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Kudos to the Indian Coast Guard on its 40th Raising day; By Commodore RS Vasan IN(Retd)

C3S Paper No. 0022/2016

Courtesy: SAAG


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This article was written on the Coast Guard Day which is celebrated on February 01 every year in India.  

February 1st is celebrated as the Coast Guard raising day and the one this year will be commemorated as the fortieth raising day by all units of the Coast Guard in India. Very few are aware that the Indian Coast Guard is constituted as the fourth armed force of the union of India and look at it as a mere paramilitary force. I have no doubts that the readers will join me in paying rich tributes, extending warm greetings and complementing the commendable work done by the competent and dedicated personnel of the Indian Coast Guard. This article is an attempt to bring about greater understanding about this maritime force that is an important component of India’s maritime capability and prowess.

History. India’s limited economic growth potential in the 60s was also a challenging task for the customs and other Law Enforcement agencies that had to tackle smuggling through the opaque sea routes and porous coasts. The thinking with in the navy which was short of resources was that such peacetime tasks are to be undertaken by another cost effective service modeled on the lines of other nations such as USA and UK. This would leave the Navy to concentrate on its primary task of being prepared for war. After many committees and deliberations, it was decided to create the Indian Coast Guard in 1976. This was preceded by the adoption and declaration of the Maritime Zones of India Act as approved by the Parliament on 25th August 1976. This act provided for an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 2.01 million square kilometers as allowed by the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS).

An interim Coast Guard was created on 01 February 1977 which is still observed as the Coast Guard Day though the Coast Guard Act was passed by the Parliament only on 18th August 1978. The Coast Guard’s service terms and conditions on its formation was a mix of some from the Navy and some from the paramilitary forces such as the BSF. The present day service and human resource challenges faced by the sea going service to a large extent could also be attributed to the provisions of the mix of service conditions prescribed by the Rustomji( who came with a police background) Committee. Even the initial lot of personnel was drawn from the Navy who manned ships transferred from the Navy. These remained the work horses of the Coast Guard. It is interesting that initially even the uniform was Khaki which later was changed to white. The rank structure is more akin to the Border Security Force.

Enhanced Role and Responsibilities.

Even in the formative years, the Coast Guard covered itself with glory with interception and capture of boats engaged in smuggling of silver, gold and other contraband items. Even in recent times, the Coast Guard units on patrol in the EEZ have been able to apprehend dhows and other craft engaged in smuggling of drugs, red sanders and other contraband both in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The saving of many lives and vessels since its formation has brought laurels to the service which has the motto of “Vayam Rakshamaha” which means “We Protect”.

Off Shore Security Coordination. The CG was also entrusted with the task of protection of off shore assets and the Director General Coast Guard was made the Chairman of the Off Shore Coordination Committee (OSCC). This task of coordination of all dimensions of off shore security including the defence of Bombay High has always been a very challenging one as it also involves the Navy, the Air Force, the oil companies and other agencies who have diverse interests and priorities.

Fisheries Protection. This is one area that is extremely sensitive and the hands of the Coast Guard are full not just along the defined and undefined/disputed International Maritime Boundary Line but also in the vast stretches of ocean where poaching is a regular occurrence.

The Coast Guard in 2004 set up a hot line with the Maritime Security Agency of Pakistan to promote the interests of the fishermen and to enhance the level of cooperation between the two maritime forces to prevent misunderstanding of the situation at sea. The most sensitive operations are in Palk bay where preventing the crossing of the IMBL by Indian fishermen quoting traditional rights in pursuit of livelihood. This a constant source of irritation between Tamil Nadu fishermen and the fishermen from Sri Lanka who are also Tamils. The Centre is also pressurized by the TN Government to bring diplomatic pressure to release the straying fishermen who do it on most occasions intentionally. This has remained a political issue with no immediate settlement in sight.

Marine Pollution. Likewise with increasing awareness about the marine pollution at sea, with the entry in to force of the Marine Pollution Protocol on 02 October 1983, the DG Coast Guard was made responsible for National Oil Spill Disaster Contingency Plans (NOSDCP) and coordinates all efforts to prevent marine pollution from ships, ports and facilities in India. While the ports are required to have facilities for handling oil/chemical spill up to 700 metric tons, the Coast Guard will intervene to coordinate all actions should there be a danger to the environment.It is to the credit of the Coast Guard that it also trains the people of the industry in Oil Pollution and Response Contingencies by collaborating with maritime universities as prescribed by the International Maritime Organisation. The Indian Coast Guard also now has in its inventory two specially built Pollution Control Vessels which will provide the wherewithal for firefighting and containing marine pollution caused by spills or accidents. The Samudra one of the PCV is shown below. Samudra class of Pollution Control Vessel.


