In a series of articles published since 2020, assessments on non-traditional maritime security threats to India, such as armed robbery, climate change, drug trafficking have been made.  This article explores the maritime dimensions of smuggling in India, and is a follow-on to an earlier article of December 20201 that focused on the maritime dimensions of drug trafficking (December 2021).

The World Customs Organisation has defined smuggling [contrebande in French] as “Customs offence consisting in the movement of goods across a Customs frontier in any clandestine manner, thereby evading Customs control.”[1]   The Customs Act, 1962 defines smuggling in relation to both exported and imported goods as “any act or omission which will render such goods liable to confiscation under section 111or section 113.”[2]  Smuggling typically comprises ‘outright’ smuggling and ‘technical’ smuggling.  ‘Outright’ smuggling is the “secret movement of goods across national borders to avoid customs duties or import or export restrictions.”[3]  ‘Technical’ smuggling— essentially commercial fraud—refers to the adoption of methods to evade customs duties and other taxes, such as undervaluation and mis-declaration, while using legal channels of trade.[4]  In a maritime context, technical smuggling is restricted to notified Indian customs ports, while outright smuggling can take place at any location along the Indian coast, or at ports other than notified customs ports.  Another typology is based on the categorisation of the goods being smuggled, such as drugs, natural resources, domestic goods etc., and typically is not standardised.

It has been assessed that smuggling directly affects the economy and government revenues and reduces employment avenues.[5] While the essential motive for smuggling is profiteering, but as the Mumbai blasts of 1993 exemplify, it could also have national security ramifications.  In addition to economic and security implications, smuggling can also have a deleterious effect on society, social wellbeing, and employment.  Smuggling essentially exploits gaps in border management and security, and in border controls.[6]  Consequently, smuggling in a maritime context needs to be viewed from multiple perspectives of coastal border management, coastal security, and customs enforcement.

With the emergence of the wider concept of maritime security in the 1990s, smuggling is considered as one of the non-traditional threats to maritime security.  The Indian Maritime Security Strategy (2015) specifically recognises smuggling, along with trafficking, as one of the non-traditional threats to maritime security.[7]  It also highlights that the use of the sea routes by smugglers places a constant demand on maritime security agencies, and prophetically warns of the possibility of smuggling of nuclear material.  Smuggling of strategic licensed dual-use items could have serious implications for national and international security.

Historical Perspective

In independent India, prior to the emergence of terrorism, smuggling was the dominant non-traditional maritime security threat.  The Central Revenue Intelligence Bureau was raised in 1957 for collection and analysis of intelligence relating to smuggling and for investigation of important cases.[8]  By the 1960s, smuggling by sea was ‘rampant’ and threatened the economy of the country.[9]  The 1971 India-Pakistan war also resulted in a rise in smuggling with a detrimental impact on the Indian economy.[10]  The problems identified at that time inter alia included the long coastline without any effective surveillance; extensive fishing which complicated identification at sea and the absence of registration for fishing vessels; gaps in intelligence and ‘dislocated’ flow of intelligence; inadequate resources; and, the changing dynamics of smuggling itself.[11]  Some of the problems identified at that time were acted upon in a holistic manner almost four decades later— in response to the Mumbai attacks of 2008—with the setting up of electronic surveillance systems (radars and AIS chain), centralised portal for registration of fishing vessels [ReALCraft], revamp of the intelligence set-up, and the strengthening of maritime security agencies.[12]

The scourge of smuggling contributed to the raising of three maritime security agencies, the Customs Marine Organisation (CMO) in 1974, the Coast Guard in 1977, and the Coastal Security Group (CSG) in the Tamil Nadu Police in 1994.  The CMO was however subsequently merged into the Coast Guard on 21 January 1982.[13] The CSG, although a precursor to the present day State Marine Police (SMP), was not the first marine unit to be raised by a coastal state; Andaman and Nicobar had raised a marine unit in the 1950s..

