India's marine police programme floundering

Ill-trained and unequipped crews are unprepared to deal with terrorist threat, officers admit

India's marine policing programme, initiated after 26/11 to secure coastal cities from terrorist attack, has run aground despite multi-billion rupee investments.

The Union Ministry of Home Affairs' annual report for 2010-2011 records that the Ministry alone will spend a staggering Rs. 5.23 billion on an ambitious coastal security programme — a figure that does not include Rs. 63.3 million paid to the Coast Guard for building three new bases, Rs. 627.7 million for new ships it will operate, and investments in the Navy's capacities.

But investigations by The Hindu show the dividends are far from heartening: police forces in the coastal States are operating ill-designed craft; receive no training in marine combat or search-and-rescue techniques; and do not have critical equipment needed to identify potential threats.

Put simply, India's shoreline is just as vulnerable to attack as it was on 26/11.

‘Floating hell'

Each morning, 183 marine police boats — small, five-tonne versions designed for patrolling, and high-powered 12-tonne interceptors — are supposed to set out on patrol for up to 10 hours a day, up and down India's more than 7,000-km coastline.

Purchased at Rs. 3.29 billion, the single biggest item on the post-26/11 bill, the patrol boats form the cutting-edge of the marine police reforms: such was the need that the deliveries were “compressed by six months,” says the Home Ministry's annual report.

Police officers assigned to the boats described them as a floating hell —unequipped with the basic amenities needed for extended patrolling. Each has a cabin enclosed on three sides, and this means the crew must suffer unbearable heat. There are no canopies outside either, to protect the crew on watch from the rain and the sun, nor bunks for them to rest on. The drinking water tanks routinely run dry on the five-tonne boats, crew say. Incredibly, no toilets have been fitted.

“Forget fighting terrorists,” says a police officer serving in Raigad, “just surviving an afternoon on these boats is a test of courage.”

In essence, each patrol boat is supposed to pull over as many fishing craft and small boats as it can: random checking to deter intrusions by terrorists. Plans to fit transponders on India's fishing boats and coastal radar stations, though, are running behind schedule; field-tests are only scheduled to begin after the monsoon ends. That means authorities have no way of identifying which of the estimated 180,000 fishing boats out at sea across India might pose a threat.

Even if the patrol boats were to interdict terrorists, marine police officials admit, their crew are untrained to respond. Each marine police officer receives four weeks of training from the Coast Guard, focussing on rudimentary navigation skills. There is no training in marine combat techniques or the procedures needed to chase and board a vessel. Nor crew survival techniques.

“No one wants this job,” a Mumbai-based police officer admits. “The only people stationed on these boats are the ones without enough goodwill to get themselves posted elsewhere.”

Evidence of waste isn't hard to come by. The Ministry of Home Affairs has already spent Rs. 2.5 million, its annual report states, on issuing biometric cards to some 100,000 crew of fishing boats — vessels vulnerable to hijack, as the events of 26/11 showed, for use in a terrorist landing. No State, however, has received machines to read the cards — meaning neither patrol crews nor landing staff can verify their contents. Put simply, the expensive cards serve no useful purpose.

The Ministry has, however, promised another Rs. 3.9 million to the scheme —and is also backing a separate project to issue multi-purpose national identity cards to all members of coastal communities.

Marine police stations have also been reporting persistent mechanical problems. The 12-tonne patrol craft use an advanced jet propulsion system to enhance their pursuit capacities. But the engines also suck up debris and sand, leading to frequent breakdowns.

“At any given time,” a Gujarat police official says, “just about a third of our boats are actually working.”

Poor planning

The coastal policing project, some officials argue, was misconceived to start with. Initiated in 2005, on the recommendations of a Group of Ministers who studied the lessons of the Kargil war, the coastal protection plan envisaged the setting up of 73 coastal police stations, 97 checkpoints, 58 outposts and 30 barracks. Most coastal States, though, had already had several coastal police stations: Maharashtra alone had 33.

Rather than upgrading facilities at these centres, the Centre gave Rs. 2.4 million in grants for building new ones, on the understanding that funds would be made available by the State governments. Those funds have rarely materialised — which means few boats operate from proper jetties, and police stations rarely have proper accommodation.

“We've been throwing money at the problem without trying to solve it,” a senior official of the Maharashtra government concedes.

  • Police in coastal States receive no training in marine combat or search-and-rescue techniques
  • They do not have critical equipment needed to identify potential threats

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