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Samudra class of Pollution Control Vessel

Maritime Search and Rescue (MSAR)

With India signing the MSAR convention of 1979 which came in to force on 22nd June 1985, the Coast Guard was made the nodal agency for all Search and Rescue over sea in an area of over four million square kilometers(4.6 mn Sqkms) which is more than double the area of India’s EEZ. This vast area demands close coordination with other nations and ensure that there is no delay in responding to distress alerts. The areas of responsibility are shown in the map below(courtesy Coast Guard).


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Search and Rescue Region of the Indian Coast Guard

In addition to setting up of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCC) as shown in the map above and sub centers in the maritime districts of India, it has a responsibility to provide 24×7 services for vessels and personnel in distress in its area of responsibility. This it accomplishes by close interaction with other MRCCs and ISRO which monitors the distress signals in the areas of interest and provides real time alerts to the MRCCs who activate the SAR process which is well rehearsed. The number of fishermen, vessels and sea farers saved in the last four decades is a testimony to the efficiency and efficacy of the Coast Guard service.

Important Events. The most important event that brought laurels to the Coast Guard was with the capture of MV Alondro Rainbow a Japanese owned vessel which was hijacked by Indonesian pirates in a successful joint operation by the Coast Guard and the Navy in 1999. The coordinated action impressed Japan to such an extent that ships of the Japanese Self Defence Force (JSDF) started regular antipiracy and SAR exercises with the Indian Coast Guard on an alternate basis.

India Coast Guard ships started undertaking such exercises in Japanese waters and the Japanese vessels came to India for exercising with the counterparts in the Indian Coast Guard. The most recent joint exercise with the Coast Guard was conducted in January this year off the Eastern Coast where SAR, Marine Pollution and joint operations were carried out. The exercise was code named Sahyog Kaijin 2016. While the Indian Coast Guard deputed CG ships Samudra Paheredar, Sarang,Vishwast,Rajtarang,Rajkamal,a Dornier Do 226 and Chetak helicopters in ‘SahyogKaijin XV’, JCGS Echigo from Japan with its integral helicopter took part in the exercise. The Indian Coast Guard units have also exercised with Korea, Bangladesh Coast Guard and the Vietnamese maritime forces in the past. The Coast Guard vessels do transit through the South China Sea on their passages to Japan and Vietnam for exercise. There has been no issue with the Chinese Coast Guard on the transit of these vessels which reinforces the view that CG vessels are best suited for interacting with the coast guards of the nations where there is a potential for promoting national interests with our raising undue alarms in the neighbourhood. The Coast Guard would also provide for application of a calibrated response mechanism before getting the navy involved in tricky situations.

Case of Enrica Lexie. The case of Enrica Lexie in which the marines onboard killed two fishermen mistaking them for pirates on 15th February 2012 is well known. What is not in the public domain is that the operational staff of the Indian Coast Guard, Western Region was able to get the ship to come to Kochi to depose before the authorities. This facilitated the process of arrest of the crew involved. The case is still subjudice and has thrown up lot of issues related to legality, jurisdiction and other provisions according to UNCLOS.It has also strained the relations between India and Italy.

Case of MV SeamanGuard Ohio. This was another case where in the Coast Guard intercepted a floating armoury on 12th October 2013 with arms and security guards off Tuticorin. They claimed that they were providing the services to the ships plying the High Risk Area. However, the point that they violated the provisions of the Arms act and also indulged in illegal procurement of diesel landed them in trouble. The court held the concerned guilty and awarded a punishment recently on 11th January 2016 with punishment for all the 10 crew and 25 guards for a period of five years along with a fine of Rs 3000 each.

Post Tsunami Relief work. The Coast Guard worked alongside the navy during the post Tsunami relief work both in India and in other neighbouing countries. Coast Guard as an instrument of national policy and a benign maritime force unlike the Navy also has been  successful in building bridges with our neighbours. The comfort level of the neighbouring nations when they are coordinating with the Coast Guard (and not the Navy )are very high as the coast guards routinely engage in peace time missions discussed above. There is a need to ensure that the Coast Guard is used as a messenger of peace and promotes the interests of maritime neighbours by even more involvement alongside the senior maritime service the Navy. However, in this task, there appears to be a competition in the maritime domain where both the Navy and the Coast Guard operate. The Coast Guard feels that they can achieve a lot more if the Navy lets them. The DG Coast Guard has always been a naval officer of the rank of Vice Admiral except on two occasions.Even on those two occasions, they were career officers who had served the Navy and switched over on a permanent basis to the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard which has grown and matured feels that they are in a position to run the organization in a more effective manner if they have their own Director General who has been exposed to all tasks of the Coast Guard in different capacities . This issue definitely needs to be addressed and will require greater accommodation by the senior sister service the Indian Navy which has its own tasks cut out with the changing sea scape in the Indian Ocean.

