August 7, 2022
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The Indian Coast Guard

The vastness of the ocean more often than not has overshadowed the coastal quarters of the world’s maritime domain. It is on similar lines that the nature of maritime security has comprised studies over time that have shaped the evolution of the discourse in the maritime sphere. Keeping with this adage, the coastline and its security agencies, namely the Coast Guards of the world have been seen not as a poor sister to the navies of nations, but a forgettable entity at times. The evolution of the Indian Coast Guard is not different though over the years and decades, it has taken on added responsibilities at times not originally thought of – and has carved out a niche area for itself in the nation’s maritime security domain. In doing so, the Indian Coast Guard now shares aspects of maritime security with the Indian Navy, providing food for further thought. The creation of Coastal Police Force in States along the nation’s sealine is born out of the realisation of how much the Coast Guard is doing, and how much more there is to be done in terms of near-coast security at the level of individual States and Union Territories. What more, there is greater role and responsibility waiting to be shouldered and shared by the Indian Coast Guard in the geo-political Indo-Pacific strategic space, where benign policing cannot be avoided but cannot be given to heavily-weaponed Navy, with its inevitable political connotations.

Descriptive Genes

The Indian Coast Guard, as an arm of the Indian state, has its origins not only in its humble beginnings but also as an afterthought. Unlike most other uniformed services whose origins lie in the state’s acknowledgment of chinks in its maritime security armour and the rationale for a dedicated force structure to address the same, the formation of the Indian Coast Guard was not a result of the government’s prerogative. It was the Indian Navy that sowed the seeds for the formation of the Indian Coast Guard.  

The Navy, since Independence, was the sole custodian of the Indian waters and the security of the maritime space. The Navy that recognised the need for a dedicated service to address the security aspects of the near- waters of India’s long coastline. Hence, since the 1960’s onwards, the Indian Navy had been nudging the government to create a dictated Maritime Law Enforcement agency that would be responsible for the safety and protection of the near-coast of Indian waters[1]. The rationale for such a dedicated law-enforcing agency was a reflection of the security priorities of the time.

The primary security concerns at sea did not stem from traditional spheres of the marine space but rather a manifestation of the nation’s priorities and economic policies. The lack of the serious maritime concerns for India was not necessary a reflection on ‘sea blindness’ in New Delhi but was result of its experience. India’s security priority in the first few decades since Independence was shaped by continental concerns, and not maritime space, which were relatively tranquil and quiet.

This was because of the territorial border dispute across the Himalayan mountain ranges with principal neighbours, namely Pakistan and China. These disputes had taken the form of an active conflict resulting in three wars in 1947, 1962 and 1965. The first and the last involved Pakistan. The second one, related to China, in which India took a beating. But for the 1965 War with Pakistan, which saw only a minor naval engagement, India’s physical security and sovereignty concerns did not emanate in any significant form the maritime domain, until such time.The subsequent ‘Bangladesh War’ of 1971 witnessed the Navy playing a crucial role both on the western and eastern sectors, targeting Pakistani adversary. In the hugely successful war, the Indian Navy lost  INS Khukri, a Type 14 (Blackwood-class) frigate, which was sunk off the coast of Diu, by Pakistan Navy Daphné-class submarine PNS Hangor. Khukri was the first warship to be sunk in action by a submarine since the Korean War and remains the only warship to be lost in combat for the Indian Navy. The Navy later named it’s the lead vessel of corvettes class vessels after the lost vessel, christening it INS Khukri (P 49).

However, owing to a socialist bend of mind, which strived for indigenous manufacture of consumer durables, India had impose restrictions on import of goods, accompanied by high rates of taxation and import-bans. This made the Indian shores a hotbed for sea-borne smuggling. The principal agencies at that time to address this issue were the Customs and the Fisheries Department[2], respectively the arms of the Union of India and the respective State Governments abutting the coast, assisted by the Indian Navy. Nonetheless, all three entities were found wanting in addressing this issue, comprehensively. While the Customs and Fisheries departments suffered from capacity and capability- limitations in tackling illegal activity at sea, the Navy too faced a near-similar problem but of a diametrically opposite nature.

