Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Securing Our Coasts

Updated: March 8, 2014 3:11 pm

The Indian Coast Guard must model itself on the structure and functioning of the Israeli Coastal Security organisation. Israel has a coast of only 218 kilometres, whereas ours is in thousands of kilometres. But we should not hesitate in modeling our operations on the Israeli model

The Indian government was given a blistering reminder about coastal security, when after the Babri Masjid demolition, a series of bomb blasts and firing incidents took place in Bombay city. The bomb blasts and firing incidents were scattered throughout Bombay and resulted in several casualties. The police and intelligence branch were taken by surprise, but recovered fast and handled the situation quite capably. Investigation later revealed that Dawood Ibrahim a known smuggler, had been smuggling heroin and opium by boats from Karachi and these were being landed along the Maharashtra coast and then brought to Bombay. Of course certain agencies of the state were being paid off by this smuggler. After the Babri Masjid was demolished, the Muslims were antagonised and Dawood decided to teach the Indians a lesson. After careful planning he ordered a consignment of explosives, weapons and ammunition and brought them informing the security agencies concerned that this consignment was the usual items of drugs and presumably made the necessary pay offs. The police and the Customs obviously let the goods pass thinking it was the usual consignment of drugs. It is only when suddenly a series of bomb explosions and incidents of firing took place that everyone was rudely woken up. The object of these firing and explosions was to express anger at the demolition of an Islamic place of worship built by the Islamic kings who had come east from Arabia to spread the new religion of Islam. There was a shadowy group who later on metamorphosed as the Indian Mujahideen who probably placed the explosives and triggered them off and also fired on selected targets.

The Government of India had earlier set up the Coast Guards in 1975. But on this occasion, despite the Coast Guards being deployed these landings had taken place. Very sensibly it was decided to strengthen the Coast Guards. It was also decided to set up coastal police stations. In India under the Constitution, Police is a state subject. The police stations therefore had to be under the different states on India’s coast. It was very necessary to marry up the Coast Guard units of the maritime states with the coastal police Stations of those states. About a year ago I was taking a lecture at the BSF Intelligence School for officers of the BSF. I found a few officers from the Coast Guard were also in the class. After the lecture, I asked the Coast Guard officers where they were posted and then further asked them if they were coordinating with the local coastal police stations in their jurisdiction. I was surprised when they answered in the negative. I am afraid it was a failure both of the Coast Guard officers controlling the force and of the senior state police officers of the states that had a section of the coast in their jurisdiction. What is sad about this was that it was well after the 26/11/ 2008 terrorist, commando attack on Bombay.

Gold has been regularly smuggled from Dubai and other Arabian countries and landed along the West coast of India. I remember when I was in the Central Bureau of Investigation in Hyderabad there was a landing of gold bars off the Mangalore coast. That was in 1988-89.

After all it was the Arabs who, long before Islam was born who were among the earliest sailors who set out from Saudi Arabia in their dhows and sailed along the west coast of India and settled in coastal villages from Gujarat to the southern tip of Kerala. The Moplahs of Kerala are a hybrid of the Arab and the Kerala people who inhabited the lower west coast of India. Considering this background and knowing that it is Saudi Arabia and some other Arabian countries like Yemen who are sponsoring the Wahabi sect of Islam and sheltering the al-Qaeda we woke up to this threat rather late in the day.

Some of the well known terrorist attacks from the sea were the bombing of a Philippines Super Ferry in 2004 by the Abu Sayyuf group, where 116 people died in this attack. In 2000, the US Navy’s warship, USS Cole was rammed by an explosive laden boat of the al-Qaeda in Aden killing 17 sailors.


Several coastal scenarios can be conjured up with a little imagination, like using a cargo ship filled with explosives and blowing it up next to a targeted ship, using small boats to land suicide squads of commandos to attack soft targets in a coastal city, using commandos to hijack an oil tanker and use it as a floating bomb, sinking ships at choke points to shut out a harbour.

