The only reason India may feel safe after 26/11 is because we haven’t been seriously tested yet

The crimson tide.
The crimson tide.
Image: AP/Rafiq Maqbool
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The eighth anniversary of the 26/11 Mumbai carnage gives us a fitting opportunity to review the state of India’s coastal security.

On that fateful November day in 2008, some 10 Pakistani terrorists entered the city taking the sea route, and attacked major public and commercial centres. They killed over 150 people, jolting India’s political and security establishment.

In the aftermath of the assault, the national coastal defence apparatus was radically overhauled. A three-tier security arrangement was put in place, with the Indian Navy, the coast guard, and the marine police jointly tasked with safeguarding India’s maritime zones. As the lead agency, the Indian Navy took on the task of protecting the outermost tier. The Indian Coast Guard was assigned the responsibility for sanitising the intermediate layer extending up to the 12 nautical mile limit of the territorial waters, while the marine police would secure the innermost tier, comprising the shallow coast and inland waters.

The existing Coastal Security Scheme (instituted in 2005) was supplemented with plans to build more coastal police stations and surveillance infrastructure. The coast guard’s budget received a substantial impetus, with more funds for additional manpower, ships, surveillance assets, and interceptor boats. Beyond the strengthening of the coast guard and marine police, radar stations were set-up and automatic identification systems installed along the coastline. Joint operation centres (JOCs) began monitoring maritime activity in the near-seas, even as information banks and intelligence networks were created to detect any signs of subversion along the coastal waters. Meanwhile, the fishing community was sought to be co-opted in a larger endeavour to keep India’s littoral spaces safe.

However, eight years after its inception, India’s coastal security project remains a work in progress.

Flaws in the security architecture

Despite success in some key areas, the security apparatus remains riddled with critical gaps. As two recent Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) audits have revealed, flaws in the existing architecture persist, threatening to unravel the gains of recent years. From the under-utilisation of patrol boats to delays in the creation of shore-based infrastructure, manpower shortages, and unspent funds, the audit reports underscore the dismal state of coastal policing in India’s near-seas. Meanwhile, despite investing considerable resources, energy and capital in coastal security, the navy and coast guard have struggled to bridge the deficit.

Part of the problem is the uneven nature of the coastal security narrative—in which the priorities of each maritime agencies have varied considerably—and also the interpretation of what constitutes progress.

With an inherently expansive vision of maritime security, the Indian navy views big-ticket initiatives as the essential building blocks of the security architecture. From joint exercises in the Arabian Sea to the setting up of coastal radar chains, the National Command and Control Communications Intelligence Network (N3CIN), the Maritime Domain Awareness plan, and the Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC), the navy considers high-profile undertakings as the real measure of success in the coastal project. Consequently, naval operational commanders tend to see the coastal security glass as being “half full.”

In comparison, the coast guard officers are more circumspect about the prevailing state of affairs, cautioning against an overestimation of progress made. While acknowledging improvements in the security architecture—particularly inter-agency cooperation—coast guard officers emphasise the structural nature of security challenges, which they insist cannot be addressed through high-technology initiatives alone.

In their telling, coastal security remains unsatisfactory because of the failure of near-coastal patrols—particularly the inability of marine police to keep track of coastal fishing activity and also their unwillingness to integrate fully into the coastal security chain.

For some observers, the marine police’s lackluster showing is a symptom of the state governments’ larger apathy towards coastal security. Indeed, barring Tamil Nadu (a state with experience of fighting LTTE sea-tigers), hardly any other state administration has responded suitably to the needs of littoral security.

But state governments are also increasingly unwilling to play a part in coastal patrolling. Earlier this year, Devendra Fadnavis, the chief minister of Maharashtra, proposed the setting up of a Central Marine Police Force during a coastal security meet.  Endorsed by other chief ministers present in the meeting, his proposal was accepted by the union home minister who saw merit in the argument for a dedicated coastal security agency. Yet, as anyone that has been involved in coastal security will explain, state administrations play a crucial role in littoral security initiatives. The plan to substitute the state police with a central maritime force is inherently ill-judged because it ignores structural impediments, such as the lack of local intelligence and regional language skills, which no central agency is likely to ever overcome.

No apex authority

A second failing is the continued absence of an apex maritime authority. The involvement of a large number of maritime agencies (over 15) requires a full-time coastal security manager. Even though the National Committee for Strengthening Maritime and Coastal Security (NCSMCS) has been fairly effective in coordinating matters related to coastal security, it is at best an ad-hoc arrangement. Unfortunately, the coastal security bill with a proposal to form a National Maritime Authority (NMA) has been caught in red tape since 2013.

But this is not to suggest a total absence of order in the coastal domain. Recent years have witnessed a surge in security presence in the littoral seas, even as the frequency of joint exercises between teams of the Indian coast guard, marine police, and Customs and Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) has shown considerable improvement. The inclusion of the fishing community during these interactions—as the “eyes and ears” of the coastal security establishment—has been a noteworthy development.

Most operational drills, however, have tended to focus on the terrorist infiltration threat. While the emphasis on preventing the recurrence of a 26/11 type incident is understandable, threats such as arms and narcotics smuggling, human trafficking, illegal-unreported-unregulated (IUU) fishing, climate-induced crises, and maritime pollution have received less attention.

Some wrongly assume that satellite surveillance is the answer to all the ills that plague the near-seas. The importance of operational intelligence sharing, the physical preparedness of personnel and ships to tackle a diverse array of threats, and the assiduous cultivation of sources for human intelligence is unwittingly discounted.

Enhanced cooperation

In some key areas, disagreements have come to the fore. On e-surveillance and boat identification, for instance, security agencies have advocated the active tracking of individual fishing boats through onboard transponders. In contrast, state maritime board officials (for instance in Gujarat) have favoured satellite tracking systems. The latter have not always been motivated by operational considerations. As some maritime watchers have pointed out, the political class has been led by the need to protect the fishing community–a core electoral vote-bank–from the prying eyes of security agencies, who fishermen believe could use the signals from onboard transponders to track their often illegal fishing activity.

For the navy and coast guard, however, the biggest upside has been their improved inter-operability. The enhanced synergy in the operational domain is also reflected in their interactions with other maritime agencies—notably the marine police, the CISF, and the Customs and Fisheries Department. Many naval and coast guard commanders are hopeful that the setting up of National Marine Police Training Institute in Dwarka (Gujarat) and State Marine Police Training centers in the police training academies of state and union territories will enhance Navy-coast guard-police coordination in littoral spaces.

India’s maritime security agencies are coming to realise that the coastal security transformation is likely to be a complex and long-drawn affair. With a diversity of challenges and multiplicity of agencies involved, a “business as usual” model is unlikely to succeed. Not only do the deficiencies that plague the system require cooperation, coordination, and an alignment of vision, they also need a unity of operational action.

For it may well be the case that the only reason we have been safe since 26/11 is because we haven’t been seriously tested yet.

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