By the1990s, with the liberalisation of the economy, and the emergence of maritime terrorism, maritime terrorism replaced smuggling to become the principal non-traditional maritime security threat in the country.  In the 1990s, three operations were instituted inter alia to prevent the smuggling of weapons and explosives into the country: Operation TASHA (Tamil Nadu/ 1990), Operation SWAN (Maharashtra-Gujarat/ 1993), and Operation LEECH (Andaman and Nicobar/ 1998).[14]  The Mumbai attacks on 26 November 2008 led to far-reaching changes in the management of maritime security in India, which while focused on preventing infiltration of terrorists through the sea routes, also provided the means to counter other maritime crimes.

Regional and Domestic Trends

This section attempts to explore the regional and domestic smuggling trends over the past decade, primarily drawing on the collective insights from reports published by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industries (FICCI), the Information Fusion Centre-Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR), and the Information Fusion Centre, Singapore (IFC, Singapore).[15]  The publication of annual reports from the DRI and IFCs towards the end of the 2010-20 decade has facilitated a better understanding of the overall situation; however, the focus areas of each report are different.

The maiden Annual Report of the IFC-IOR for the year 2020, highlighted that the largest incidents of maritime crime in its area of interest—which extends beyond the IOR—related to ‘contraband smuggling.’[16]  This was followed by Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing, irregular migration, and piracy/ armed robbery.  ‘Contraband smuggling’ includes smuggling in alcohol, drugs, domestic products, fuel, natural resources, tobacco, weapons, and wildlife; more recently a ‘miscellaneous’ category has also been added to the list of contraband by the centre.[17]  After drugs, tobacco and domestic products were observed to be the most commonly smuggled contraband both in 2020 and 2021.[18]  The centre has also observed that the  use of small vessels/ fishing craft and concealment of cargo in containerised cargo remain the preferred modes of contraband smuggling.[19]

In a study on coastal security published in 2013, the Gujarat-Maharashtra coast, the Tamil Nadu coast, the Sunderbans in West Bengal, and the Andaman and Nicobar were identified as areas which were historically prone to smuggling[20]  This included smuggling of gold into India and drug transshipment along the Gujarat-Maharashtra coast; smuggling of gold, electronics, spices into India, and textiles to Sri Lanka (this subsequently expanded to include movement of arms and ammunition and also drugs during the civil war in Sri Lanka); smuggling of essential items and wildlife in the Sunderbans area; and, poaching in Andaman and Nicobar.[21]  In addition, ports have also emerged as hubs for smuggling. A 2020 response to a parliamentary question revealed seizures of gold at Hazira, Mumbai, Mundra, Nhava Sheva and Surat in 2017-18 (239.6 kilograms) and Chennai, Mumbai and Nhava Sheva in 2018-19 (39 kilograms).[22]  Other than gold, seizures of other contraband have also been made.  These include black pepper mis-declared as plywood transiting to Nepal under the Indo-Nepal Treaty on Trade and Transit (1960) at Kolkata; silver and electronic waste (e-waste) at Nhava Sheva; Red sanders at Krishnapatnam and Mundra; and cigarettes at Kattupalli.[23]

IFC, Singapore published its first annual report for the year 2017 and has been publishing annual reports ever since and provides a five-year overview.  With regard to India, in 2017, the IFC reported seizures of domestic products (food/ electronic items), natural products (gold and wood), and wildlife (sea cucumbers) by Indian agencies.[24]  In 2018, the centre reported three incidents of fuel smuggling, continuing smuggling of gold into southern India, and the possibility of a maritime route for hardwood smuggling, such as rosewood and sandalwood, from India/ Sri Lanka to China/ Vietnam.[25] Smuggling of sea cucumbers was also reported by the IFC.  In 2019, the IFC reported a new trend of tobacco smuggling (beedi leaves)[26] by small boats, including by mid-sea transhipment in the waters between India and Sri Lanka.[27]  The detection of packages of beedi leaf—ashore and adrift—indicated possible jettisoning of the packages by smugglers fearing apprehension.  In 2020, the IFC reported a trend of increased smuggling of turmeric to Sri Lanka which was attributed to the import ban on turmeric in Sri Lanka; this has continued into 2021.[28]  The report also highlighted that ‘traditional smugglers’ who were earlier involved in smuggling of beedi leaves had switched to turmeric smuggling.[29]  With regard to wildlife smuggling, the report assessed the possibility of a route for smuggling of Sea cucumbers from India to China/southeast Asia via Sri Lanka.[30]  In the period 2017-2020, there were no reports of seizures of weapons; however, in 2020, in one case weapons were seized from a vessel engaged in drug smuggling.[31] This year, IFC, Singapore predicts that overall there unlikely to be any significant change in contraband smuggling trends in its area of interest in 2022.[32]

