Saturday, 13 June 2009

Maritime Security: Are we ready?

Half a year after the Mumbai attacks, worrying signs.

MUMBAI, June 2: Arms and explosives were smuggled in by sea and used in the 1993 Mumbai attacks. In 2008, terrorists came in using a similar route. Now, more than six months after Mumbai was attacked, analysts are dismayed that the country is still beefing up security measures to enhance coastal security, and that foolproof security systems are far from being in place. Police officials across the country, however, continue to say that they have their ducks in a row now, and are well prepared to counter any threat.

Many disagree, pointing out that China’s quiet offensive in the Indian Ocean, Chinese and Pakistani links and the continued threat from foreign terrorism need tougher and speedier actions. India is in a dangerous neighbourhood today, and is facing direct or indirect threats from China, Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In this regard, recent newspaper reports suggesting that as many as 400 lower level LTTE militants may have infiltrated into India as refugees are worrisome.

To be fair to the administration, sophisticated speedboats with advanced communications equipment have (only) recently been tested at the Versova creek in Mumbai, and will be used by the Thane rural police. However, one more speedboat is still awaited; a total of 28 such boats were envisaged for Mumbai and adjacent coastal areas in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, when a budget of Rs 150 crore was cleared for this purpose. Until now, the rural police in Thane have been patrolling the coastline using fishing trawlers, but this action has had major operational restrictions. Says ADGP Maharashtra, P P Shrivastava now, "We have gone in for the latest technology, latest weapons with better firepower and increased manpower." Additional rural coastal police stations are being setup; fishermen have been co opted into reporting suspicious activity and the Indian Navy and Coast guard are geared to patrol the seas, say other officials. Additional trawlers will be hired as required and law enforcement personnel trained. The question no one seems to be answering is why we are still putting systems and logistics in place half a year after the country’s maritime security was shown up for what it was: a hollow shell.

Further down the coast, in Goa, more interceptor boats have finally been received by the marine police. Built by the Goa Shipyard, these boats should help in patrolling the coastline and rivers there. Capable of operating at 35 knots with a range of 75 miles, these boats carry more than a dozen people on board.

In the South, coastal Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka have been on high alert for some time now, thanks to the Sri Lankan conflict and the thousands of refugees that fled former LTTE controlled areas; it is feared that at least some would have slipped through the porous coastline into India, or have melted in with genuine refugees. Although home ministry officials have said that they are constantly screening anybody found suspicious at refugee camps, others are not so sanguine, pointing out that it is impossible for officials in India to verify the antecedents of boat people who often have no papers on them. Officials know well that this threat exists: Sonia Gandhi and son Rahul were advised against travelling to Tamilnadu during the recent elections by intelligence agencies. The Navy and Coast Guard are supposed to be on high alert.

However, a recent report in DNA India says that the Navy, designated responsible for overall Indian maritime security after the Mumbai attacks, may still be working on a comprehensive maritime security concept for India. Rear Admiral Cheema heads a group of naval ships that will arrive in France at the end of June to, amongst other things, “intensively study French maritime security.” The newspaper quotes a naval official as saying, “We have asked him [Cheema] to study the coastal security concept of France and submit a report."

To many these are clear indications that, more than six months after the carnage in Mumbai, India is still not fully geared to protect its coastline against infiltration.



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