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After the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, there has been a heightened focus on coastal security, with higher allocations for the Navy and the Coast Guard to bolster security. The Coast Guard is now being equipped to deal with growing challenges on India’s maritime front. Inspector General KR Nautiyal, Commander Coast Guard (West), tells The Indian Express that the Indian Coast Guard is now better positioned to address these challenges.
In the past two months, the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) has been in the news for carrying out many Search And Rescue (SAR) operations. What have been the big challenges ?
ICG is the national authority for SAR. The last few months have been quite challenging, we had Cyclone Ockhi, where our assets and surveillance mechanism were tested. 18-20 ships were at sea for one month and we had four to five aircraft plying on a daily basis. We take solace that at least 488 people were saved. A few days after that, we had the Pawn Hans helicopter tragedy. We were able to reach there within an hour of the incident. We recovered the bodies and towed them.
Then there was the incident with the ship Maersk Honam, which was in distress and on the fringes on the SAR region, almost 600 nautical miles from Mumbai. A few years ago, we did not have state-of-the-art assets and the technology to send ships to that distance and do firefighting. But once we came to know of the ship, not only did we use the technology available to us but we also requested ships in the area to help people in distress. Our ship was the first one to reach that distance and start firefighting efforts. We have received appreciation from the Singapore government and Maersk organisation for saving the vessel and coordinating and saving 23 of their crew.
After the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, where terrorists used the sea route to enter Mumbai, what has changed in the ICG. Is it better equipped?
Our assets in terms of ships, aircraft and shore stations have grown manifold. In 2008, we had at least 61 ships, now we have 134. We had 44 aircraft then, now we have 62. As for stations, we had 45 stations along the shore then, now we have 71. There has been improvement in our holdings, assets acquisition and manpower situation. All of this with state-of-the-art technology has definitely given us more deterrent powers. We have just commissioned an air station in Kochi. We have activated an air station in New Mangalore and by the year end, we are going to have two more air stations at Trivandrum and Ratnagiri.
Is coastal security a priority for both the central and state governments ?
Yes, it is a priority area for all states. However, there is a need for us to attain a level where we make coastal security almost impregnable, for which all endeavours should continue. Every day, the Coast Guard has 35 to 40 ships out at sea and 10 to 12 aircraft, which are regularly patrolling and doing surveillance of our Special Economic Zones.
Additionally, our coastal security network is acting as a force multiplier. We have got 46 radar stations all along the coast, of which 18 are in the western region. We are going to have another 38 in the next phase and 14 of them will be for the western region. This will make the coast almost near gapless for electronic surveillance. This helps tracking all the vessels going up to 25 to 30 miles off our coast and allows us to be more proactive in identifying every contact passing through our region.
How well equipped is the Coast Guard to deal with a terror attack if it comes from the sea?
We are fully equipped to meet the challenges which emerge from the sea. All the coast security exercises, integration of coastal security network with our Ops philosophy, regular exercises and review has helped us to better prepare.
One of the lessons from the 26/11 attack was the need for better coordination among maritime agencies. Is coordination better now?
Initially there were a few issues that needed to be plugged. ICG is the overall coordinator for coastal security exercises. We came out with SOPs which we got vetted with all the stakeholders in the coastal security construct and after that we started telling everyone to play by the rules. After some time, we have been able to improve the working on this construct and all the issues and difficulties faced by any of the organisations are resolved.
Every six months, we have the Sagar Kavach exercises. After the exercises, we have a review which is chaired by the Chief Secretary and all the issues brought by various organisations are resolved. There has been a definite improvement in this coordination and understanding of the nature of the threat and the requirement of multi-agency efforts to counter any threats emanating from the sea.
Are the agencies working in-tandem?
We do. We have also been integrating two to three state-exercises together now. Almost 4,500 policemen have been trained in sea-related, ship handling and other issues by us. But we need to do much more to stay abreast of the challenges which keep changing, with every possible change we carry out in our own SOPs.
How much of the ICG assets are a part of the Make in India initiative?
Everything that the ICG has today is all Made in India. So all the assets we are acquiring, our future assets — they all are Make in India products. Goa Shipyard, GRSE, L&T, Cochin shipyard and HAL for aircraft, are making our assets so we are completely dependent on Make in India endeavours and happy that we in India are able to produce the ships which are world-class having state-of-the-art technology and have a reach which we have not seen before.
Is everything indigenously made or are we sourcing some part from foreign firms?
Some of the parts definitely are being sourced from other countries for which QRs are laid down and we select the best in that case, but construction per se is being undertaken by our own shipyards. Our hovercrafts are from Britain.
What about the quality ?
They are good. Ships which are coming now have endurance for almost 20 days. They have the speed which is almost double or triple than what we had in ships two or three decades ago. They are fitted with state-of-the-art of equipment, which is world class. Most of the equipment is sourced through these Indian Shipyards from other countries based on the qualitative requirements projected by the coast guard.
Fishing trawlers have been an area of concern for the ICG. How are you dealing with the issue?
This is one issue that we along with all stakeholders are continuing to address. India has got a sizeable fishing community. We have got close to four lakh boats in India. Now to monitor every single boat is a challenge. We have introduced colour coding, biometric identification to facilitate identification of the boats and their crew. We have community programmes with them where we advice them about the same and tell them how to be the eyes and ears of the ICG for national security.
What are the areas of concern?
Challenges from the sea will always be there. There will be different strategies that would be adopted by our adversaries but we are preparing ourselves with state-of-the-art assets and by coordination with various stakeholders.
What about threats from pirates?
Piracy is overall being taken care of by the Navy. Due to the proactive efforts of the Navy and other agencies in India, piracy has been more or less eliminated from our coast. There have been few cases of wrong identifications by merchant vessels of the coast wherein some of them were fired at by the armed guards of the foreign vessels. They were addressed suitably and unfortunately, they were innocent fishermen. Beyond that, there has been no piracy for the last few years.