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MUMBAI AND COASTAL SURVEILLANCE: THE MV PAVIT INCIDENT



Author : C.Uday Bhaskar


The MV Pavit, a 1,000 tonne merchant ship that had been abandoned at sea for about a month literally washed up undetected on Mumbai’s popular Juhu beach in the early hours of Sunday – July 31. This incident follows in the wake of a similar incident / accident when the MV Wisdom, a 9000 tonne ship which was being taken to Gujarat broke tow - and ended up on the Juhu beach (June 11). The salvage operation was complex and costly. The enormity of the Wisdom event was that this ship was also undetected as it drifted towards the Mumbai coast – and the 9,000 ton vessel that was being carried by the tide could have collided with the Bandra-Worli Sea-link bridge and this exigency could have been a major disaster for India’s financial capital. It was sheer providence and chance that this disaster did not happen.

The media naturally has kept the spotlight on these two incidents and given the backdrop of the November 26, 2008 terrorist attack that savaged Mumbai, where the perpetrators came from sea – angry questions are being asked. Has the country’s coastal surveillance capability been improved after 26/11 and is Mumbai any less vulnerable as far as its maritime domain is concerned ?

This is a complex issue – the index of fool-proof coastal security and surveillance for a country that has the kind of geography that India does and this issue has received national attention only after the tragedy of 26/11. Mumbai 2008 in many ways is analogous to the 1962 border war with China which was a dramatic demonstration of India’s inadequate comprehension of national security challenges and preparedness.

The Pavit and Wisdom incidents collectively act as a reminder of the gaps in India’s coastal surveillance (despite the post 26-11 initiatives and funding support) that need to be reviewed and rectified – objectively and constructively. More by coincidence than design, the CAG report on the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) was released on Friday (Aug 5) along with various other departments and Ministries of the Government including the Railways. The indictment of the ICG is of relevance in this column for it is severe and appears to go beyond the fiscal domain – which one presumes is the primary focus for the CAG. Dwelling on the many government sanctions accorded after 26-11, the CAG report highlights various facts and figures – the number of new CG stations, patrol vessels, aircraft, jetties et al and the lapses that have occurred. The conclusion is stark – that India’s coastal surveillance still has large gaps and the Pavit-Wisdom incidents become illustrative.

According to media reports, the CAG report also concludes that the functioning of the ICG has been ad hoc and makes a number of observations that focus on the operational and planning aspects including the incidence of boarding of fishing vessels and the pattern of patrolling of the Indian EEZ. The report also exhorts the ICG to prepare a 15 year perspective plan and adds: “There is an immediate need for the ICG to evolve norms for patrolling in maritime coastal zones, based on available resources.” This summary of the CAG apropos the ICG and the unintended juxtaposition with the embarrassing Pavit-Wisdom could lead to a conclusion that the entire onus lies on the ICG and that the HUGE maritime inadequacies which need to be redressed can be attributed to one institution. This would be grossly misleading and is unwarranted.

To the best of my knowledge as a security analyst, the armed forces invariably draw up long term plans and submit them for necessary funding support but the decision making process for procurement is tedious and long-drawn out – and can take from four to 25 years! It was this point that was recently alluded to by the Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan when he observed after the July 13 terror attack, that despite all the political determination and approvals, the senior Indian bureaucracy today does not want to take a quick procurement decision lest they be targeted by one inquiry or another peaking with the CAG.

This is what may be described as the Bofors syndrome, where due to allegations of fiscal transgression and kickbacks going back to the mid 1980’s during the Rajiv Gandhi years, the Defence Ministry delayed the decision to procure the necessary inventory/ technology. Consequently the Indian army was denied a replacement artillery gun for almost 25 years and the Indian defence industry the opportunity to indigenize this equipment.

Prudent national security strategy would have ensured that the capacity of the Indian state to defend its security and sovereignty is never jeopardized or eroded but successive governments have become trapped by narrow political considerations and hence the deliberations on this vital subject have become arid and petty. Kargil and coffin-gate is case in point.

The Pavit incident and the CAG report need to be seen in tandem and used as an opportunity to carry out an objective and constructive review of what ails India’s coastal surveillance and security grid. The ICG is part of a complex institutional arrangement that also involves the Navy, the DG Shipping, local port authorities and the state police as also 14 other departments of the Centre and the coastal states.

Two immediate proposals could be considered by the Indian security apex. A blue ribbon Task Force comprising professionals should be formed to review India’s maritime challenges and examine the need to create a single point National Maritime node that will be accountable. The resultant report and recommendations could be submitted to Parliament as the basis for objective deliberations. Secondly the CAG Report could form the catalyst for a detailed audit of India’s military capacity going back to 1962 and identify the institutions that have contributed to the inadequacies and gaps that abound. The eve of the 65th Independence Day is opportune for such an exercise.

(This article first appeared in Hindi in the Dainik Jagran on Sunday, August 7, 2011)
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