Mumbai: A rubber dinghy carrying heavily-armed men and explosives pulls stealthily into Mumbai. The men disembark and go on to launch the most audacious terrorist strike India has ever experienced. Three nights and three days later, at least 183 are dead, about 300 injured and two of India’s most prestigious hotels lie in ruins.
A once-in-a-lifetime experience? Naval security experts say it may not be. The horrific attack mounted on the night of 26 November in Mumbai could happen again unless drastic action is taken to secure the coast. And again.
No less than 23 agencies operate on the Indian seas, but there is no one in charge of security and no one in particular to be held accountable, rendering the 7,500km-long coastline vulnerable to terrorist penetration. During peace time, the navy and Coast Guard are like a police force without guns, because they don’t have the legislative authority to pursue ships. And they don’t have enough men, ships, equipment and intelligence back-up.
Asked to identify vulnerable spots along the coast from where similar operations can be carried out, Harihara Balakrishnan, a former Indian Navy captain, says, “It’s not a few places that can be hand-picked and you can say here is the threat, let’s seal it. You can’t do that and so the whole coastline is exposed.”
The only way to prevent such an attack again is by taking a dramatically different approach to maritime security, says retired vice-admiral Arun Kumar Singh, former director general of the Coast Guard and commander-in-chief of the Eastern Naval Command until last year.
India has 28 million sq. km of water to patrol and it simply does not have enough resources. The navy has about 70,000 men, 130 ships and 200 aircraft, according to Singh. “On the other hand, Korea, which is the size of Chhattisgarh, has 260 ships and four times India’s manpower. Japan has 520 ships and the US has about 2,000 ships. Even to start, we need to double the size of the navy and triple the size of the Coast Guard,” says Singh.
But inadequate resources are just one of India’s maritime security problems beca-use in a chaotic mess of policy, a multitude of agencies govern different marine activities.
For instance, fishing (India is the world’s third largest fish producer) and the 314,000 small boats engaged in fishing are overseen by the ministry of agriculture; merchant fishing is under the purview of the ministry of shipping; customs is covered by the ministry of finance; the ports run themselves but do not have any dedicated security agency for ships coming into the ports; the Indian Marine Police reports to the home ministry; while the navy and Coast Guard function under the ministry of defence. The Coast Guard’s pollution control duties are overseen by the ministry of environment and forests.
The navy and Coast Guard are also the two agencies responsible for security during war time, but say they cannot perform those duties in peace times because the government policies do no empower them to take any action on the high seas. “Even if we see anything suspicious, we do not have the power to chase and stop the ship. We cannot ask them to show us their papers. We cannot fine them, we cannot arrest them. We just have to let them go,” explained a senior officer in the Coast Guard who requested anonymity because he is not allowed to speak to the media. vice-admiral Singh confirmed this assessment.
But the problem is larger. Singh says that even if the navy had the authority, the men and the ships it needs to patrol the seas, it will still need crucial inputs: information and intelligence. “The need of this hour is to create a central, electronic data link and database of names, photos, fingerprints and details of every suspect that India’s entire defence system can access and upload information to. Something similar to the US Homeland Security system. The Indian security agencies also need a secure, effective, real-time communication system that will not only allow the top-level officials to communicate to the remotest outpost, but allow the outpost to communicate with people in the headquarters,” he says.
Experts are pointing to the US Patriot Act as an example. Under the Act, the US has made its Coast Guard the single authority responsible for keeping the seas safe. “So now, 200 miles out from the coast of America, the Coast Guard demands every ship declare its destination, estimated time of arrival, speed and cargo,” says Singh, who has closely interacted with the US Coast Guard.
Balakrishnan, who has studied the Act and its provisions, says: “If they are suspicious of any ship, the Coast Guard is empowered to board the ship, demand to see the papers, examine the cargo and arrest the crew if they suspect them of any illegal activity. What’s more, even the US navy can act as its Coast Guard . If the navy sees suspicious activity on the seas and the Coast Guard is not close by, the ship can pull down the naval flag, hoist the Coast Guard flag and carry out checks as the country’s Coast Guards.”
“Only when we are able to do at least some of these things do we have a chance of preventing another attack,” he says.
Experts say greater coordination between agencies isn’t the answer. “Put someone in charge, give them the equipment and power and hold them responsible. It’s the only smart way to approach security issues,” says Balakrishnan.