By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - The Indian Navy has commissioned a new base, Indian Naval Ship (INS) Dweeprakshak, in the Lakshadweep Islands. Located at Kavaratti, the island chain's capital, Dweeprakshak will provide the navy with a permanent and more robust presence in waters that are threatened by pirates.
The Lakshadweep archipelago (Lakshadweep means a hundred thousand islands in Sanskrit) consists of 36 islands, 12 atolls, three reefs and five submerged banks that are scattered in the
southern Arabian Sea, 200-400 kilometers off the southern Indian coastal state of Kerala.
Since 1980, the Indian Navy has operated a detachment in the Lakshadweep Islands. However, in December 2010 a Coast Guard district headquarters was commissioned at Kavaratti and a Coast Guard station was set up at Minicoy. A second Coast Guard station was set up at Androth Island in April this year.
The facilities at Lakshadweep have been scaled up now to a full-fledged naval base.
INS Dweeprakshak is India's sixth naval base and the fourth protecting the country's western flank. It is India's second base in island territories, the other being the base at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal. Dweeprakshak will come under the Southern Naval Command.
The decision to beef up India's naval muscle at Lakshadweep has its roots in security concerns in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008 and the rising threat of pirate attacks in the Arabian Sea in recent years. Lakshadweep's strategic significance stems not only from its proximity to the Indian mainland but also, Nine Degree Channel - a 200-kilometer wide stretch of water through which much of the shipping between West Asia and South East Asia transits runs to the north of Minicoy, the southern-most of the islands.
The magnitude of India's concern over the safety of sea lanes can be gauged from the fact that over 97% percent of India's trade by volume and 75% by value is sea borne. The key role that the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean play in meeting its India's energy requirements is evident from the fact that 67% of this comes from the Persian Gulf and 17% from Africa.
Although the vulnerability of India's coast to terrorist infiltration and attacks became apparent in the early 1990s - the huge quantity of explosives used in the serial blasts in Mumbai in March 1993 was transported through the sea route - it was only after the terror attacks there in November 2008 that the India establishment began acting to secure the coasts - investigations revealed that Lashkar-e-Toiba operatives from Pakistan entered Mumbai undetected via the Arabian Sea. India has now put in place a maritime defense plan to secure its 7,516-km long coast line, including the island territories of Laskhadweep.
The infrastructure set up in Lakshadweep is essential not only to safeguard the Indian mainland from terrorist attacks but also to prevent terrorists from taking sanctuary on the islands. Of Lakshadweep's 36 islands, 26 are uninhabited. That makes them vulnerable to misuse by terrorists for sanctuary or as training bases. Such anxieties have grown in the wake of the growing religious extremism, reported jihadi activity and political instability in the Maldives, which lie to the south of Lakshadweep.
Besides, there is the threat of piracy to Indian and other shipping near India's waters. Anti-piracy operations by the multi-national task force in the Gulf of Aden created a "balloon effect", which resulted in pirate attacks shifting further afield into the middle of the Indian Ocean, even the seas near the Indian coastline. There have been a series of incidents in recent years involving piracy and trespassing in the vicinity of the Lakshadweep Islands.
In March 2010, for instance, pirates sought to hijack a Maltese ship 200 nautical miles off Lakshadweep Islands in India's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The attempt was foiled by the Indian Navy.
Then in May, eight Somali pirates were apprehended by the Indian navy off the Lakshadweep Islands. In November, two piracy attempts on container ships were successfully thwarted; one of the incidents happened just 150 nautical miles off Minicoy.
In December, a Bangladesh merchant ship was hijacked by Somalian pirates some 70 nautical miles from the Lakshadweep Islands. The same month an Indian warship on patrol apprehended an Iranian dhow with four Iranians and 15 Pakistanis on board some 300 nautical miles west of Lakshadweep's Bitra Island in India's EEZ. In November last year, a "mysterious" Iranian ship MV Assa that was reportedly armed was docked in the EEZ near Lakshadweep for around 40 days.
Surveillance and patrolling of the seas off the Lakshadweep Islands by the Indian Navy and Coast Guard have resulted in hundreds of pirates being apprehended over the past year. The setting up of a full-fledged naval base at Lakshadweep will substantially enhance India's capacity to ward off threats from pirates and terrorists.
India has deployed a warship in the Gulf of Aden as part of the multi-national anti-piracy force. It has stationed two warships in the central and eastern Arabian Sea "but in a flexible formation for redeployment on an as required basis", India Abroad News Service reported. Such efforts will be further strengthened by the base at Lakshadweep, which will have warships, aircraft and helicopters.
While the naval base will enhance the infrastructure and capacity of the coastal security network, the problems of India's coastal security seem rather basic and cannot be addressed by deploying more warships.
The flaws in the coastal security network were made visible rather dramatically during the turbulent monsoon months last year when unmanned ships slipped past radars and other high-tech "eyes" to drift undetected in Indian waters and ran aground at Mumbai's Juhu beach.
The first incident occurred on 12 June 2011, when a 9,000-ton cargo ship MV Wisdom that was headed to the Alang shipbreaking yard in Gujarat broke tow, and then drifted on to Juhu beach. Then on July 31, the 1,000-ton MV Pavit, which had been abandoned by its crew a month earlier near Oman, ran aground at Juhu beach. The 1,000-ton ship had drifted for over a hundred hours in India's territorial waters and slipped past a three-level coastal security network involving the navy, the coast guard and the coastal police before it crept up on to the beach.
These were not small fishing boats but massive vessels and that they could enter not just Indian waters but also ride right onto the coast undetected is a damning indictment of the coastal security network.
While analysts have focused on the poor infrastructure in detailing the leaks in the coastal security network, it is the lack of communication and co-ordination between the navy, the coast guard and the coastal police that lies at the heart of its failures.
Consider the response to MV Pavit's advance onto the Indian coast. It appears that the ship was first sighted the previous night by a hotel manager looking at the sea through his binoculars. He alerted a police station at Juhu. A cop went to the beach but couldn't see the vessel. He did not pass on the information anyway to the Coast Guard.
The following morning, fishermen saw the vessel lurching towards the coast. The informed the police station, who again failed to alert the coast guard. When the cops finally informed the coast guard at around 8.30 am, the latter asked for the information to be faxed but the police station was not equipped with a fax machine. By then, MV Pavit had run aground at Juhu beach taking early morning joggers by surprise.
Very basic problems are causing the coastal security network to leak. These are problems that warships cannot fix.
According to Pushpita Das of the Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, the "problem lies not in the measures adopted but in the inadequate attention paid to the functioning of the system at the ground level where the actual action takes place".
The little "coordination or information sharing" taking place at present between the navy, the coast guard and the coastal police "is largely based on personal rapport between the concerned officers", she observes, calling for the institutionalization of this "rapport".
A new naval base with warships and aircraft is a fine idea for enhancing security in the seas. But there is only so much it can do to secure the coast.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.