A granular analysis from the Monthly Maritime Security Updates (MMSUs) published by the center for the years 2020 and 2021, with a focus on smuggling in India, reveals the following:

First, a multitude of agencies were involved in maritime anti-smuggling efforts (jointly and independently), including the Indian Navy, Coast Guard, Customs, DRI, and the police.

Second, smuggling was reported in about half of the coastal states/ UTs (Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal) and in a few ports, such as Hazira, Kakinada, Kandla, Mundra, Mumbai;[33]

Third, the presence of both outright and technical smuggling, and smuggling in both imported and exported goods.

Fourth, smuggling of goods through the maritime routes, other than drugs, included smuggling in alcohol; domestic products (cardamom, dates, textiles, turmeric); tobacco products (cigarettes and tendu leaves), natural resources (gold, Red Sanders); wildlife (Sea cucumbers).

Fifth, likely smuggling routes exist between (1) India and the Middle East; (2) India and its maritime neighbours, primarily Sri Lanka, but also Bangladesh; and (3) India and southeast Asia.

Sixth, the presence of multiple non-traditional threats in some states/ areas; [34]  and,

Finally, the changing dynamics of smuggling in India.

Smuggling in India: Maritime Perspectives

The annual Smuggling in India Report, prepared by the DRI is the official account of smuggling in India.  Overall, India’s long coastline and numerous ports, makes India sensitive to smuggling through maritime routes.[35]  Based on the seizures of drugs (and other contraband) it has been predicted that the sea route will continue to be exploited in the future, as in the past.[36]  Smuggling is a transnational economic crime, and is driven by multiple factors, such as geography, local taxes (or bans), consumer demand, effectiveness of local law enforcement, etc.  With respect to Sri Lanka, the DRI annual report for 2019-20 highlights that “proximity to the north-western tip of Sri Lanka, presence of fishing communities of same ethnic linkages in both countries and cessation of internal war and return of peace in Sri Lanka” are contributing factors for smuggling across the India-Sri Lanka maritime boundaries.[37] As per the report, small motorised country boats are used for transhipment at predestined locations at sea, which involves an “intricate network of handlers and carriers,” indicating the possibility of a transnational organised crime network.[38]

As per the report in 2019-20, in terms of number of seizures and value of seizures by the DRI, gold is the most smuggled commodity followed by narcotics and psychotropic substances, cigarettes, foreign currency, agricultural produce, and wildlife.[39]  Gold is smuggled into India primarily because of the duties and other levies on imported gold.  In 2021, it was estimated that about one-sixth of the total gold entering India is smuggled (150-200 tonnes), of which about three quarters is smuggled from the UAE.[40]  While the air route has been the traditional route accounting for about 65 per cent of all seizures, increasingly the use of land route through neighbouring countries has been on the rise, and in 2020-21, Myanmar emerged as the major source of smuggled gold, driven by the disruption of air travel on account of COVID-19 pandemic.[41]  In 2019-20, the DRI reported three cases of seizures through the sea route; one each in the Gulf of Mannar (23 kilograms) and the Palk Bay (14.5 kilograms), and in one case, 110 kilograms of gold was seized by the Mumbai unit of the DRI in a containerised cargo from UAE that was declared as brass scrap.[42]  The 2020-21 report highlights that the COVID-2019 pandemic has thrown up new challenges, and exhorted officers of the DRI remain alert to innovative modus operandi that were being adopted by gold smugglers.[43]  It also called upon for newer techniques in data analytics to counter the scourge.

