Thursday, 15 September 2011

Defence Minister wants maritime security stakeholders to get their act together

At a coastal security review meeting yesterday, Defence Ministry AK Antony reportedly told all stakeholders in maritime security that there was no room for “delay or slackness” and that unless all the agencies concerned worked together, “there would be no real progress”.

The Ministry of Home Affairs had earlier told the Indian parliament that threats to major coastal cities from pan-Islamist terrorist groups continued to exist- but that India was prepared to respond to these. Mr Antony had been pushed by MPs to answer questions on maritime security particularly after the Pavit and Wisdom incidents, but analysts say that the security situation is far from being under control. Reports indicate that joint exercises conducted along the coastline, including the May 'Sagar Kavach' exercises, have thrown up glaring loopholes in coastal security, elements of which remain underfunded, staffed with ill-equipped and poorly trained personnel, besides suffering from serious co-ordination problems.

These drills have exposed the lack of preparedness even in a sensitive state like Maharashtra that has suffered at least twice- in 1993 and 2008- because of terrorism or terrorists that came in from the Arabian Sea. In recent exercises, says the Asian Age in a report, major breaches in the State's maritime security went unchecked. These included landing of hijacked boats at Badhwar Park, Uttan Jetty and Juhu Beach in Mumbai; an attack at Ratnagiri Port using a hijacked boat and the hijacking of a cargo ship from Mumbai anchorage.

The Indian Navy and the Coast Guard are supposed to be working closely with various State coastal security agencies, but observers say that poor coordination between agencies and inadequate attention paid to the functioning of the system on the ground are just two holes in the system. Coastal police stations often have inadequate manpower or interceptor boats; even when they do, they sometimes do not have enough fuel or funds and lack properly trained personnel for sea operations. Jurisdictions are hazy at the coastal police station level and there is considerable confusion with regard to information sharing between coastal police, the coast guard and the navy. Another report says, "Whatever coordination or information sharing takes place between the three agencies is largely based on personal rapport between the concerned officers. But this rapport has to be institutionalised."

The navy and the government are putting a brave on the Wisdom and Pavit incidents. Some of the reasons they claim that the Pavit went undetected are almost bizarre- they say this happened because the Pavit was reported sunk weeks ago, that her drift path was not covered by radar and that her AIS was off. The government says that new measures to strengthen coastal security have been initiated, including improving surveillance, enhanced patrolling and continuous monitoring of the system.

Maharashtra has a coastline of 720 km, a creek-line of 1,000 km, 16 islands, 2 major and 48 minor ports. It has about 23,000 fishing vessels and about 250,000 fishermen with 631 landing points for them.  These are massive statistics. It will require a sea change in what an analyst calls the security agencies 'land centric outlook' if we are to guarantee the State's coastal security. The fear remains that if the agencies are struggling to secure the sensitive and important Maharashtra coast- that is usually in the spotlight- then the situation elsewhere in India is likely to be worse.

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