The creek area of the Rann of Kutch

In the Border Security Force, when I was the Inspector General Operations, I first visited the creek area of the western border with Pakistan; I was fascinated with the creeks flowing in from Pakistan across our northwestern border with that country. The Rann of Kutch was a unique environment with a low lying band of salt desert about twenty kilometres wide that remained bone dry without a blade of grass and not a drop of fresh water. Towards the sea on the west there was a stretch of about twenty kilometres where four streams each a mile wide flowed in from Pakistan and flowed southwest into the Arabian Sea. In between these four channels there were mud flats. Small channels connected the four main streams flowing southwest at several points. These were navigable only at high tide. Thus you could cross from the southernmost channel through the connecting small channels only at high tide. These four main creeks were the Sir, Vianwari, Padala and Pabewari creeks. The right bank of the Sir Creek was in Pakistan and strangely its southern bank was the international boundary. Pakistan had refused to accept the international convention that if a stream of flowing water was on an international border it was the midstream that was to be recognised as the International border. In this case Pakistan insisted that it was the left bank of the Sir Creek that was the international border. From the Sir creek there were small channels that connected to the Vianwari Creek and from there were similar small channels that connected to the Padala Creek. The southernmost channel roughly parallel to the three creeks was the Kori Creek which was also connected by shallow channels to the Padala Creek. The Vianwari, Padala and the Pabewari creeks all flow from Pakistan into India and then flow into the Arabian sea, while the Kori Creek drains out the water from the Indian portion of the Rann of Kutch.


All these five creeks are interconnected by narrow channels that are rendered un-navigable during low tide even for small boats. In fact, some of them are reduced to muddy channels. During high tide even the larger boats can navigate these inter connecting channels. The island bodies of land constituting the banks of the main four channels and the smaller interconnecting channels are all mud flats with thick mangroves. It is impossible to walk through these mud flats even at low tide as each step would plow one down to his waist. I could see that no infiltration could take place across this terrain if all channels connecting the main four channels were blocked by troops in boats. And this is exactly how we made the defence planning for this magnificent stretch of wide channels interconnected by narrow channels.

On the east of this section of the creek area, is the great Rann of Kutch. This wide body of land is about twenty to thirty kilometres in depth. In the North is the international border with Pakistan. About thirty to forty kilometres from the Arabian sea, the International border, takes a sharp left turn and goes in a straight line, south for about thirty odd kilometres, where it hits the Kori Creek draining the waters of the Rann of Kutch. The left bank of the Kori Creek at this point is the high land that is the edge of the Rann. To the west of this north-south line of the international border with Pakistan is the Creek area with its four creeks flowing roughly from north-east to south-west.

08-03-2014The whole Rann of Kutch is low lying and is bone dry during the dry season; say from about November-December to July. When the monsoon sets in, the Rann fills up with salt water from the Arabian Sea extending to about a hundred odd kilometres from west to east. By early winter, the salt water of the Rann begins to dry up leaving a salt crust on its bed. To the north-west there is a small nullah called the Harami nullah which drains the water from the Rann. The north-western end of the Rann remains a shallow lake even in summer. The Harami nullah flows across the north-south border of the Rann and joins the Vianwari creek. Pakistani fishermen sometimes bring their boats from the Vianwari creek and come east on the Harami nullah and come into the Indian side of the Rann while fishing. In November 2000, a joint team of the Indian Air Force and the BSF went on a reccee flight in a helicopter from Bhuj. After taking off from Bhuj, they flew north and after crossing the Kori, Pabewari and Padala creek veered north-east over the Harami creek. They sighted a boat in Harami creek well inside the Indian border and circled round to take a closer look. It is not clearly known what happened as the helicopter circled low over the fishing boat, when there was a loud bang and the helicopter dropped down to the Rann. When radio contact with the helicopter was lost, the Air base sent several reccee flights and finally located the helicopter, later the next day, lying half submerged in the Harami nullah facing the Pakistan border, but inside India. The front half of the helicopter had blown off and they could see the injured and dead crew and passengers crouched in the body of the helicopter. They recovered the dead bodies and the injured crew from the body of the helicopter and brought them to base. Both the DIG and the Commandant of the BSF battalion and the pilots were killed. The remaining officers and men of the Air Force and BSF were rescued but with bad sunburns after exposure to the burning sun and the salty water of the Rann. The Air Force concluded that their helicopter had been shot down by a missile fired from the boat that they had sighted in the Harami nullah. I had been to the site of the incident shortly thereafter and the pilot of the helicopter in which I was flying took us low over the Harami nullah and hovered low over the water in front of the blown off front of the helicopter that had been shot down and was lying in the shallow waters of the