As per a World Customs Organisation(WCO) assessment of 2019, as cited by the DRI, India is the fourth largest market for illegal cigarettes, with smuggled cigarettes accounting for a quarter of the domestic market.[44]  Cigarette smuggling into India is attributed to punitive taxation on tobacco products, and the most commonly used method is by mis-declaration of imported air/sea cargo.[45]  Majority of the cigarettes are routed to India from Dubai (via sea routes), Malaysia (through sea, via Dubai), and from Myanmar and Nepal (over land).[46]  The profit margins from cigarette smuggling are reportedly more than for gold.[47]Overall, close to Rs 5 crore worth cigarettes were apprehended by the DRI in 2019-20.[48]

Red sanders or Red sandalwood (Pterocarpus santalinus) is listed in Schedule II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, 1973 (CITES).[49]  As per the DRI, an organised cartel is involved in smuggling of Red sanders from Andhra Pradesh to southeast Asia and east Asia through major ports.[50]  In 2019-20, the DRI seized over 150 tonnes of Red sanders valued at about Rs 7 crore.[51]

The DRI also reported seizures of sea cucumbers.[52] In 2021, a study on sea cucumber poaching and smuggling between 2015-20 observed that smuggling and poaching operations were highly organised, and were spreading from the core areas in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay to Lakshadweep.[53]  Since 2015, Indian authorities in 48 incidents arrested 81 criminals and seized six vessels.[54]  The total value of sea cucumbers seized is estimated to be about Rs 11 crore.[55]  Sea cucumbers, which are banned in India, are reportedly smuggled via Sri Lanka to markets in southeast Asia and east Asia where it is used as luxury food or in Chinese medicine.[56]  In addition to the use of small boats, tracked adrift packages were reportedly also used by smugglers.[57]

In addition to the above major contraband, the 2020-21 DRI report also mentions the use of sea route for trafficking of agriculture products, antiquities, and counterfeit items.[58]

From a national security perspective, in 2019, the DRI made two seizures related to dual-use goods that are subject to licensing regulations under the SCOMET list [Special Chemicals, Organisms, Material, Equipment, and Technology] published by the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT).[59]  This included a chemical that could be used as a missile propellant, and an autoclave that could be associated with a missile programme.[60] In 2020, titanium forgings which could be used in manufacture of Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) while being transported between two forging countries were seized in India.[61]  Earlier in March 2016, as per media reports, in a joint operation, Indian agencies had arrested six persons involved in smuggling of Beryl, a mineral ore from which beryllium is extracted for use in atomic power plants, to China.[62]  It was also reported that previously, in October 2015, a 20 tonne consignment had probably been smuggled to Hong Kong from Kandla port.[63] Considering the national security imperatives of strategic trade control enforcement, the Smuggling India Report 2020-21 notes the need for technology-driven interventions and the importance of collaborations with stakeholders to prevent exploitation of India’s growing trade volumes, the overwhelming majority of which is transported through the sea routes, by inimical forces.[64]

Institutional Framework

The Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs (CBIC) under the Department of Revenue in the Ministry of Finance deals with policy formulation concerning levy and collection of customs, central excise duties, Goods and Services Tax (GST), prevention of smuggling, and administration of related matters.[65]  The Board is also the administrative authority for Custom Houses in India.  The Preventive Wing of the Customs is responsible for the prevention of smuggling, including in ports.[66]  The Directorate of Logistics under the CBIC meets the logistical requirements of the field formations in the areas of anti-smuggling, marine preventive role, and communication.[67]  Some of the major projects of the directorate to counter smuggling through ports include procurement of container scanners for ports and acquisition of over 100 boats for patrolling off ports and other water bodies.[68]

The Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), formerly the Central Revenue Intelligence Bureau, under the CBIC is India’s apex anti-smuggling agency.[69]  The DRI enforces the provisions of the Customs Act, 1962 and over fifty other acts including those for drugs and arms trafficking.  The DRI is responsible for intelligence on smuggling, investigations, adjudication of cases, and prosecution of the arrested persons.  S

The Directorate General of Analytics and Risk Management (DGARM), set up in 2017, is the apex body for data analytics and risk management towards informed decision-making and policy formulation in the CBIC.[70]  The DGARM has four verticals under it, including the Risk Management Centre (RMC) for Customs and the National Targeting Centre (NTC).  The RMC is responsible for management of the Risk Management System (RMS) and targeting of ‘risky’ cargo crossing national borders whether by air, land, or sea.  The NTC provides for ‘risk interdiction support’ to the Customs and is responsible for nationally coordinated approaches to risk analyses and targeting of ‘risky’ goods.