The Mumbai Terror attack in 2008 brought about key changes in the way the maritime forces of India coordinated their effort. Till that time, the Coast Guard was brought under the operational control of the Navy only during precautionary stages or during hostilities. However, with the Navy being placed at the apex of the Maritime Security Architecture, the Indian Navy takes total responsibility for providing the required mechanism for both oceanic and coastal security. After the Mumbai terror attack, many of the recommendations that were made by the Group of Ministers committee post Kargil were accelerated. It is unfortunate though that the recommendations were progressing at snail’s pace due to bureaucratic hurdles. It required a catastrophe to wake up the planners and decision makers in Delhi from deep slumber and fast track the projects that were lying dormant. The case of the procurement of high speed boats for the Coastal Security Group and the commissioning of the CSG posts in the maritime states of India is a case in example.

In addition to acquisition of new vessels and craft, two new Coast Guard Regions Coast Guard Region North West and CG Region North East were created in Gujarat and West Bengal respectively. The network of coastal surveillance network has been activated. However, the rapid expansion of the Coast Guard and the addition of new vessels have brought in the challenges of recruiting, training and equipping the new vessels that are required for the vast expanse of EEZ and the coastline of over 7516 kilometers. The Coast Guard was the first marine service to induct six Air Cushion Vessels (hovercraft) way back in 2002 though this was envisaged even at the time of formation of the Coast Guard in the mid70s.

Another dozen improved ACVs are being added and will augment the capability of the Coast Guard to operate in shallow waters over swamps and uncharted areas. These new ACVs will come at a cost of 34 million British pounds as a result of a contract won by Griffin Hoverwork of United Kingdom.


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Air Cushion Vessels of the Indian Coast Guard

The Coast Guard was amongst the first to get the Off Shore Patrol Vessels from South Korea and utilize them for EEZ patrol and other CG tasks. The design of these patrol vessels was bought by the Indian PSUs and both the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard today have a mix of Offshore Patrol Vessels, Naval Off shore Patrol Vessels, Advanced Offshore Patrol Vessels. The Samarth class of AOPVs is shown below.


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Samarth Class Off Shore Patrol Vessel

During the Eelam war IV, the Sri Lankan Navy even used this type of vessel as a command platform adding to the capabilities of the Sri Lankan Navy. The ship which was named as INS Sarayu in India was renamed as SLNS Sayura. India also transferred CG Ship Varaha which was built in 1992 also to Sri Lankan Coast Guard. A section of the Tamil Nadu politicians continue to protest any such transfer of military assets and training of Sri Lankan defence personnel without realizing that if India has to protect its regional interests in its maritime neighbourhood it has to engage all its neighbours through all means available including defense treaties , exchanges and training. It is pertinent to mention that in the case of Sri Lanka the Coast Guard Act, No. 41 of 2009 was enacted by the Parliament on 9 July 2009(Just two months after the successful defeat of LTTE in May 2009) to incorporate the Department of Coast Guard. The Sri Lankan Coast Guard was inaugurated on 4 March 2010.

The Indian Coast Guard also has close interaction with Mauritius which has CG and Naval officers on deputation. The Dorniers provide the surveillance cover in the vast ocean areas surrounding Maritius.

Coming to air assets, the Coast Guard started off with the leased Fokker friendship aircraft and started fixed wing operation from Kolkatta. It has come a long way since and has in its inventory the Dorniers, Advanced Light Helicopters and the Chetaks which also operate from the OPVs, AOPVs and the PCVs. However, the need for replacement of the Dornier with the bigger and better platform is long overdue. Both the Navy and the Coast Guard are also looking for replacement for the aged Chetaks for ship board applications.


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Chetak, Dornier and ALH of the Indian Coast Guard

The interception of a suspicious Pakistani vessel on the night of 31st December 2014 after successful tracking of the vessel prevented what possibly was another attempt similar to the Mumbai terror attack. The vessel on being challenged and chased by the CG unit, refused to surrender and set itself on fire to destroy the boat along with its crew and all evidence that would have led to further disclosure on a plot similar to the Mumbai terror attack.

The basic and initial training continues to be imparted by the Indian Navy both for officers and sailors. However, plans are afoot to create own training facilities including a CG training ship due to the changing and special nature of Coast Guard operations.

Future. In all fairness the naval and national leadership of the 70s needs to be complemented for the decision to create the Indian Coast Guard a cost effective service. Their decision stands vindicated on all counts. The Coast Guard itself has moved on from the days of old ships and seconded naval personnel to a dynamic entity. The firm foundation laid for a strong maritime force with a benign face continues to pay rich dividends. As per projections and plans, it is expected that the Coast Guard will have 150 vessels and over 100 air assets by 2020. The nation has invested wisely in creating this vibrant maritime arm that has the potential to contribute in a big way along with the navy in realisng the maritime ambitions in the Asian Century that is also a century of the seas.

(The author who is presently the Director of Chennai Centre of China Studies and Head of Strategy and Security Studies at the Center for Asia Studies was the Regional Commander of the Indian Coast Guard Region East from 2000 to 2003)

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