Harami nullah. The injured Air Force and BSF personnel had suffered very bad skin burn due to their exposure of more than two days before they were rescued.

A second incident that happened during my tenure was an infiltration by six Pakistan nationals armed with AK rifles. They came by boat down the Vianwari creek and slipped into the Harami nullah and rowed into India in the Rann area. They disembarked from the southern bank of the Harami nullah and then ploughed through the mud flats to the high ground at the edge of the Rann and slipped into a Muslim village. A patrol of the BSF followed the tracks in the mud and traced them to the Muslim village where they had taken shelter, encircled them and in the encounter that followed killed all of them.


Securing the Creek area from intrusions by smugglers or terrorist raiders is not very difficult. I felt that boats sailing from Karachi along the Sind coast and crossing the mouths of the Sir, Vianwari and Padala creeks in Pakistan waters and Kori creek on the Indian coast and then further along the coast of Gujarat was the much more difficult task. Miles of the coast from the mouth of the Kori creek along Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and West Bengal are deserted and landings of gold by smugglers or weapons and explosives by terrorists is very easy. It is difficult to prevent this kind of intrusion by physical means when you have long stretches of the coast that are uninhabited. Any surreptitious landing cannot be detected by means of physical security only. The answer to this problem is to penetrate the underworld of smugglers like established smugglers gangs and terrorists like the Indian Mujahideen and then after getting specific information intercept the landings. Continual physical security patrols should be maintained as a standard measure. The latter if religiously carried out will always give dividends in which the patrols and the smugglers will each be surprised, the former for intercepting a gang and the latter for being caught after they thought that they had managed to avoid the routine patrols.

The international border with Bangladesh in the Sunderbans

The Sunderbans is a vast tract of narrow streams crisscrossing to form a triangular delta in reverse of several hundred kilometres half of which is in India and the other half in Bangladesh. There are literally hundreds of small islets and movement through this area can only be by small boats. The medium craft of the Border Security Force can only traverse the major channel along the midstream of which is the international border between India and Bangladesh. The whole of the Sunderbans is naturally thickly vegetated.

India’s main problem is with dacoit gangs in Bangladesh who operate in small or medium size boats with out-board motors, or motorised boats. They prey on the Indian fishermen and rob them of their catch when returning and speed away into Bangladesh. They also commit dacoities on the Indian villages located in the Sunderbans. Large scale smuggling into India is not a problem in the Sunderbans. As an international border there are no problems of serious nature as along the main coast of India particularly on the western coast.

As far as the Coast Guard is concerned, they have to patrol along the coast of the country. With innumerable creeks it is easy for medium craft carrying contraband to slip into the creeks to avoid the coastal craft. A decision should be taken so that the craft of the Coast Guard can sail into the creeks to board a suspicious vessel that tries to slip away when chased. Also it would be necessary for the Coast Guards and the BSF to coordinate their patrols so that one can come to the help of the other when required.


