Saturday was the eighth anniversary of 26/11, an incident that still scars India’s collective consciousness as a tragedy of unmitigated proportions. In its aftermath, the attack triggered a security catharsis leading to a radical overhaul of the Indian coastal defense apparatus. 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. An 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 infusion, with more funds for more manpower, ships, surveillance assets, and interceptor boats.
Additionally, radar stations and surveillance infrastructure were set up along the coastline. Joint Operation Centers (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, attempts were made to co-opt the fishing community in a larger endeavor to keep India’s littoral regions safe.
Almost a decade later, however, India’s coastal security project still remains a work in progress. Despite success in some key areas, the security apparatus remains riddled with critical gaps. As two recent Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) audits reveal, flaws in the existing architecture persist, threatening to unravel the gains of recent years. From the underutilization of patrol boats to delays in the creation of shore-based infrastructure, manpower shortages, and unspent funds, the audit report underscores 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 CG 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 agency have tended to vary, as has their understanding 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 Center (IMAC), the navy considers high profile undertakings as the real measure of success of the coastal project. Consequently, naval operational commanders tend to see the coastal security glass as being “half full.”
In comparison, the Coast Guard (CG) officers offer a conservative estimate of coastal security, cautioning against an overestimation of progress made. While acknowledging improvements in the security architecture – particularly interagency cooperation – CG officers emphasize 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 as well as 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 toward coastal security. Indeed, barring Tamil Nadu (a state with the experience of fighting LTTE Sea Tigers) hardly any other state administration has responded suitably to the needs of littoral security.
A second failing is the continuing absence of an apex maritime authority in India. 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.
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 Indian Coast Guard, Coastal Security Group, Customs and Central Industrial Security Force has shown considerable improvement. The inclusion of the fishing community during these interactions – as the “eyes and ears” of 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, 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 threat, as well as the assiduous cultivation of sources for human intelligence — is unwittingly discounted.
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 on-board transponders. In contrast, state maritime board officials (for instance in Gujarat) have favored 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 on-board transponders to track their often illegal fishing activity.
For the Navy and Coast Guard, however, the biggest upside has been their improved interoperability. The enhanced synergy in the operational domain has also reflected in their interactions with other maritime agencies – notably the coastal police. Meanwhile, the setting up of the National Marine Police Training Institute in Dwarka, Gujarat, and State Marine Police Training Centers in the Police Training Academies of state and union territories has shown promise for enhanced Navy-CG-Police coordination in littoral spaces.
India’s maritime security agencies are coming to realize 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, but also a unity of operational action.
For it may well be the case that the only reason India has been safe since 26/11 is because the country hasn’t been seriously tested.
Abhijit Singh is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Fellow in New Delhi.