The heinous 26 November 2008 attack on Mumbai ten years ago by a group of terrorists of Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, who came by the sea route without being detected, exposed many weaknesses and lacunae in India’s coastal security. The attack shook the government into realising the urgent need to greatly tighten the security of India’s long coastline of 7,600 km, including its island territories and 2,000,000 square km of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
The then home minister was changed and a beginning was made by the ministries of defence and home affairs having meetings to discuss and decide on long overdue raising/enhancing coastal police, providing them equipment, stepping up coastal patrolling, joint tactical exercises and multi-dimensional expeditions to explore and familiarise the armed forces personnel with stretches of India ’s vast seaboard.
In February 2009, the government designated the Indian Navy as the authority responsible for overall maritime security, which includes coastal and offshore security, assisted by the Indian Coast Guard (ICG), state marine police forces and other central and state agencies. The ICG was additionally designated as the authority responsible for coastal security in territorial waters including areas to be patrolled by the coastal police. Further, to ensure that assets are optimally deployed and there is synergy between the two organisations, the Navy was assigned to control all Navy and Coast Guard joint operations.
Coastal security is complex construct since it involves activities both at sea and at land. The targets of the terrorists could be well inland. In the aftermath of 26/11, a holistic government approach to maritime security was adopted and a large number of measures were taken by a host of stakeholders. The National Committee on Strengthening Maritime and Coastal Security (NCSMCS) with cabinet secretary at the helm was established to review important matters pertaining to coastal security and for effective centre-state coordination. The same committees were established at state and district level. Also, joint operations centres (JOCs) of the Navy and coastal security operations centres of the Indian Coast Guard were set up.
A multi-tier patrol and surveillance mechanism with focus on technical surveillance and augmenting maritime domain awareness (MDA) through the coastal radar chain and other systems was adopted. Real-time information sharing through the national command, control, communication and intelligence (NC3I) network; greater intelligence and operational coordination were made the focus areas. Security initiatives were initiated in fisheries, offshore, ports and shipping sectors.
However, apart from the Navy and the Coast Guard, implementation of the multifarious actions involved by other ministries/departments was slow or incomplete.
Ten years after 26/11, the Indian Navy coordinated the largest-ever coastal defence exercise off the Indian coast on 22-23 January 2019, codenamed Sea Vigil. The first ever of its kind, this exercise was undertaken along the entire 7,516.6 km coastline and India’s EEZ involving all nine coastal states and four union territories along with all maritime stakeholders and facilitated by the ministries of defence, home affairs, shipping, petroleum and natural gas, fisheries, customs, state governments and other agencies of the Centre/state as well as the fishing and coastal communities.
The scale of the exercise was unprecedented in terms of the geographical extent, the number of stakeholders involved, the number of units deployed, and in terms of the objectives to be met. Planned in two phases, Phase I commenced with the deployment of personnel and seagoing units of all stakeholders. 150 ships and 35 aircraft of the Navy and Coast Guard were deployed for the exercise. This when added to sea-going assets of other stakeholders like the state police, CISF, Customs, etc, reached an astonishing 500-600 craft at sea. This layered defence provided almost unbroken surveillance along the entire coast of India and outlying islands. This was further enhanced by the chain of radar stations set up along the coast as part of the coastal surveillance network (post 26/11, all 46 lighthouses along India’s coastline are radar stations). All this was fed back to the JOCS set up by the Navy at Mumbai, Kochi, Visakhapatnam and Port Blair for monitoring, analysis and response. The uniform and technical surveillance network was further augmented by the fishing communities along the coast as the “eyes and ears” of the nation’s coastal security construct.
Phase I also saw an intensive audit of all measures put in place since 26/11 to improve the measures of efficiency and effectiveness of coastal security. This was undertaken by multi-agency teams deployed to check and audit important landing points including fish landing centres, vulnerable areas and important installations along the coast as well as in the hinterland.
The entire coastal security apparatus was thereafter shifted to Phase II commencing at 8 p.m. on 22 January. This phase saw attempts to penetrate and land dummy explosives by designated “RED” forces comprising teams drawn from the Navy, Coast Guard, police and Central Industrial Security Force. These teams were given a free hand to commandeer fishing vessels, merchantmen etc and attempt to reach the coast. Around 8-10 teams were deployed in each state and it is to the credit of all participating agencies that only a few “attacks” were successful. Many attacks were allowed to “go-through” to test the robustness of police check-points which were found to be very effective throughout the exercise. The customs department also undertook rummaging of visiting ships at anchorage and in harbours.
Phase II involved the exercising of various contingencies on land after an “assumed landing.”
The National Security Guard was also called in to tackle hostage situations in two-three vital installations. Contingencies including hijacking of ships, bomb disposal in malls, attacks and responses on places of worship etc were also exercised and tested for effectiveness. Crisis management groups of states were also activated to deal with such situations.
This first and largest ever in scale and extent coastal defence exercise is to be institutionalised and conducted every alternate year in addition to the states-focussed Sagar Kavach series of exercises. Also Ex Sea Vigil is a build-up towards the major theatre level tri-service exercise TROPEX (Theatre-level Readiness Operational Exercise) which the Indian Navy conducts every alternate year.
While this exercise is a long overdue and necessary measure, the whole gamut of India’s coastal security in view of terrorist threats and other crimes/problems/liabilities, this whole apparatus put together must function effectively and consistently, as there have been instances of breaches in coastal security after 26/11.
According to GKToday, in 2011, two years after 26/11, three massive vessels entered Mumbai which included a container ship named MV Wisdom, loaded with 7025 tonnes of deadweight, and MV Pravit containing 1000 tonnes of materials, which escaped the huge set-up of surveillance. In the latter case, the information of the drifting was given by fishermen, but the response was received only after 14 hours.
These are merely some examples. Although so many items of security infrastructure are in place there is a discrepancy in their use. Patrol boats are under-utilised, there is a shortage of manpower and huge amount of funds remain unspent.
The lack of integration of the marine police in the system is also a root cause of the problem.
The NCSMCS, which coordinates the coastal security activities of the maritime agencies, is reportedly merely an ad-hoc arrangement, which has not been backed by the enactment of the Coastal Security Bill. There have been some disagreements in the functioning of the surveillance systems. While the security agencies have preferred active tracking of individual fishing boats through onboard transponders for e-surveillance, the state maritime board officials seek a satellite tracking system. When a Coast Guard team during a security exercise some years ago enacted the entry of the 26/11 Pakistani terrorists from the sea opposite Badhwar Park, it succeeded – that is, they entered and proceeded ahead undetected/unchallenged.
Any lacunae or drawbacks still persisting in the coastal security system must urgently be made good in order to avoid a repeat the 26/11 in any part of India. And that possibility cannot and must not be ruled out, all the more so because of the frustration and desperation of Pakistan’s anti-Indian agencies which have faced great reverses in Jammu & Kashmir in 2018.
The writer, a retired Army officer, is a defence and security analyst based in New Delhi