While national anti-smuggling efforts are led by the DRI, in the maritime domain, the Coast Guard is mandated to “assisting the customs and other authorities in anti-smuggling operations,” and officers of the Indian Navy, police, port authorities, and other government officials (as notified) are “empowered and required to assist the Customs” in the execution of the Customs Act, 1962.[71]  In a maritime context, border management also includes coastal border management, and therefore the multi-agency coastal security construct developed after the Mumbai blasts in 2008 also provides a mechanism for preventing unauthorised movement of people and goods across coastal/ maritime borders, especially  in areas outside notified custom ports.  In other words, the overall approach to anti-smuggling is through customs enforcement in notified customs ports, and through the coastal security construct in other areas.

International Cooperation: Transnational Maritime Crime

The DRI is actively engaged in international cooperation, both bilaterally and multilaterally, to address transnational economic crimes.  In 2019-20, the DRI participated in ten enforcement operations, including four global operations targeting contraband, under the aegis of the WCO.[72]  In addition, the DRI also participated in one bilateral operation with the US.  In December 2019, as part of Operation SESHA III— a global operation proposed by India focused on smuggling of an internationally prohibited timber species—not only did the DRI seize a consignment of Red sanders destined for Malaysia from Krishnapatnam port, but also alerted the Malaysian Customs who seized another consignment of Red sanders.[73]  In addition to enforcement operations, the DRI also has also established channels information and intelligence sharing mechanisms with partner agencies.[74]

International and regional organisations are also engaged in addressing different forms of transnational crimes, including smuggling.  The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) operates a regional programme for South Asia (2018-21).  The thematic pillars of the programme include (1) countering transnational organised crime; (2) the drug problem; (3) corruption; (4) terrorism prevention; and (5) crime prevention and criminal justice.[75]  In addition, in South Asia, the UNODC’s Global Maritime Crime Programme (GMCP) Indian Ocean East (IOE) Team is supporting Bangladesh, the Maldives, Myanmar and Sri Lanka in building capacities to deal with maritime crimes.[76]

The BIMSTEC[77] Convention on Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism, Transnational Organized Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking was signed in Nay Pyi Taw in 2009.[78]  India leads the counter-terrorism and transnational crime sector of BIMSTEC which comprises six sub-groups focused on related aspects.[79]  The national security chiefs of BIMSTEC nations met in 2017 and 2018 and highlighted the need for a common legal and institutional framework, the need for information and data sharing for addressing common security threats, and greater dialogue at the Track 1.5 level amongst think tanks.[80]  Likewise, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) also aims to address security challenges arising from transnational organised crime through monitoring, information exchange, and exchange of technology.[81]

Curbing smuggling or trafficking through the sea routes is integral to the concept of regional cooperation for maritime security.  The Indian Ocean Regional Association (IORA) has adopted maritime security and safety as one its priority areas, and a working group was constituted in 2018.  The first meeting of the working group was held in 2019 during which the work plan for 2019-21 was finalised.[82]  The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) has identified counter-terrorism and transnational crime, as well as maritime security, as areas of cooperation.[83]

At the operational level, the Indian Navy, through the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) is collaborating on issues related to maritime security and information sharing and interoperability.[84]  The Heads of Asian Coast Guard Agencies Meeting (HACGM) also discuss issues related to preventing and controlling unlawful act at sea.[85]  The Indian Navy undertakes Coordinated Patrols (CORPAT) with maritime neighbours as part of its wider maritime security cooperation, and also undertakes Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) surveillance to assist friendly IOR littoral countries in surveillance of their EEZ.[86]  The Coast Guard has a Memorandum of Understanding with the Bangladesh Coast Guard in combating illegal activities at sea, and has undertaken extended EEZ patrol in the Maldivian EEZ.[87]

