By Pushpita Das
The recent hijacking of a Bangladesh merchant ship by Somali pirates in the western Indian Ocean has highlighted the threat to the Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) in general and to the Lakshadweep Islands in particular. On December 5, 2010, six Somali pirates hijacked the Bangladeshi flag bearing ship M V Jahan Moni some 67 nautical miles off the Lakshadweep Islands. The ship had a crew of 26 men and was on its way to Europe with 41,000 tonnes of nickel ore onboard. Here, it is important to note that this hijacking was not a one off episode. The Lakshadweep Islands have been witnessing acts of piracy and trespassing within its vicinity for quite sometime now.
The first incident in the recent series was reported in March 2010, when a piracy bid on a Maltese ship was foiled by the Indian Navy 200 nautical miles off Lakshadweep Islands in the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In May 2010, eight Somali pirates were reportedly caught and detained by the Indian navy off the Lakshadweep Islands. After a period of lull, in November, two piracy attempts, both on container ships, were successfully thwarted. It is reported that one of these incidents happened just 150 nautical miles off Minicoy islands. And, in early December, the Indian Navy apprehended a dhow with 19 foreigners including 15 Pakistani nationals off Bitra Islands in the Lakshadweep archipelago.
The susceptibility of the Lakshadweep Islands to the activities of non-state actors was correctly highlighted following the Mumbai attack in November 2008. It has been reported that the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) has been trying to establish bases in the Islands and use them as springboards for launching further attacks on the Indian mainland. The increasing incidents of piracy in and around the Islands have, however, added a whole new dimension to threat perceptions. Given that these acts are taking place in the Eight Degree Channel (Vangaaru Channel), which separates the Minicoy Island from the Maldives, and which witnesses maritime traffic of 30-40 ships per day, piracy has become a major cause of concern for the Indian security establishment.
The geography and location of the Lakshadweep Islands has contributed considerably towards its vulnerability. Located 200-400 km away from Kerala in the western Indian Ocean, the archipelago comprises 36 islands with a total area of only 32 sq. km. But the spread of these islands has bestowed upon India 20,000 sq. km. of territorial waters and approximately 400,000 sq. km. of EEZ. Of the 36 islands only ten are inhabited. According to the 2001 census, Lakshadweep has a population of 60,000 persons, 93 per cent of whom are indigenous. A majority of the people are Muslims belonging to the Shafi School of the Sunni Sect. Proximity to the Indian western coast as well as to other island nations such as Sri Lanka and Maldives, nearness to busy shipping lanes, wide geographical spread, and a predominantly Muslim population all make the archipelago attractive to non-state actors. The fact that these islands could be used as safe havens or platforms for launching attacks by non-state actors cannot be denied.
Keeping this in mind, the Government of India is augmenting the security of the Island territory. Under the Coastal Security Scheme, it has approved Rs.136.80 lakh for the establishment of four coastal police stations at Androth, Kavaratti, Kiltan and Minicoy. And under the scheme, these police stations have been sanctioned two 12-tonne and four 5-tonne interceptor boats. Unfortunately, the implementation of the scheme on the ground is slow. Till recently, only one police station has been constructed. The other three are in various stages of construction. Similarly, of the six interceptors sanctioned, only one has been delivered so far. Moreover, shortage of manpower and equipment has further hampered the efficiency of the police force.
The Indian Coast Guard also has a presence in the Islands in the form of a station at Kavaratti. This station, set up in 2006, has only one interceptor boat but no aircraft or helicopters for air surveillance and maritime reconnaissance. Given the increased threat perception, the Coast Guard is gradually expanding its presence in the Island chain. It has established another station at Minicoy and has an additional station at Androth. It has also received in-principle approval for the setting up of an Air Enclave in Minicoy. Together with these facilities, a new Coast Guard headquarters (DHQ-12) will be formed, to provide the much needed teeth to its operations. In addition, the Coast Guard is in the process of installing six radar sensors in the Islands for enhancing coastal surveillance.
Though coastal and maritime security has been accorded top priority following the Mumbai attacks, the pace of implementation has been extremely slow. Lackadaisical attitude of the state governments, bureaucratic hurdles, stringent laws, turf wars among various agencies, lack of personnel and technical wherewithal for implementing projects such as issuance of identity cards and card readers, etc. have all contributed towards the delay.
Despite constraints, agencies engaged in coastal and maritime security have been conducting regular coastal security exercises off the Lakshadweep coast. Neptune II, a second such coastal security exercise was conducted in September 14-16, 2010. This exercise highlighted, among other issues, severe gaps in coastal surveillance. To address this problem, it has been recommended that vigilance of the uninhabited islands be enhanced, air assets be stationed in the Islands, watchtowers and radar sensors be erected, coastal police stations be strengthened, and strict watch be maintained at entry and exit points. These recommendations reiterate the need for urgently filling the gaps by enhancing the security infrastructure in the Island territory.
As far as security of the SLOCs is concerned, the Indian Navy has been actively participating in anti-piracy surveillance and patrol operations since October 2008. Working independently, but also in close coordination with other navies operating in the region such as NATO forces, the EUNAVFOR (EU Naval Forces), and the Russian and Chinese navies, the Indian Navy has been playing a significant role in securing the SLOCs. On the basis of information exchanged under the multilateral Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE) mechanism, it has been effectively patrolling the waters and has successfully escorted more than 1,000 merchant ships through the Gulf of Aden. Additionally, it has also been engaged in capacity building of the navies of island countries in the western Indian Ocean for combating piracy.
Increasing incidents of piracy being reported near the Lakshadweep Islands indicate that undaunted by the presence of navies of several countries, Somali pirates are gradually expanding their area of operations from the Somali coast to the coasts of Mauritius, Seychelles and Maldives. Given the closeness of the Lakshadweep Islands to these island nations, this is indeed an alarming trend. Coupled with it, the incessant efforts of jihadis to establish bases in the island nations of the Indian Ocean have further aggravated the situation. The time has, therefore, come for the Government of India to take urgent stock of the situation in the western Indian Ocean and undertake effective measures to ensure the safety and security of the Lakshadweep Islands.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/NeedtosecuretheLakshadweepIslands_pdas_131210