The Navy, seen as the primary arm of the Indian State for maritime security recognised its limitations in addressing the challenges emanating from sea-borne smuggling. This was because the assets of the Indian Navy by their very nature were designed for war and such war-fighting capability was not an appropriate instrument for addressing sea-borne smuggling and other coastal violations and consequent duties. The Indian Navy thus recognised the absence of the right instruments for near-coast maritime policing and voluntarily paved the way for the creation of a dedicated force with the required capability and capacity and also a dictated force-structure of smaller vessels to patrol the near-waters of the Indian coastline.

Apart from operational constraints, the Indian Navy’s rationale for the formation of a sister-service was also a reflection of its core operational philosophy. Since Independence, the Indian Navy’s mandate and core mission was to secure the nation’s mercantile shipping and shipping routes, deter and prevent hostile and aggressive actions by enemies and lend merited assistance to the other two services, especially the Indian Army, during any sea-borne operations. While the need of the hour on the maritime front was not combat-capability that the Indian Navy brought to the table but a policing role, for which it was acknowledged to be ill-suited. 

It was in this backdrop that the Indian Navy began urging the government since the 1960’s to setup a dedicated coastal security force, namely the Indian Coast Guard. After multiple reviews by the government and deliberations by multiple committees, the need for a Coast Guard was fully appreciated. The decision for creating the Indian Cost Guard was made in 1976. However, it was only on 1 February 1978 that the Indian Coast Guard came into existence. Though legally the Indian Coast Guard came into being only months later, on 18 August 1978, when Parliament passed the Coast Guard Act. 

At time of its inception, the Indian Coast Guard was manned by a mixed pool of personnel. The man-power consisted of men and officers from both the Indian Navy and the para-military agencies such as the Border Security Force (BSF). The Indian Navy also spared two frigates and five patrol boats to the Coast Guard so as to enable it to carry out its duties. Nonetheless, with time the Indian Coast Guard now has its own fleet of vessels and helicopters along with its own cadre of officers, with ranks unlike the Navy, and enlisted sailors to man the force.

Changing Order at Sea

The need for a dictated coastal protection force was realised by the government not only at the behest of the Indian Navy but also given the changing global order at sea. Under the aegis of the United Nation, the third Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was deliberating the global maritime order. The UN Convention had recognised that all coastal states were entitled to territorial waters of 12 nautical miles, wherein they enjoyed absolute sovereignty. The UNCLOS had also recognised an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles. The littoral states enjoyed exclusive economic privileges within this 200 nautical mile zone, called ‘Exclusive Economic Zone’ (EEZ), both living and non-living resources, whether in the column of water but also on the seafloor or beneath it seabed. The 200-nautical mile EEZ also expanded the zone of maritime responsibility of littoral states. As such the littoral states were not only responsible for maintaining maritime order within its areas of responsibility including the EEZ but also in safeguarding the maritime environment. There was the immediate need and purpose for the littoral states. They could exploit the maritime life and minerals beyond its seabed, at a time of its requirement and convenience.

Keeping with the sprite of the UNCLOS, the Indian Parliament enacted the Maritime Zones of India Act in August 1976. This law has officially claimed India’s sovereign right over its maritime zone along with an EEZ of 2.01 million sq-km, as calculated with the UNCLOS’ norm of 200 nautical miles from the shore. Though this law of Parliament predates the formation of the Indian Coast Guard by two years, the Maritime Zone of India Act along with UNCLOS provided both purpose and direction to the new force going beyond the Indian Navy’s reasoning for the creation of this agency.

Role of the Indian Coast Guard

Over the years, the role that the Indian Coast Guard has come to play has not only changed but has also kept pace with the changing order at sea. Prior to understanding the role of that the Indian Coast Guard plays in maritime security as a coastal security agency, it is pertinent to understand maritime security as a concept and practice.

