December 20, 2008

Barking up the wrong tree after Mumbai

A couple of weeks after the end of the carnage in Mumbai, this seafarer remains bewildered by the country’s amnesia that makes it continue to forget, simply, that oceans exist. This national blind spot, known to mariners for decades, now stands exposed.

The TRP driven, media provoked ranting of the urban middle class and the elite, rattled by the invasion of their world for once, cannot escape from this simple fact: that the 7500 mile of coastline, the 13 major and the almost two hundred minor ports, the 1200 barren Indian islands, the few hundred offshore oil installations and close to sixty mobile oil platforms and the tens of thousands of registered boats (and the equal number of unregistered ones) did not appear on the horizon overnight. Our security analysts acknowledged the threat caused by our topography, amongst others, years ago, but we all had blinkers on. This weak link of amnesia in our national consciousness has now broken, and it has cost us

Fully twenty months ago, in March 2007, two militants coming in from Karachi by sea “paid a “huge sum as a bribe” to Indian Coast Guard officials who let them go. After they were apprehended in Kashmir, the Jammu and Kashmir police "sounded more than adequate alarm about the potential of this spiralling into a bigger challenge", according to a State police official anonymously quoted in national newspapers. Abdul Majeed and Mohammad Jameel, the two Pakistanis arrested, told the J & K police that they were amongst a group of eight infiltrators coming in by sea. The Jammu and Kashmir police official regretted recently that the "input and alert by us in this regard was not paid due heed.”

RDX comes in by sea; this time too, but also at the time of the 1993 Mumbai bomb attacks; corrupt police and customs officials were involved in smuggling it in from the sea at Shekadi, Raigadh. The urban elite were not sufficiently enraged then to take to the streets, perhaps because they themselves were not the targets of those attacks.

While on the subject of RDX, will the authorities clarify what happened to the rest of the reported 70 kg of RDX (and the remainder of the up to 25 terrorists) believed to have entered the country this time?

The Mumbai terrorists used the same strategy as was used in Kargil: nonexistent policing, appalling intelligence analysis by India and the utilisation of barren lands (islands, in this case) to devastating effect. Incidentally, this maritime modus operandi is well known to the authorities, as it has always been popular with drug smugglers and gunrunners. Security experts say 70% of smuggled arms come into India by sea. Corruption undoubtedly pays a part in this, and may even have in Mumbai 2008, though we may never be told how much.

Back in 2001, the “Border Management Report” recommended an overhaul of our coastal security. A unified maritime agency was mooted, modern technology and infrastructure proposed. Various ministries approved four separate reports. Fully five years later, in 2006, a plan to protect coastal areas from incursions was finalised by the Union Government, but nobody was interested in implementing the plan at the State level, and funds were scarce. The one thousand fibreglass boats, the hundred patrol boats and an equal number of coastal checkpoints, the coastal police stations and other such infrastructure was simply not built, except, ironically, in Gujarat. One State Government even said, with a straight face, that it did not have enough land to build coastal police stations! Incompetence and lethargy at its most glorious, or maybe there were more kickbacks to be milked elsewhere.

The Central Government is now, after seven years, talking of implementing what it had decided to put in place years ago. A federal agency, nationwide coastal security, more funds, transponders and GPS systems on trawlers, digitised identity cards, beefed up intelligence networks including reports from fishermen (ignored in Mumbai before the tragedy) are now promised in a flurry by our politicians and babus closing doors after the horse has murderously bolted. Boat registration has finally been made mandatory for motorised craft. One retired Indian naval expert estimates, however, that there are up to a hundred thousand unregistered boats in the country, many of them not motorised. The Centre also decided to allow the coast guard to hire boats for patrolling as they have an acute shortage of boats; a sad reflection on the state of affairs. There is also no synergy between the coast guard and the Indian navy in search and protect operations. The gaping holes in such a system are obvious.

It has been reported in some newspapers that the nearly sixty mobile oil drilling platforms in the country have now been asked by the Directorate General of Shipping to conform to the International Ship and Port Facility regulations, which we know were rolled out after the World Trade Centre attacks to prevent exactly what occurred in Mumbai. The ISPS came into force in 2004, but many Indian operators have now informally told reporters that they do not implement the rules to save costs or, in some cases, to increase revenues. No fly zones are now to be enforced over the hundreds of permanent oil installations off both the coasts, many unmanned. Notwithstanding that the recent events off Somalia and in Mumbai have proved what was known to seafarers for a long time, that the ISPS code has failed, the fact remains that an internationally mandated statutory regulation is being wilfully ignored, even sabotaged, by an industry four years after it came into force. This, when the Oil Industry remains a prime terrorist target for economic and environmental reasons. In fact, some of these units have approached the authorities asking to be exempted from the ISPS provisions! This is shocking. This is corruption too, even if it is by big business.

While ranting at politicians is fashionable, the rattled urban middle class needs to take a long hard look in the mirror, for once. We are a part of the problem. The political class is an issue, sure. However, many of the politicians come from our ranks, and most bureaucrats do. We tend not to vent at the babus, perhaps they are ‘people like us’; some are our siblings, parents, friends or otherwise within our social circle. They are far more dangerous than the politicians are, though; they do not even have to win any elections, ever, and they almost can never be sacked. Many, crooked, callous and lethargic, continue to play the same never ending games of patronage along with politicians and criminals. Efficiency and competence is thus hostage to corruption, and inertia rules. The rot is everywhere around you; all of us who have ever given or taken a bribe or used “influence” to grease the system are part of the problem. Indian naval, coast guard, police, excise and customs officials come from within our group, and so do big businesspersons and top executives. So folks, time to stop being so self righteous. The Mumbai failure is ours as much as anybody’s is, stop blaming just the politicians alone.

I fear that an overhaul of the maritime or other security apparatus in India will not suffice; we need an overhaul of the entire culture of corruption and patronage that is the real system. A system so depraved that it has subverted entire organisations and undermined a nation’s ability to defend itself can only destroy, not protect. We need to stop lighting candles or waving catchy printouts against politicians, and use that time to start to reform ourselves. If we do not do that now, when the rising waters threaten to choke our oxygen, we should then shut up, at least, and let the television media find another cause to temporarily boost its ratings.

As events in Mumbai have proved, it is breathtakingly easy to circumvent Indian maritime security, which seems to be akin to a bunch of holes masquerading as a system. We need to force a change to our culture of corruption, lethargy, patronage and plain cussedness right now. The way things stand, I am amazed we have such few terrorist strikes. I am also fearful that the next one may be a nuclear or biological attack. It seems so easy.

Think that we have woken up after Mumbai? Consider this: As I write this, reports are coming in of at least two abandoned boats being found on our southern coastline. One is pockmarked with bullet holes; it is assumed that some LTTE fighters escaping the Sri Lankan offensive may have escaped to India. Even if this is true, I must ask, though, that given the support that has always existed in parts of the country for the LTTE, and given that the organisation assassinated a Prime Minister of the country, and given that the LTTE is a terrorist setup, why are we still so ineffectually and blissfully sanguine? Has the urban elite reached its limit of selective raving? Has the methane finally run out?

Our termite infested system is not just stopping us from greater economic growth; it now threatens our very existence. Mumbai was not just an “intelligence failure”; it was the collapse of a rotting edifice. The blind leading the blind are now barking up the wrong tree, or, at best, just one branch of the right one.

Time to look in the mirror more often, instead of television screens.