August 18, 2011

Soft State

To the many who are asking- after the Pavit grounding and the Rak Carrier sinking- "What is wrong with India's maritime security?" I have a one-word answer. Everything.

Another slightly longer answer to the same question: What is wrong with maritime security is corruption and its fallout, because Indian inefficiency is the bastard child of another perverted disease- corruption. We are saddled today with endemic political, commercial and bureaucratic depravation that rots the foundations all our institutions. It also spawns inefficiency, inertia and self-centred behaviour, besides a culture of non-accountability.  An indolent, arrogant and corrupt system will never be equipped to handle any security; so it is.

Things were supposed to be different after the Mumbai terror attacks three years ago, when ten terrorists came in by sea from Pakistan, hijacked an Indian trawler and sailed it to mayhem in Mumbai after killing the skipper. Although some of us have often expressed dismay at the sorry state of maritime security affairs since then, we were assured last year, by none other than the Home Minister, that maritime security had been significantly augmented. A fortune had already been spent on building a three tier security ring that involved the Coast Guard, the Navy and coastal maritime police, we were told. We knew we were being told a lot of nonsense, of course; for one, we could see that piracy had reached Indian shores that were now at the fine edge of a war zone. Later we heard reports of pirates swimming ashore- undetected- in Lakshadweep and Gujarat. We saw, repeatedly, the complete lack of Indian control over the country's coastline. We saw the great Indian State being caught repeatedly with its pants down.

The Pavit and Rak Carrier incidents are just high profile, close to Mumbai's many TV cameras- and therefore noticed by the otherwise sea blind country. Many questions remain unanswered there, though. In the Pavit case, the biggest ones being: How does a ship abandoned a month earlier off Oman (and that the owners reported sunk) drift roughly eastwards in the southwest monsoons for weeks through Indian waters unnoticed? How does it land up beached on the most popular holiday spot in central Mumbai without any authority being aware of its existence? And how does it land up there reasonably decently maintained a month after being allegedly abandoned? The Rak Carrier sinking is equally suspicious, and smells of fraud.

However, these are just two incidents out of the many recent security breaches on the western Indian coast- so far only the western, although I doubt very much that the east coast is any more secure. Numerous piracy incidents close to the Indian western coastline (also, alarmingly, close to the Bombay High oilfield) and the grounding of the MV Wisdom off the same Juhu beach all happened before the Pavit, making a laughing stock of government statements that said that 183 interceptor boats had been provided to a dozen states across the country for coastal security, that the coast guard was being expanded with fifteen specialised vessels on order, and that scores of new coastal police stations had been setup. Billions had been spent and billions more promised. (News reports said, long before the Pavit and the Rak Carrier, that these interceptor boats lay idle in Maharashtra because of chronic mechanical failures, lack of trained crew and- and this is hilarious- the monsoons.)

The Comptroller and Auditor General of India said early this month that coastal security is "besieged with ad hoc planning and bureaucratic bottlenecks, huge manpower and equipment shortfalls and turf wars among different agencies, including the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard," according to media reports.  "Flawed planning and deficient execution of plans has resulted in Coast Guard operating at virtually half its required strength," the CAG said. The force has only 65% of the required force-levels of ships and vessels, and 48% in terms of aircraft and helicopters. The CAG also says that coordination between agencies leaves much to be desired. "In an era of heightened coastal security concerns, Coast Guard remains ill-equipped to discharge its enhanced role and meet the challenges of today," the CAG said.

Three years after Mumbai, the Indian government has still not set up the promised apex Maritime Security Advisory Board headed by a Maritime Security Advisor. Their inefficiency is breathtaking.

I am not saying that security today is directly compromised because of corruption in the intelligence, navy, coast guard or coastal police setups. However, I will bet that somewhere, sometime, when you least expect it, questions will be asked about where the billions that have been spent went.
What I am saying, however, is that rampant corruption and its concomitant fallout guarantee paralysis in efficiency and makes the pursuit of maritime security an exercise in futility. I bet this is the real reason why we have gotten exactly nowhere after spending those billions.

The Indian State and its security apparatus stands exposed at a particularly dangerous time today. New threats are emerging in addition to old existing ones. In our immediate neighbourhood, Pakistan is on a slow march to chaos, maybe even disintegration. Piracy and maritime terrorism remain potent threats. Our waters are becoming polluted dumping grounds for old and unseaworthy ships and all kinds of crimes and frauds.  A newer threat is the recent approval given by the International Seabed Authority to the Chinese for undertaking deep-sea mining in the Indian Ocean; the approval   will allow a hostile country to flex its military muscle close to Kanyakumari in India on the pretext of mining operations. Tough for India to contain China when it cannot do that to a pirate boat sailing merrily into Gujarat.

India today is simply not geared enough, strong enough or honest enough to meet these challenges. It is a soft State and not only because of its wishy-washy foreign policies that try to please all and end up pleasing none; it is a soft State because all its institutions have been softened to putty and their foundations hollowed out by corruption and its diseased spawn. It is a soft State because corruption- and its illegitimate children led by inefficiency- have made its security apparatus soft in the head. India is soft because most Indians cannot see beyond their own narrow self-interests; it is soft because graft and greed prevail everywhere over professional good sense.

Clearly, there can be no maritime security in this slothful atmosphere. Clearly, we have to fix corruption before we even begin to fix maritime security. Unfortunately, I have very little faith that this will happen in my lifetime. I have few beliefs left when it comes to Indian institutional integrity; In fact, the only belief I still have left is that you will be able to read this article- unchanged, three years from today- and it will still appear topical and fresh, because little, if anything, would have changed.

We had better pull up our socks. And while we are at it, we had better pull up our pants too.

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