Coastal security is a subset of the larger canvas of maritime security. As such, the maritime security encompasses all issues relating to the seas and the ocean space. The ambit of maritime security covers a wide range that includes protecting national sovereignty by delimiting and administrating the maritime areas of a state, advancing economic progress by protecting and exploiting the marine resources, ensuring human security and the preservation of the maritime ecology. Apart from these, maritime security also entails the security and safety of seaborne trade and commerce, ensuring the security and well-being of entities engaged in maritime activity, like shipping and fishing. Additionally, maritime security also ensures the security and defence of the maritime zone, including coastal security, coastal defence and offshore security against threats. Maritime defence also includes deterring aggressive or hostile actions by both state and non-state entities. All these aspects of maritime security encompass what has now come to be termed as ‘maintaining good order at sea’.

Coastal Security differs from maritime security not in its purpose but more in terms of its scope. Coastal Security being a subset of the maritime security focuses on issues that are closer to the shores of a sovereign state than engaging about concerns that originate in the high seas or distant waters. As such, a few of the specific roles and responsibilities of the any coastal security agency, including the India Coast Guard, also comprises the security of coastal/ maritime assets like ports, sea-bound vessels and people engaged in marine activities. It also covers aspects of proving a maritime security cover to land-based installation that are either strategic assets of a state like nuclear facility or other installations that are critical for economic progress of a state, be it an industrial-hub or a hydro-carbon refinery. The coastal security agencies are also entrusted with the responsibility of coastal management, protecting the sovereign territorial waters and rights of a littoral state in the coastal region which would also include island security and law-enforcement in coastal zones as a means of ensuring good order in the coastal waters of a state. 

However, a few of the salient roles that the Indian Coast Guard has come to play now includes but not limited to the following:

Off-Shore Security Coordination: Off-shore installations in form of oil rigs and their security is an important function that the Indian Coasty Guard plays. The importance of such off-shore installations like oil rigs was reasoned even prior to the formation of the Indian Coast Guard. The potential for hydro-carbon resources in the Bombay High oil-field was identified during the cartographic- mapping of the Gulf of Khambaht in 1964-67. This was followed by a detailed survey of the Bombay High oil-filed in 1972. By 1974, the first off-shore oil wells were sunk in this field -- that was even prior to formation of the Indian Coast Guard in 1978.

Given the unique security concerns of off-shore installations, including Bombay High, the Indian Coast Guard is the nodal agency when it some to the protection of such assets. For the very same reason, the Director-General of the Coast Guard is the permanent Chairman of the Off-Shore Coordination Committee (OSCC). This committee is tasked with coordinating all aspects of off-shore security. As such, the committee also has representatives from the Indian Navy, the Indian Air Force, Intelligence Bureau, representatives of the oil and gas industry, namely Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), among others stake-holders.

Fisheries and Marine Ecology Protection: One of the sensitive responsibilities of the Indian Coast Guard is to secure the fisheries resources of India from illegal and unregulated fishing, and poaching of marine ecological wealth of the Indian waters. The sensitive nature of fisheries protection arises from the human interface. Owing to the over-lapping nature of fishing grounds, especially along with shared coastline with Pakistan in the west and Park Bay waters with Sri Lanka in the south, instances of fishermen crossing the inter-regional / international maritime boundary line (IMBL) are many and not infrequent. The resulting illegal entry of non-citizens into sovereign waters does result in regular confrontation between law-enforcing agencies and civilian fishermen of another country. Such violations by fishermen results, more often than not, in their arrest and detention. There have also been instances of law-enforcing agencies in other countries using force to secure arrests or otherwise ensure that alleged poachers left sovereign waters of another country.

To address this issue, in 2004 the Indian Coast Guard set up a hotline with its Pakistani counterpart, the Maritime Security Agency of Pakistan. The hotline serves the purpose of both protecting and promoting the interests of the respective fishing communities of India and Pakistan. The hotline also ensures that the two agencies enhance their level of coordination and try and prevent any avoidable situation at sea. 

