Colombo, November 26: Though 15 years have passed since the 26/11 sea-borne terror attack on Mumbai, serious loopholes persist in India’s coastal security.
The first-ever sea-borne assault in the history of India that took place on November 26, 2008, claimed 179 lives including 29 foreigners, and damaged iconic and historic city buildings like the Taj Hotel and Victoria Terminus.
The unprecedented mayhem was perpetrated by just ten Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) activists from Pakistan who had landed on the Mumbai coast in dinghies totally undetected by the Coast Guard, the navy or any other Indian defence system.
The attack and the response from the Indian security system exposed multiple flaws in the latter. Post-26/11, the Maharashtra and Central governments put up new systems to detect and neutralise future attacks. But even after a decade and a half, these measures are deeply flawed. Measures to defend India’s 7517 km coastline are full of glaring loopholes, experts say.
The American RAND Corporation said in a report done by experts that Indian intelligence officials (RAW) had received prior warnings both from their own sources and from the US that a major sea-borne attack on Mumbai was probable. But lack of specificity in the intelligence prevented specific responses.
And when the attacks began, there was little coordination between the central security agencies and the Maharashtra police. RAND Corporation suspected that the Central agencies had not shared the intelligence with the local police or, if it was shared, the local police did not act upon it.
The attacks highlighted India’s inability to effectively monitor its coastline—a condition that is common to many littoral states in both the developing and the developed world, RAND said.
The security system on the coast was, and continues to be, outdated, with the security personnel posted in key public places like airports and rail stations carrying outdated weapons.
In his July 2023 paper on the website of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), ex-Indian navy officer Abhijit Singh says that following 26/11, the Central government set up a three-tier security arrangement comprising the Indian Navy (IN), the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) and the State Marine Police, jointly safeguarding India’s maritime zone.
Coastal police stations and a surveillance infrastructure under a Coastal Security Scheme (CSS) were set up. Radar stations came up along the coastline. Automatic Identification Systems and Joint Operation Centres (JOCs) were set up (to some extent).
“Sagar Kavach” exercises, involving the Navy, ICG and the State coastal police, were held.
“Yet there are concerns that the overall state of India’s coastal security remains suboptimal,” Abhijit Singh says. He cites a case in April 2017, when a Russian couple on a sailing boat, drifted close to the Mumbai harbour without being noticed by any security agency. The vessel was noticed and reported by fishermen. In another case, a foreign ship hit a fishing boat off the coast of Thiruvananthapuram and easily fled. It was not pursued.
In April 2017, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the Maharashtra State Assembly pointed out that 19 new coastal police stations that were supposed to be set up along the 720-km long State coastline, work was yet to begin at seven locations.
Months earlier, a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report observed glaring loopholes in Odisha State’s coastal security set-up. Patrol boats were under-utilized and shore-based infrastructure, including manpower, showed shortages. Funds went unspent.
Country-wide, there was a 90% shortfall in patrolling, especially at night. There was a decline in physical checks on fishing vessels by the Coastal Police. In the coastal police stations, 75% of the sanctioned posts were unfilled. Only 31% of the infrastructure had been completed. Land acquisition was delayed.
And importantly, the Indian government showed more interest in deep-sea security than in coastal security, though the former is more capital intensive than the latter. Ocean security is increasingly viewed as a matter of international prestige and more money is allotted to it.
“With an inherently expansive vision of maritime security, the Indian Navy tends to view big-ticket initiatives as the building blocks of the security architecture,” Abhijit Singh says.
There are joint exercises in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal. Coastal radar chains are set up. The National Command and Control Communications Intelligence Network (N3CIN), the Maritime Domain Awareness Plan and the Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC) have come into play.
“The Navy considers high-profile undertakings as the real measure of success of the coastal security project,” Singh points out.
The Coast Guard acknowledges improvements in the security architecture, particularly inter-agency cooperation, but points out that high-technology initiatives alone will not ensure foolproof security. The Coast Guard says that the States’ Marine or Coastal police have to play a major role and for this, they have to be trained, equipped and motivated.
But there are serious lacunae in this area.
“For some observers, the marine police’s lack of enthusiasm for littoral patrolling is a symptom of the State governments’ larger apathy towards coastal security. Indeed, barring Tamil Nadu (a state with some experience of fighting LTTE sea-tigers), State administrations have not responded suitably to the needs of littoral security,” Singh points out.
“Even in states where things are beginning to improve, progress has been gradual. For instance, in the case of Andhra Pradesh—a State with a vulnerable coastline—seven years after nearly 21 coastal police stations had been established in 2009, only six had their own concrete buildings, with the rest operating out of rented premises. None of the coastal police stations had their own captive jetties despite seven of them, each worth INR 50 lakh, being sanctioned by the central government in 2010.”
“Further, the allotted interceptor boats to the Port City of Vishakhapatnam – a vital regional maritime hub – were mostly non-operational and anchored in the fishing harbour,” Singh adds.
Maritime observers say that there are too many agencies involved (15 of them) in maritime security and they are acting without coordination.
“Despite the best efforts of the National Committee for Strengthening Maritime and Coastal Security (NCSMCS), the coordination of coastal security is ad hoc. Unfortunately, the coastal security bill with a proposal to form a National Maritime Authority (NMA) has been caught in red tape since 2013,” Singh points out.
Human intelligence collection has lagged behind satellite surveillance. Security agencies have advocated the active tracking of individual fishing boats through on-board transponders. But fishermen are against installation of any identification systems on board as they prefer secrecy, for a variety of reasons.
Port security has also emerged as one of the most neglected areas in littoral security architecture, both Singh and RAND corporation point out.
A recent Intelligence Bureau audit noted that the vast majority of minor ports in India have little or no security cover, and many measures taken to secure the coastline have been quite ineffective.
Few out of the 227 minor ports in India had proper security cover. As many as 187 minor ports had minimal security cover and 75 had no security cover at all.