistol and ammunition were recovered from the vessel.

The vessel was supposedly checked and found clean when it had berthed on August 23 in Kochi, suggesting, either, that the inspection was far from thorough, or that the arms had been acquired in Indian waters before the vessel reached the point of its interception.

Clearly, a terrorist attempt to pass through Indian waters to a target port would take considerably less than 45 days of undetected movement.

There have been a number of such breaches over the past years, the most dramatic of these being three incidents in 2011, when three massive vessels simply drifted into Mumbai, completely unnoticed by the purportedly enhanced vigilance exercised by naval, coast guard and marine police patrols, as well as by the numerous coastal police stations, check-posts, outposts and land patrols that had been established after the 26/11 attacks.

On June 12, 2011, a Singapore-flagged cargo ship, MV Wisdom, en route to Alang in Gujarat, drifted towards the Mumbai coast after breaking its tug, and eventually ran aground on the busy Juhu Beach in Mumbai, at which stage it was noticed by citizens, long before any security agency took cognisance of it.

Again, on July 30, 2011, a Panama flagged ship, MV Pavit, which had been abandoned by its crew a month earlier near Oman, drifted onto the Juhu Beach.

Thereafter, on August 4, 2011, an oil tanker, MV Rak, again from Panama, with 60,000 metric tonnes of coal and 340 tonnes of fuel oil on board, entered Indian waters unchallenged, and sank just 20 nautical miles off the Mumbai coast, causing a major oil spill.

If Mumbai itself, the target of the 26/11 attacks, remains so open to the undetected movement, not of little fishing vessel or dhows, but of massive commercial sea transport vehicles, it must be abundantly clear that India's 7,516 km-long coastline and over two million square km exclusive economic zone, across nine states, dotted with 13 major and 185 minor ports, remain entirely susceptible to terrorist attack even today.

Official sources insist that there has been 'significant increase in the coastal surveillance patrols by naval and coast guard ships and aircraft', and that four joint operations centres have been established by the Navy at Mumbai, Visakhapatnam, Kochi and Port Blair, to ensure coordination among the Navy, Coast Guard and State Marine Police. Numerous coastal police stations and posts have been established, and many high-speed vessels have been purchased and deployed.

While substantial expenditures have certainly been incurred on these various initiatives, the systems are far from functional and effective. A CAG report released in July further compounded a critique of failing systems that the same organisation had submitted to Parliament in 2011.

The report was scathing in its observations on procurement, ageing vessels and manpower shortages, noting '72% of the fast patrol vessels (FPVs)/inshore patrol vessels (IPVs), 47% of the advanced offshore patrol vessels (AOPVs) and 37 interceptor boats (IBs) were either on extended life or their extended life had expired...'

Many of the coastal police stations and posts sanctioned had not been established. Sea patrolling was a fraction of the prescribed frequency, and there had been no night flying. 'Out of the 50 CCPs (coastal check-posts) and COPs (costal outposts) completed, 36 remained non-operational as police personnel were not deployed…'

Worse, even if all these measures had been fully implemented and operational efficiencies ensured, we would remain as vulnerable. The very core of any effective system of coastal defence is not the number of patrols, but the capacity to detect and interdict the entry and illegal movement of ships and boats in Indian waters.

In the immediate aftermath of 26/11, the necessity of fitting GPS devices on all boats and fishing vessels plying in the high seas, a protocol for registration of routes of each vessel, and a surveillance and radar system to identify any illegal entrants and deviant vessel, had been repeatedly emphasised.

No such system is yet in place, and even the 'satellite-based vessels tracking and warning device system, sanctioned at a cost of `46.16 crore in May 2008, to caution fishermen before approaching international boundary, was not established.'

India's coastline is vast and unless there is a GPS tagging system to identify those whose presence is legitimate, it is impossible, irrespective of the intensity of patrolling, to identify the interloper or deviant. The process of securing India's coastline, consequently, is yet to begin.

Ajai Sahni is executive director, Institute for Conflict Management and South Asia Terrorism Portal

The views expressed by the author are personal