Nine years after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, the government and security agencies remain preoccupied with Jammu and Kashmir and the North East region, and appear to have forgotten the country's coastal borders. Former president Pranab Mukherjee, while addressing the 16th Lok Sabha in 2014, after the BJP came to power, had stated that the government would soon set up a National Maritime Authority (NMA). Over three years later, there is no sign of it. For a government that prides itself on taking tough and unpopular decisions, this is most surprising.
Post-26/11, naval and maritime experts have often suggested the need for a Maritime Security Adviser (MSA), a Maritime Security Advisory Board (MSAB), or a Maritime Commission, etc., due to the complexity of the maritime domain and the sheer number of stakeholders .These include, the ministries of Defence, Shipping, External Affairs, Home Affairs, Petroleum and Natural Gas, Agriculture (which, strangely, administers fisheries); and agencies such as the Indian Navy (IN), Indian Coast Guard (ICG), Marine Police, DG-Shipping, the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), the Border Security Force (BSF), major and minor ports, shipyards , shipping companies, Customs, etc.
Most of these organisations are headed and staffed by bureaucrats who lack specialist maritime domain knowledge and tend to use land-centric templates to solve maritime issues. Further, there is an acute lack of a coordinated approach to maritime problem-solving due to compartmentalisation, turf wars, individual service loyalties and general reluctance to share information.
The country's federal structure, too, creates its own problems, with nine coastal states and four union territories. While some states are proactive on coastal security, others do not understand the magnitude or the nature of the problem and believe it is the Centre's responsibility and often cite lack of resources, which may not be entirely correct.
Post-26/11, the central government has created a three-tier coastal security architecture. The newly-created Marine Police forces are mandated to patrol up to 12 nautical miles (nm) from the coast, the ICG from 12nm to 200nm and finally, the Indian Navy beyond 200nm exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The Marine Police are thus really the last line of defence against an approaching threat. They, however, have a long way to go before they can reach that stage. The 13 state Marine Police forces are at different levels of training and operational preparedness. Coastal security is a new discipline for the hitherto land-oriented police, who require all the help they can get.
The lack of dedicated sea-going cadre and dedicated coastal security training academies at the national or state levels is their Achilles' heel. Thus, nine years after 26/11, the national coastline continues to be inadequately secured.
In 2016, during a review meeting of coastal security chaired by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh in Mumbai, a proposal was floated by Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to create a central marine police force, on the lines of our Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF), which found support from a few other coastal states, too. This is nothing but an admission that the states are not willing to take responsibility for their own coastal security.
The central marine police force, which has now been named Coastal Border Police Force (CBPF), will mean the creation of another layer in the coastal security construct, resulting in additional expenditure and problems in coordination. It will be another few years before the CBPF, if finally approved, will find its 'sea legs', and all the while, coastal security would be a work in progress. Meanwhile, the country would continue to be exposed to the dangers of asymmetric threats from the sea, such as maritime terrorism and piracy.
Confusion in responsibilities
Post-26/11, the Indian Navy has been made responsible for overall maritime security, including coastal and offshore security. There is some confusion in responsibilities between the Navy and the Coast Guard. The writ of other actors in the civil maritime domain, such as Ministry of Shipping, DG Shipping, Customs, etc., runs only close to our harbours, and while they have enforcement authority, they do not have any corresponding enforcement capability.
A draft Coastal Security Bill was put up by the Navy and the Coast Guard in 2013 to delineate the responsibilities of various agencies and for legal empowerment of the two forces. Parliament is yet to pass this Bill.
Keeping national interest in mind, the best agency to be made responsible for coastal security today is the Coast Guard. In the past four decades, the Coast Guard has piggybacked on the Navy to its current status, though it is still dependent on the latter for training, communication, logistics, etc.
Rather than create the CBPF, it would be wise to make the Coast Guard responsible to train and equip the state marine police forces, and the latter should be placed under ICG's overall operational control. This would require tweaking of a few Acts and Laws and further augmentation of the resources and assets of the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard, currently under the Ministry of Defence, also has linkages with Ministry of Home Affairs for border management functions. It would be in the fitness of things if it is placed permanently under the MHA and made exclusively responsible for coastal security.
The Indian Navy would then be free to deal with the 'Blue Water' philosophy, warfighting functions, nuclear deterrence, etc, rather than coastal security. This would also make authority, responsibility and accountability clear. Thus, a streamlining of the maritime governance structure in the country will help ensure secure and water-tight coastal borders.
(The writer is a former Principal Director Naval Intelligence (PDNI) and has served in the Cabinet Secretariat)