Finally, a national maritime sherpa

ByC Uday Bhaskar
Jul 15, 2021 05:22 PM IST

India’s national maritime coordinator will have to manage the geopolitical, geo-economic, and geo-physical dimensions of the oceans

India’s long neglected maritime domain is poised to be rewired with the appointment of a national maritime security coordinator (NMSC) who, it is understood, will be the principal adviser to the government on issues pertaining to the maritime security domain. The NMSC will be part of a vertical that will work under the national security adviser (NSA) and will hopefully enable the much needed macro harmonisation of the many different ministries and departments at the Centre as well as coastal states that currently regulate and manage India’s vast maritime spectrum.

Representational Image. (File photo) PREMIUM
Representational Image. (File photo)

This is a welcome, albeit long-delayed, initiative. The need to have such an entity overseeing maritime affairs in a holistic manner was mooted in the aftermath of the 26/11 terror attack on Mumbai in November 2008. The tragic sequence of events at that time pointed to a complete lack of timely coordination between the Centre and the state (in that case, Maharashtra) in effectively responding to a major national security threat.

It is a reflection of the glacial pace at which policy correctives are introduced in the national security domain that it has taken 13 years for this proposal to acquire tentative traction. Reports suggest that cabinet approval for this post will soon be accorded.

While coastal security did receive considerable attention and infusion of funds, particularly for the Coast Guard (CG), after 26/11, the need to harmonise the military aspect of coastal security is still a work in progress and the state maritime police units are yet to acquire the necessary capabilities. The recent dissonance between the Navy and the CG will also need redress.

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The fine print of the charter of duties and responsibilities that will devolve on the NMSC will provide more detail about what is envisioned but some broad observations merit attention. Post 26/11, a proposal was mooted for instituting a Maritime Security Adviser (MSA) to be tenanted by a senior naval officer. However, this proposal did the rounds of Delhi’s legendary bureaucratic labyrinth and gradually went off the policy radar. It is understood that the word adviser did not elicit much endorsement at the time, for it seemed to be proximate to that of the NSA.

The maritime sector did receive attention during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee era under the rubric of Sagarmala in 2003 but remained tentative. Subsequently, a national maritime development plan (NMDP) was unveiled by the United Progressive Alliance government in 2005 but this also did not revitalise the sector as planned. The lackadaisical approach to the potential of the oceans continued.

To his credit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi accorded the maritime domain special focus in his first term and, in 2015, coined the acronym SAGAR (security and growth for all in the region) during an Indian ocean island tour. However, this statement of intent needed a robust infrastructure to realise this vision but the bench strength of the cabinet in Modi 1.0 and the frequent change in defence ministers (four incumbents in a five-year term) were impediments.

However, in recent years, there has been a renewed focus on the maritime sector under the aegis of the Niti Aayog and this policy focus on the potential of India’s blue economy is encouraging. The challenge will be in successfully implementing the blue-print and this is where the proposed NMSC could be a catalyst.

On the face of it, the proposal for a principal adviser whose mandate refers to maritime security appears to be an overlap with the current higher defence management. Currently, the chief of naval staff (CNS) has this onerous responsibility. This is now being refined and rearranged with the creation of the post of the chief of defence staff (CDS) and the theatre commanders. A major national security transformation is now on the policy anvil.

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It may be presumed that the NMSC will address the larger spectrum of maritime security in its more holistic definition, for a nation’s comprehensive maritime security (CMS) is much wider than that of hard military/naval security. The latter is part of the geo-strategic and geo-political basket and with the focus on Indo-Pacific and emergence of Quad, this will continue to gain traction. The other two facets of CMS include the geo-economic (trade, energy, fishing, sea-bed mining et al) and the geo-physical (the environmental and ecological determinants subsumed as the health of the oceans).

India’s dependence on the seas and oceans is vast and while trade, connectivity, energy and fishing strands are reasonably well known, the cyber dimension is often ignored. The global cyber-digital connectivity is enabled by a vast maze of underwater cables, as much as it is by infrastructure on terra-firma and the atmosphere leading into space.

Thus, the NMSC will have to review and manage this wide spectrum of maritime challenges and opportunities. The skill of the first coordinator will be critical in revitalising India’s moribund maritime sector.

One statistic is telling. India aspires to be a major economy and a leading power but it does not have a single major port that makes it to the top 30 globally by way of total cargo handled and the port efficiency index.

Indian maritime professionals have bemoaned the fact that their expertise is not harnessed by the policymakers in Delhi and the most competent punctuate the global maritime ecosystem. One hopes that the national maritime sherpa aka NMSC will be the trigger pulse to make SAGAR a reality and judiciously harness India’s vast oceanic potential.

Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar is director of Society for Policy Studies and served as the director of the National Maritime Foundation

The views expressed are personal

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