Sinking feeling

The coasting of a 1,000-tonne foreign merchant ship on Mumbai’s Juhu beach this week has exposed the glaring loopholes in India’s maritime security. The abandoned ship was drifting in Indian waters for about 100 hours before it ran aground on the beach and it went undetected by all the agencies that have the charge of protecting India’s coastline.

There is no explanation coming from any authority. The only information is that the ship, which flies a Panamanian flag, was last sighted about a month ago in the Gulf of Oman and its crew members were evacuated from it then. It was considered to have sunk. But it defies explanation that it sailed unnoticed all these days and the Indian authorities could not detect it had penetrated the country’s maritime borders and stayed there without any questions asked.

The vulnerability of the long coast was exposed at the time of the November 2008 Mumbai attack when a fishing boat landed there with terrorists, unnoticed by any authority. The coastal security system was supposed to have been strengthened and upgraded since then. There are three security forces guarding the Indian coastline. The navy patrols the outer seas, the coast guard protects nearer seas and the maritime police guards the shoreline. The ship slipped through all these tiers and neither the radars nor the surveillance equipment of any of these agencies could detect it. The consequences could be scary in a different situation. Security agencies all over the world are alert to the possibility of terrorists sneaking in as stowaways in ships or unmanned or hijacked ships being used to carry large amounts of explosives to ports or vital installations on coasts. The failure to detect the intruding ship shows that Indian agencies are not ready to ward off such threats.

Both the defence and home ministers have claimed that coastal security has been strengthened since the 26/11 attack. Hundreds of crores have been spent in the last few months on buying interceptor vessels, setting up coastal police stations, enlarging manpower and improving technological capabilities. But according to reports, the vessels and equipment are not in the best working condition. The plans for satellite-based surveillance are yet to take off. Inquiries have been ordered to pinpoint the source of the security failure. The matter should not end there. Luckily the stranded ship is harmless. But it could be different next time.

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