Way Forward

In 1975, a committee under the chairpersonship of Shri KF Rustamji, Special Secretary in the MHA, identified four basic requirements for effective anti-smuggling operations: (1) good intelligence and investigative effort; (2) good operational or preventive effort; (3) good legal framework; (4) and a reward policy for information and seizures.[88]  These are enduring fundamentals for maritime anti-smuggling operations.  In the aftermath of the Kargil War (1999) and the Mumbai attacks (2008) capabilities and structures for security governance have progressively been strengthened.  A more recent FICCI study of 2019, that examined the impact of smuggling on the Indian economy and employment, recommended the following as the way forward to tackle the problem of smuggling: (1) strengthening domestic manufacturing to reduce demand-supply gap; (2) strengthening government policy and law enforcement, and improving coordination amongst agencies;  (3) leveraging technology for trade facilitation and monitoring; (4) capacity building of human resources with the Customs; (5) strengthening risk management capabilities; and finally, (6) strengthening international cooperation.[89]  Several of these recommendations have a bearing from the maritime perspective. More recently, in 2020, the Union Finance Minister also highlighted better coordination among law enforcement and intelligence gathering agencies and sharing of actionable intelligence as a way forward in protecting the country’s economic frontiers.[90]

Some of the areas of strengthening anti-smuggling capacities in India from a maritime perspective are listed in subsequent paragraphs.

Border Management and Coastal Security.  The cumulative cases of smuggling recorded from six land borders in the period 2016-2019 was 6429 (2016), 8062 (2017), 7587(2018), 2925(2019).[91]  Based on the reports analysed in this article, the figures for smuggling through sea routes could be considered relatively miniscule.  As brought out earlier, smuggling exploits gaps in border management and customs enforcement, and therefore anti-smuggling operations are invariably associated with measures for border security, and in a maritime context, with measures for coastal security.  In response to a parliamentary question, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) stated “Border Guarding Forces (BGFs) are working in coordination with Customs department to prevent smuggling of counterfeit and unsafe products.”[92]  The MHA, has also highlighted the role of coordinating mechanisms at the state and district levels, as also the role of the Lead Intelligence Agency (LIA) to prevent infiltration and smuggling from the border areas.[93]  This is equally applicable to coastal states and coastal borders, where all agencies of the coastal security construct need to cooperate and coordinate efforts with the Customs/ DRI.

Localised Responses.  The analysis of seizures indicates that over time there has been changes to the geographical disposition, as well as the intensity and nature of contraband, driven by factors such as economic policies, supply-demand, law enforcement, technology, etc.  However, it remains largely localised to certain pockets.  Smuggling across the Palk Bay/ Gulf of Mannar region remains an intractable problem, despite the several measures which have been taken to strengthen coastal security, particularly in the aftermath of the assassination of Shri Rajiv Gandhi, former Prime Minister of India, in 1991 and the Mumbai attack in 2008.  While physical proximity and traditional ties could be reasons for the persistence, there obviously remain that are being exploited by criminal elements.  As such, in an asymmetric contest the advantage lies with the criminals rather than with the security/ law enforcement agencies.[94]  Localised problems call for localised solutions and therefore local agencies would need to take the lead to address them.  For example, increased arrests and seizures relating to Sea cucumber poaching and smuggling has been attributed to setting up of the Lakshadweep Sea Cucumber Protection Task Force, establishment of anti-poaching camps, and the creation of the Dr K.K. Mohammed Koya Sea Cucumber Conservation Reserve, a 239 square kilometre area near Cheriyapani, Lakshadweep.[95]

Inter-agency Coordination.  Several anti-smuggling operations have been jointly undertaken by central and state agencies.  There is also evidence of collaboration of the DRI with other intelligence agencies, including for maritime anti-smuggling operations.[96]  Inter-agency coordination facilitates complementary expeditious actions by multiple agencies to address a specific threat and is fundamental to maritime security operations; anti-smuggling operations are no exception.  Inter-ministerial and centre-state coordination is a facilitator for field-level coordination.  A tendency to protect one’s turf however one of the impediments to effective coordination.[97]  Strengthening domestic inter-agency linkages between central and state agencies breaking of silos is therefore the way forward.

