Coastal Security in India: An Apprisal

Little attention is provided to India’s sea borders which are a huge source of vulnerability. Over the past years, efforts to secure India’s coasts have stepped up but are they adequate?

By Hamsini Hariharan (@HamsiniH)

As a peninsular country, India has a vast coastline of 7516 km making it vulnerable to various threats from the sea. However, coastal security is overlooked in our national security dialogue, which is overly continental in nature. The 1993 Mumbai blasts revealed that the explosives had been smuggled through the Raigad coast of Maharashtra. The 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks also revealed loopholes in Indian coastal security. Smuggling of drugs and contraband, illegal unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU), and flow of migrants from neighbouring countries are other variables that underscore the need for coastal protection.

History of Coastal Security Reform

Since Independence, India’s threats were seen as emanating from the land borders and little attention was devoted to the threats from the sea. Historically, India’s coastal states have a rich mercantile history whose routes remain unchanged. These also provide challenges emanating from smuggling, trafficking, illegal migration, infiltration and IUU fishing. The channels used for smuggling and trafficking are the same for security threats and terrorism. The Coast Guard was set up in 1977 for surveillance purposes and gradually undertook duties of protection and assistance of fishermen, anti-smuggling operations (in conjunction with other enforcement agencies), and preservation of marine life and ensures that maritime laws are enforced.  The 1993 Mumbai blasts revealed that the explosives had been smuggled through the Raigad coast of Maharashtra. The Indian government’s attempts to resolve issues of coastal security started in the aftermath of the 1993 Mumbai blasts. It put in place a three tier structure which consisted of the Indian Navy, the Indian Coast Guard and a joint patrol comprised of personnel from the former two as well as from the state police, the customs department and other agencies.

In 2005, the Government instituted the Coastal Security Scheme to set coastal police stations, check posts, outposts and barracks, equipped with boats, jeeps and motorcycles. The costs of training the personnel and procuring the vehicles were borne by the state while the Centre provided funds for the other operations. The reforms were not enough to deter the terrorists who perpetrated the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks which exposed the loopholes in coastal security.

In 2011, Phase-II of the scheme began; it allocated approximately Rs. 1579 crore to the states for procuring boats and vessels, jetties and four wheelers , surveillance equipment, computer systems etc. In 2012, an Automatic Identification System (AIS) was set up along the coast to monitor maritime traffic.  The Navy created the Sagar Prahari Bal, a special cadre dedicated to Coastal Security comprising of more than a thousand personnel and a hundred fast interceptor aircrafts. In 2014, a permanent Joint Operations Centre was set up in order to coordinate between the various agencies. Since 2008, substantive efforts have been made to improve coastal security however, challenges, particularly those of co-ordination remain.

Current Challenges to Coastal Security

The problems of coastal security remain varied and complex and the Coastal Security Scheme is just the first step in addressing these concerns. An important issue is consolidation of various stakeholders who include, the Indian Navy, the Coast Guard, the Marine Police, Customs Department, Fisheries Department, Special Economic Zones, Lighthouses, personnel of Critical Infrastructure, on the coast, fishermen and residents. Bureaucratic wrangling has also resulted in multiplicity of authorities from the Union, the states as well as private actors. However, centralising the authority under a single entity is not the answer because it leads to a hierarchical structure in which decisionmaking is long drawn while security threats require quick decisions.

Coordination between these authorities is also a problem. For example, even though the Centre asked states to provide land and infrastructure to the Coast Guard in Kodibagh, the district administration remains reluctant to do so because of political pressure from the locals. Similarly, issuing of id cards to fishermen is an important issue but keeping track of the fishermen and those who lend boats or dhows to others has also proven to be a challenge.

The establishment of marine police stations was thought to mitigate several of the on ground threats. However, the setting up of marine police stations has been slow because of states’ reluctance. In Odisha, for example, a CAG report discovered a shortage of manpower, lack of interceptor boats, no infrastructure and poor training of marine police personnel. This tussle between the states and the centre is a recurrent theme the debates on failing coastal security. States often cite the inadequacy of resources as one of the largest impediments to implementation of the coastal security initiatives. However, it is the states that bear the brunt of lapse of security, therefore, it is not an issue that can be allowed to rest lightly.

One of the biggest challenges in coastal security is that of a free-rider problem. While all the stakeholders agree that coastal security is an extremely important issue, no one of them want to bear the expenses that arise. Pushpita Das argues that states prefer the creation of Central Marine Police Force as it will lessen the burden imposed on the state to provide manpower to the marine police. Indeed, the fiscal burden of coastal security is currently, ompletely being borne by the Central Government. The multi-stakeholder problems therefore, require a comprehensive understanding of the fiscal allocation behind various scheme and innovative solutions to the same.

Another challenge is the role of technology in coastal security. Only after the Mumbai Attacks, there was a cognisance of the need to secure coasts at par with border outposts. Coastal radar systems, sensors and electronic surveillance systems have onlybeen installed over the last five years to monitor maritime traffic. In this light, there is a need to see how technology can be used innovatively in coastal security.

The challenges to India’s coastal security are plenty. While terrorism has proven the most potent threat over the last few years, a whole range of issues ranging from migration to smuggling have plagued Indian coasts. The need of the hour is a comprehensive review of the vulnerabilities and threats arising from the sea. Only then, can successful solutions be sought.

Hamsini Hariharan is a Research Scholar with the Takshashila Institution and tweets at @HamsiniH