However, the real challenge in addressing fisheries-related issues for the Indian Coast Guard has been in the Park Bay waters from across the Sri Lankan coast in the south. Given the close, maritime proximity of the two states and the concentration of the fishing grounds, fishers-related issues occur at regular intervals. More often than not, this dispute at sea finds resonance in the respective domestic political domains of both Sri Lanka and India, especially in the common Tamil-speaking regions in the two countries. It is thus Tamil Nadu in India and the Northern and Eastern Provinces in Sri Lanka, where the fishers’ disputes have their political and social resonance, with the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) taking tough positions against the Indian fishers from time to time.

On similar lines with fisheries and fishers protection, the Indian Coast Guard also plays a critical role in protecting the maritime environment from pollutants, especially in terms of oil-spill at sea. As with other aspects of maritime activities, the Marine Pollution Protocol, which came into force in 1983, has made the Indian Coast Guard the nodal agency for coordinating all efforts for the National Oil Spill Disaster Contingency Plans (NOSDCP). As such, the role that the Indian Coast Guard plays is not limited to only issues of oil-spills but also encompasses other aspects of maritime pollution. Though the primary focus of marine pollution and ecological degradation was originally limited to oil and chemical spills, over the years the ambit of responsibility for the Coast Guard has expanded to cover threats of environmental degradation from ships, ports and facilities in the Indian coastline.  To discharge the commitments to the ecology, the Indian Coast Guard has specialised vessels in from of two specially-built Pollution Control Vessels along with trained manpower for the same.

Maritime Search and Rescue: On lines similar to UNCLOS, important convention with respect to maintaining good order at sea is the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (M-SAR) of 1979. This Convention though came into force in 1985 while India ratified the same only on May 2001. This Convention, as the name suggests, was aimed at stream-lining search and rescue operations at sea. As such, the Convention has demarcated the world’s maritime spaces into ‘zones of responsibility’ of individual littoral states. This ‘zone of responsibility’ is not similar to the provisions in UNCLOS.

In the case of India, the M-SAR region of 4.6 million is more than twice the EEZ of India, and extends well beyond the Equator. In the Indian Search and Rescue Region (ISRR) in the Indian Ocean, it is the Indian Coast Guard that is the nodal agency as the designated National Maritime Search and Rescue Coordinating Authority (NMSARCA). The Director-General of the Coast Guard is the Chairman of the National Maritime Search and Rescue Board. For operational reasons, the Indian M-SAR region is divided into three Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres (See Map 1: Indian Search and Rescue Region). Owing to the vastness of the ISSR and the nature of M-SAR, the Indian Coast Guard coordinates its efforts with its counterparts in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR)

The Indian Coast Guard has also acquired technical expertise from other sources. Today, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and its network of satellites is an important component in monitoring and providing real-time information about any distress situation at sea. Since 2003, the Coast Guard has computerised the ship-reporting system, which too has gone on to save lives and property at sea, like fishermen, seafarers and their vessels.

While the Indian Coast Guard has not shied away from acquiring technical expertise from other specialised agencies, the reveres is also true. With respect to the partnership with ISRO, the Indian Coast Guard has assisted the agency in its outer space research. A notable partnership in this regard was in 2014, with the Indian Coast Guard tracing and recovering ISRO’s outer space crew module, which was under test. This crew module and the recovery of the same from the sea is a critical aspect of the India’s planned manned mission to the outer space.

Notable Operational Successes of the India Coast Guard 

While the Indian Coast Guard is a benign agency unlike her sister service, the Indian Navy, and is seldom seen as an instrument of war and state craft, the Coast Guard too has had its fair share of laurels to its credit. Away from limelight, one of the notable operational achievements of the Coast Guard was recorded in 1999, when a Japanese merchant vessel, MV Alondro Rainbow, was hijacked by Indonesian pirates. The hijacked vessel was rescued in a joint operation by the Coast Guard and the Navy.