Customs Enforcement.  A CAG report of 2017 highlighted several shortcomings in the preventive functions of the Customs.[98]  With regard to the marine wing, this included shortages in personnel, including for manning of boats; lack of marine expertise in view of short tenures; low operational availability of boats for patrolling; lack of dedicated berthing; inadequacy of equipment to screen consignments; and shortcomings in intelligence collection.  A Risk Management System (RMS)—an automated electronic assessment system—determines the need for manual appraisal by the assessing officer of the Customs, or examination of goods, or both.[99]  In a 2020 report, the CAG has highlighted certain gaps in the RMS and recommended review and update of the risk parameters.[100]  Strengthening the preventive wing of the Customs and RMS, as recommended by the CAG, are therefore imperative for customs enforcement and prevention of smuggling through Indian custom ports, especially as the requirements of trade facilitation and customs enforcement need to be finely balanced.

Maritime Domain Awareness.  Data for this article has been aggregated from multiple sources—DRI, IFC-IOR, and IFC, Singapore—to create a comprehensive narrative of the maritime dimensions of smuggling in India.  The mandate of the DRI includes “keeping statistics of seizures and prices/rates etc. for watching trends of smuggling.”[101]  Likewise, the charter of the IFC-IOR, albeit from a maritime perspective, includes “trend and predictive analysis of historical data” and collation, analysis of data and dissemination of information, including on Vessels of Interest (VOI).[102]  In addition, the Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC) is the nation’s nodal centre for the management and analysis of data from multiple maritime sensors and databases.[103]  Port States in the Indian Ocean Region undertake Port State Control (PSC) inspection of ships under the Indian Ocean Memorandum of Understanding on Port State Control for the Indian Ocean Region (IOMOU).[104]  The IOMOU maintains a database of risk indicators for various ships primarily with regard to compliance of international shipping standards, and also maintains the Indian Ocean Computerized Information System (IOCIS) that facilitates identification of ‘sub-standard’ ships.[105]  In general, lower compliance reflects lesser management controls. Consequently, there is a possibility such ships could be more likely to engage in illegal activities, such as smuggling, and need to be watched over from both a safety and a security perspective. In addition to the RMC and the NTC, the DRI also engages in risk management techniques and data analytics in cases involving duty evasion.[106]

Agencies such as DRI, RMC, NTC, and IMAC could establish linkages and complement their respective strengths in data analytics, risk assessments, and Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) for in-depth analysis of issues related to maritime smuggling in India.  Considering the different areas of focus, there will be a need for standardisation of terminology and approaches for effective analysis.  Collation of data, and its further analysis, by the concerned agencies would also facilitate more granular trend analysis.

Fisheries MCS.  Regional smuggling trends are indicative of the fact that in addition to containerised cargo, small vessels and fishing vessels, are the preferred modes for smuggling.[107]  The need for strengthening of fisheries Monitoring Control and Surveillance (MCS) has been integrated into the National Policy on Marine Fisheries (2017), and subsequently in 2020, into the PRADHAN MANTRI MATSYA SAMPADA YOJANA (PMMSY).[108]  The draft National Fisheries Policy (2020) also re-emphasises the role of MCS.[109] This also includes the need for a suitable tracking system for fishing boats.  However, despite several security-related initiatives in the fisheries sector, a full-fledged MCS system is yet to be established either in states or at the national level.  Strengthening MCS is fundamental to addressing illegal activities in the maritime domain, and the question now is essentially that of implementation of policy.

International Cooperation.  The analysis of smuggling routes indicates that smuggling routes exist across the Indian Ocean Region (and beyond).  In addition to smuggling across maritime borders, the Middle East, southeast Asia, and east Asia are the primary origin/ destination of contraband.  As exemplified in the DRI report, actions under a global operation resulted in an apprehension of Red sanders by Malaysian Customs.  However, the progress of most of the international/ regional arrangements do not appear to be particularly encouraging.  Nevertheless, smuggling is linked to transnational organised crime, and therefore there remains a need to consolidate on international linkages whether under the aegis of international organisations (INTERPOL, UNODC and WCO),[110] or regional organisations (BIMSTEC, IORA, SAARC, etc.), or through bilateral/ multilateral arrangements, especially with origin and destination countries of contraband.  Operationally, maritime security agencies also need to cooperate with partner agencies to counter smuggling through the sea routes.  Operational cooperation also entails strengthening information sharing such as through IFCs, as well as intelligence sharing.