Economic and physical security

This is a vital problem of enormous magnitude along the whole of the western and the eastern coast line of India. The main concern is of economic security for smuggling of drugs, gold are the main challenges. This is also tied up with the odd case of a terrorist commando raid as in the case of the Lashkar raid on Bombay in November 2008. While constant patrols are the main method of defence to prevent such terrorist raids, it cannot totally prevent it. It is here that intelligence is the key factor in countering such raids. Gathering intelligence of likely smuggling of gold or heroin or related drugs is I believe the main challenge. The Coast Guard must build up its expertise as regards these two cardinal items of contraband. Once this wall of intelligence is built up, information of whiffs of intelligence of likely terrorist attempts will surely come up as an additional bonus.

To build up the information on gold and drug smuggling, the Coast Guard must develop very close contacts with the departments of Income Tax, Customs, and Central Excise. These departments are regrettably quite corrupt. It will be necessary to develop contacts with those officers of these two departments who are absolutely above board. This is of course an ongoing process.

There is one other sphere which has to be built up by the Coast Guard and nurtured carefully. This is the world of the private and government sailing vessels of all sizes. It is here that the coastal police station has a very crucial role to play. Each Coast Guard station should be able to account for every sailing vessel in their jurisdiction which in their view has the capability to sail out to sea, link up with a vessel coming from Pakistan, or any of the Middle eastern countries, transfer its load of gold or drugs in mid sea and then sail into some remote area where a landing can be made and the contraband transferred by land to the interior. It is also possible that the small or medium vessel coming from Pakistan or the Middle East could directly land at some remote point on the coast. Each Coast Guard station should of course have the list of each small or medium craft that is owned and berthed in its jurisdiction.


In this connection one has to hear the story of Kilakarai, a coastal town on the eastern coast close to Ramnad town in the interior. Kilakarai was a smugglers den and the custom officer’s nightmare in the 1950’s. This was the time shortly after independence when British goods disappeared from the market after the British left in 1947. Indian substitutes were not of the same quality and a craze developed for original British and American consumer goods. The main source of British and other foreign goods was from Sri Lanka or Ceylon as it was known then. And Kilakarai a town on the east coast within easy access from Ceylon was the smugglers warehouse. Crossing the Palk Strait took less than an hour with two outboard motors fitted to a medium boat from Danushkodi to a point on the Northeast of Ceylon. Every house in Kilakarai town was connected to the next by underground tunnels. Raiding customs officers used to be baffled when they raided a house after sure information only to find that the smuggled consumer stores had surfaced in another house at another end of the town. Consumer goods were also brought in medium craft from Singapore and Malaya, both British possessions then.

Today, the main item of value being smuggled is gold from the gold souks of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and related Middle East tax havens. The other prime item is heroin and related drugs, brought by coastal vessels from Karachi which generally land the contraband in isolated uninhabited coastal stretches on the west coast of Maharashtra, Konkan and Kerala. The smuggling of these two items, gold and narcotics is the one that causes the biggest financial loss to the country and consequently the profits are enormous. This is the channel we have to study and break. This can be broken only by diligent intelligence and carefully planned operations by the Coast Guard. The loss caused by the smuggling of these two items is in thousands of crores.


I think that the Indian Coast Guard must model itself on the structure and functioning of the Israeli Coastal Security organisation. Israel has a coast of only 218 kilometres, whereas ours is in thousands of kilometres. But we should not hesitate in modeling our operations on the Israeli model.

The Israeli coast is only 218 kilometres long. it is therefore possible by sustained patrolling to cover this stretch of the coast. Besides they have no problem of economic smuggling. Since the coast is not very long, they cover the coast by electronic surveillance using nine radars and can detect boats and ships 32 kilometres into the sea. They can track 200 targets simultaneously. Since our coast is hundred of kilometres long we cannot achieve this degree of physical security. We have to make up this deficit by building an infallible intelligence net that should have near 100 per cent success.

By E N Rammohan

(The writer is former Director General, BSF)

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