The resultant outcome of this operation was that the Indian Coast Guard and its Japanese counterpart stared to undertake regular bilateral exercises. Since 2016 the bilateral exercise has been codenamed ‘SahyogKaijin.’ At the same time, the horizons of external engagement of the Indian Coast Guard also includes its counterparts in Bangladesh, South Korea, Vietnam, Australia and Japan, to name only a few. It may sound problematic in political terms, but India’s increasing engagement in the Indo-Pacific geo-strategic space, through the past years, to ensure ‘good order at sea’ may have begun with individual exchanges and exercises involving the Indian Coast Guard along with counterparts from Japan, Australia and the US – as was between the navies of the four nations.

A salient operation of the Indian Coast Guard related to its engagement in Maldives. After the Indian Air Force (IAF) helped scuttle a coup attempt by Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries, against then Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in 1988, the Indian Coast Guard has been engaging the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) regularly. Since 1991, the Coast Guard and the MNDF have been undertaking a bi-annual coastal security exercise code-named Ex-DOSTI. To augment the capability of Maldives in securing its waters, the Indian Coast Guard assets, both air and sea platforms, are regularly deployed in patrolling the EEZ of the archipelago-nation. Of the two helicopters that India gifted Maldives for operations in the past decade, one came from the Indian Coast Guard. It is noteworthy that Coast Guard pilots are posted in Maldives along with technical staff, to fly and maintain the helicopter on designated humanitarian missions, under the overall command, control and supervision of the MNDF. The significance of the DOSTI exercise was best brought out when its 2012 edition was expanded to include Sri Lanka.

Future of the India Coast Guard 

Investigations showed that the perpetrators of the 26/11 ‘Mumbai serial terror-attacks’ in 2008 had entered the city through the seas, using a fishing vessel as a decoy. This has since underscored the need for greater policing role of the Coast Guard in the near-waters, sharing the responsibilities with the Coastal Police Force of the sea-front states in the country. Independent of this, and fast-tracked by the event, the Coast Guard has also networked coastal security architecture by installing a series of monitoring stations with sensors and radars along the Indian coastline. The Indian Coast Guard has also installed similar facilities for the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF), through a shared network, to check against international drug-smuggling, possible sea-borne terrorist activities, targeting both nations and the region as a whole. In the coming years and decades, this role of the Indian Coast Guard is going to gain greater importance and relevance, and even more so, the cooperation of the kind that now exists with Maldives, given that most IOR neighbours of India face similar concerns and face similar resource-crunch, all round.

The evolution of the Indian Coast Guard has not only been a reflection on its capability, capacity and responsibilities, but is also a statement of the nation’s maritime priorities. Unlike other organ of the Indian State, it is the evolution of the Coast Guard that narrates the ambition, desire and international commitments of India. With a presence at every corner of India’s maritime ambit, the Indian Coast Guard has now come to play a pivotal role in shaping not only India’s coastal security environment but also that of the larger region. With the changing political topography and the security landscape, not only in the near-waters of India but also in the larger Indian Ocean Region, the Indian Coast Guard’s area of operation too would undergo a change. This is because of the role that the Indian Coast Guard now plays, and can be expected to play in the coming years and decades.

Thus far much of the operations of the Indian Coast Guard have been limited to the Indian waters as established by UNCLOS. However, if one is to look at the actual areas of operation of the Indian Coast Guard, it is also beyond the Indian waters. One area that has been prominent in this regard is the partnership with Maldives. The second area is with respect to areas of operations. As the nodal maritime agency, it is the Indian Coast Guard that not only secures the Indian IMBL but also interacts with its counterparts in the Indian maritime neighbourhood. The third area, which has been seldom acknowledged, is the M-SAR region of the Indian Coast Guard. The India’s M-SAR area of responsibility in the Indian Ocean, similar to the IMBL, is with her maritime neighbours.

With the Indian Ocean gaining greater prominence in global trade and the waters of the Indian Ocean gaining even more importance in terms of sea lanes of communication (SLOC), the role of the Indian Coast Guard in the near future should and would reflect this. For the Coast Guard, which already has been entrusted with the external commitments, such operational responsibility would only increase.