Community Engagement.  The DRI has a reward scheme for information from conscientious citizens that contribute to prevention of smuggling.[111]  The reward could in exceptional cases be as high as high as 20 per cent of the value of confiscated goods and realised penalty.[112] Such schemes can be popularised through community interaction programmes which are regularly undertaken by maritime security agencies.  This is especially true in those areas where the fishers are also possible contraband carriers.


In a series of articles, the NMF has explored non-traditional maritime security threats to India.  This article has endeavoured to provide an updated assessment of the trends in smuggling from a maritime perspective and has also made some recommendations.

In the 1960s and 1970s smuggling threatened the nation’s economy, and this contributed to the raising of the CMO followed by the Coast Guard.  By the 1990s India’s economy had been liberalised, and smuggling of arms and ammunition into the country through the sea routes now emerged as a threat to India’s national security.  Localised low intensity operations were therefore launched to curb such movements in affected areas.  Subsequently, the 1999 Kargil War and the Mumbai attacks in 2008 led to substantive changes to the way India managed its coastal and maritime security with a focus on prevention of infiltration of terrorists through the sea route and the smuggling of arms and ammunition.  Overall, as per some estimates, smuggling continues to have a negative effect on the national economy and on domestic employment.

In 1974 the Rustamji Committee found that the smuggling patterns were dynamic, and that observation continues to be an enduring one, barring a few exceptions.[113]  Changes are driven by multiple factors, such as the supply and demand, economic policies, internal issues, geographical proximity, security measure, law enforcement, etc.  Broadly, from a maritime perspective, analysis of reports over the past few years point to the following major routes for contraband other than drugs: smuggling of cigarettes and gold primarily from the Middle East into India through ports; smuggling of Red sanders from India, primarily to southeast Asia and east Asia, again through ports;  smuggling of textiles across the Bangladesh-India maritime boundaries; and smuggling of  domestic products (turmeric, tendu leaves), wildlife (sea cucumbers), and gold across the India-Sri Lanka maritime boundaries, by small craft.[114]  Sea cucumbers are further smuggled to southeast Asia and east Asia.

Based on the trends, preventing smuggling through the sea routes essentially needs to focus on customs enforcement in ports, surveillance of maritime boundaries, and coastal security particularly in coastal states adjoining maritime boundaries.  Countering smuggling through the maritime routes involves multiple agencies.  All agencies, need to combine their respective strengths for developing robust responses to smuggling through the maritime routes, and dedicated maritime capabilities must also be developed in those agencies which are not dedicatedly maritime.  International cooperation and intelligence/ information sharing, along with international operational coordination, are the cornerstones for effectively countering transnational organised crime in any form, and strengthening international linkages also merits further consolidation.

Smuggling per se no longer figures prominently in the discourse on maritime security in India, despite its negative impact on the economy, and possible impact on national security.  However, history has shown that smuggling can take sinister forms in insidious ways.  Therefore, despite the progressive strengthening of national efforts to counter smuggling and to strengthen maritime security, there is a need to remain watchful.


About the Author:

Captain Himadri Das is a serving Indian Naval Officer and is presently a Senior Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation (NMF).  The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Government, of India or the Indian Navy.  He can be reached at



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Appendix II includes species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilisation incompatible with their survival.

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[52] DRI, Smuggling in India Report 2019-20, 50; Sea cucumbers are marine animals with radial symmetry that include starfish, sea urchins, and sand dollars.  Several species found in India and Sri Lanka have commercial value.

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[113] Prabhakaran Paleri, Role of the Coast Guard in the Maritime Security of India, 38.

[114] Sea cucumbers are further smuggled to southeast Asia/ east Asia.


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