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Patrol boats high and dry, cops untrained, gaping holes in coastal security

The Indian Express travels down the coast where the terrorists hijacked a trawler, to check how secure those waters are today.

Written by Praveen Swami | Porbandar | Updated: November 26, 2014 8:56:56 am
The Gujarat Marine Police patrol boats criss-crossing Porbandar harbour have impractical configurations, and keep breaking down.(Source: Express photo by Praveen Swami) The Gujarat Marine Police patrol boats criss-crossing Porbandar harbour have impractical configurations, and keep breaking down.(Source: Express photo by Praveen Swami)

The sound of timber hitting the Randal Krupa made Velji Bikhubhai Kotiya, captain of the ageing fishing trawler, jump from his hardwood bed next to the wheel. A little later, he was back in the space he shared with the gods guarding his boat and crew. “Nothing, nothing, just another crew wanting to know how the fishing is.”

In November 2008, a fishing boat out of Karachi bumped against the Porbandar-registered Kuber, in almost exactly the same way. Five of its crew were shot dead in the next few minutes. The captain was next, and then 154 children, women and men.

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Six years after 26/11, The Indian Express has found that very little has changed on the ground despite the government spending Rs 646 crore — and committed to another Rs 1,571.91 crore by 2016 — on a coastal policing project.

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The project, which involves deployment of state-of-the-art interceptor boats, electronic identification systems, and a string of new police stations along the coast, is beset with problems ranging from badly-designed equipment to poor planning to lack of training.

Consider these holes in the security net:

Fast boats in slow lane

Every night, G1205, a Greek-designed interceptor flying the colours of Gujarat Police, pulls out of Porbandar’s bustling fishing port and heads out into the seas, checking trawlers coming in from the international maritime boundary, questioning crews for information on smugglers.

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The G1205 is one from a fleet of 204 interceptors, both 5-tonne and 12-tonne, that patrol India’s eastern and  Patrol boats that have no toilets, untrained cops who can’t shoot or swim western coasts from a string of over 80 police stations.

Fitted with state-of-the-art electronic equipment, the interceptors should be able to detect intrusions and react to distress calls upward of 80 knots — in effect, making sure that another Kuber does not slip in undetected.

But these don’t always work. The US-made Cummins jet engines in the 12-tonne interceptors foul up frequently in dirty water, given the mud and debris floating around Indian harbours. Spare parts can be months in coming.

Today, Kuber sits anchored at the back of Porbandar's fishing harbour. (Source: Express photo by Praveen Swami) Today, Kuber sits anchored at the back of Porbandar’s fishing harbour. (Source: Express photo by Praveen Swami)

Last year, G1205 was out of commission for nine months. In Maharashtra’s Thane district, all three boats were non-functional for much of the year.
“In Porbandar,” says Superintendent of Police Deepan Bhandran, “we’re lucky to have access to Navy and Coast Guard engineers to help us, but those resources don’t exist in the more remote coastal police stations, which face real problems keeping equipment serviceable.”

Little attention too has been paid to the needs of the crew. The boats have jockey-style seats, worth Rs 1.35 lakh, but the 5-tonne model has no restroom, and the 12-tonne model no bed — this makes them unsuitable for long patrols. The machine-gun turrets mounted on the boats have no armour-protection against hostile fire.

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No one knows when the Phase-II patrol boats, with design defects ironed out, will be available. In its annual report for 2012-2013, the Ministry of Home Affairs stated that “specifications for 150 (12-tonne) boats have been finalised and the process of procurement of these boats has been initiated”.

The report also said that the ministry was “evaluating the technical bids and thereafter financial bids will be invited for procurement of boats.
Brajesh Upadhyay, General Manager at Goa Shipyards, says no order has been received till date.

Alert system not in place

“To me, the most disturbing part of the story is that there hasn’t been a single meeting between the Ministry and us, the end-users, on our design needs and concerns. This means we might end up with boats that are just as inappropriate as the first lot,” says a senior Maharashtra Police officer.

The electronic net around which the patrolling system is to revolve is still not operational — this leaves just three boats in Porbandar to check thousands of shipping boats headed in and out of the harbour each day.

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The Navy, on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, is testing an Automatic Identification System, which will set off alerts if boats not registered with Indian authorities try to enter ports. The system was scheduled to be up and running by 2016.

But sources involved in tests in Porbandar say it has faced resistance from fishermen who believe it will be used to restrict access to fish-rich waters just across the international boundary. The Porbandar fishing panchayat has also rejected digital identification cards, fearing these will be used to track crew locations.

“There was a much simpler, cheaper way to do this,” says a Naval officer involved in the tests. “Global Positioning System sets fitted on most fishing boats could have been linked to control stations, just like taxi and truck fleets now have.”

Poor training, old ways

Perhaps more problematic than equipment is the training of personnel. The government promised a training centre for marine police, but nothing has come up yet.

Frustrated, Narendra Modi, when he was chief minister, authorised Gujarat to set up its own training centre — it is scheduled to start functioning next year. The Navy and Coast Guard, short-staffed on instructors themselves, are running ad hoc courses which vary widely in curriculum and skills imparted.

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“I was taken on a boat just twice during my training with the Coast Guard in Okha,” says Bharatbhai Jadeja, a constable at the Navibandar Coastal Police Station, not far from the Ghosa creek used for landing one of the explosives consignments for the 1993 serial bombings in Mumbai. “I don’t know how to swim, let alone fire a gun from a boat.”

Police stations meant to serve as hubs for the boats, in many states, are decrepit. Navibandar, one of the first to be set up, was built on an ultra-saline stretch of coast where the winds have literally eaten away one of its jeeps, a motorcycle, a radio-communications tower, even the lock-up bars.

New police stations, like Miyanibandar near Porbandar, have addressed these problems. But dozens of others on the Maharashtra coast, police sources say, remain uninhabitable. In some states, coastal police stations are simply giving up their specialist role, and devoting themselves to routine village-policing duties.

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