For one, with India acknowledging its role as the ‘net provider of security’ in the Indian Ocean region, the role of the Coast Guard has already gone beyond the Indian shores. This can be ascertained from the partnership with Maldives. However, the other island neighbours like Seychelles and Mauritius, for example, share similar requirements like Maldives. They share not only geographical similarity but also face similar limitations in terms of capacity and capability to secure their waters on their own– starting with human resources to man their seas and coasts. In principle, they are also averse and apprehensive about involving non-regional players in the shared neighbourhood. As such, the Indian Navy has been playing a lead role, assisting the Southern Indian Ocean nations when it is the Indian Coast Guard that is best suited for the job in terms of its expertise and experience, in their near-coast maritime interests and concerns.

This aspect of the Indian Coast Guard’s role and responsibility, particularly in terms of equipping training, from traditional security to the emerging threat of pollution prevention, control and management, can expand multiple times. This is because, in tune with the changing geo-political and geo-strategic scenario, especially centred near-exclusively on the nation’s Indian Ocean neighbourhood, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has expanded the scope and reach of its relatively young ‘Indian Ocean Region’ (IOR) Division, to include nations far as Madagascar, Camaros and French Reunion, along with existing responsibilities vis a vis Maldives and Sri Lanka, under its diplomatic domain.

Second, the Indian Coast Guard with is areas of responsibility covering a substantial part of the Indian Ocean and along with the critical SLOCs should also aspire to play a larger role in as a torch-bearer of India’s military diplomacy, even more than already. Rather, it will be called upon to do so, given the emerging geo-strategic priorities of nations centred on IOR and IOR-SLOC, with the increasing desire for states and entities for ensuring a ‘rules-based maritime order’. The importance of this role for and by the Indian Coast Guard will not be limited to the Indian Ocean Region but would also extend to the larger theatre of Indo-Pacific, where Indian diplomacy has already begun playing an active role and pro-active role at times. This is because, as an auxiliary arm of the defence force, the Coast Guard’s benign mandate would allow it the flexibility of operations without political or military connotations. 

From Indian Ocean to Indo-Pacific

For India to be an active participant in the Indo-Pacific theatre stems not only from the maritime dimension of the nation’s geography and its importance in shaping regional and world affairs but also the added complexities that dominate the region’s inter-state politics and hence security concerns.

The Indo-Pacific, which is a political demarcation of the world unlike geographical delineation, does not enjoy a well-established definition. Even from a focussed Indian perspective that could keep out the African coast, for once, the Indian Ocean Region stretches from Sues Canal in the west to the Straits of Malacca in the east. In comparison, the Indo-Pacific stretches from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, includes the Persian Gulf, and up to the Pacific Ocean. Such a large geographical space does come with its own sub-regional dynamics which not only merits Indian attention but also a requires a benign sea-borne military presence from time to time.

Conversely, an overt military presence in form of the Navy would only complicate the political dynamics with possible undesirable fall-outs. However, a Coast Guard presence could be palatable as a Coast Guard vessel with a lower war-fighting capability is seldom seen as a source of threat. Apart from the threat perception aspect, the focus of India in the Indo-Pacific region is not of brute dominance and power-projection, but in maintaining ‘Order at sea’, which in other words is a policing duty, at times alone, on other occasions in conjunction and cooperation with counterparts from friendly nations. For this, the Indian Coast Guard is better suited when compared to the Indian Navy.

Hence, the Coast Guard would have to revisit it force-structure and capability, starting with the augmenting of trained, specialised human resource, surface fleet and aerial platforms with longer sea legs and enhanced capacity, to be able to be out at sea for longer duration. And if the Indian Coast Guard is to play an inevitable greater role in the Indo-Pacific region, including the role of ensuring maritime integrity of island-states, then the Coast Guard would have to operate beyond the Indian shore-based establishments on a near-permanent basis.

(The author, Dr Sripathi Narayanan, is an independent anaylst on foreign and security affairs