Imperative of maritime governance – the Indian Ocean


India, with her long coastline and primarily ocean-dependent trade should be known as a seafaring nation. But she’s not. Vice-Admiral Venkat Bharathan (Retd.) outlines the reasons and suggests solutions.

Only on the oceans lie India’s hopes”. The Indian Ocean being every one’s lake is the reality today. As the largest stakeholder in the region, India at least ought to be fully aware of what is happening in our waters, as a sovereign democracy. Others may sail away, but we cannot. This subtle difference has huge, telling implications on the effect, impact and consequences for the sub-continent.

The Indian Ocean is a floating home to about 35 to 40 warships from different nations, not to speak about the Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Sri Lankan navies. At any given time, there are at least a few submarines transiting underwater. Nearly 2,000 to 3,000 merchant ships ranging from super tankers, gas carriers, cargo ships, and container vessels traverse these waterways every day. Fishing fleets, dhows, trawlers, exploratory vessels, big oil rigs also cross the sea lanes. In peace time alone, the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the important straits from east to west, are all subject to constant threats of closure that would paralyse trade, not to speak of other adverse collateral effects.

Oceans – India’s only hope
“Only on the oceans lie India’s hopes” is neither a cliché, nor a marketing statement. It is a reality staring in our face. K.M. Panikkar, the architect of India’s naval doctrine, argued in his works more than 50 years ago that New Delhi should recognise the significance of the Indian Ocean for the development of its commercial activities, trade and security. Panikkar remarked: ‘India never lost her independence till she lost the command of the sea in the first decade of the 16th century’. He had written as early as 1945: “A Navy is not meant for the defence of the coast. The coast has to be defended from the land. The objective of the Navy is to secure the control of an area of the sea, thus preventing enemy ships from approaching the coast or interfering with trade and commerce.

Our reality
India’s three-sided island features, as well as the towering Himalayan mountain chain give us a geographical advantage. This, and the fact that 95 percent of our trade is by the sea, should make us a predominantly sea faring nation.

This maritime view which did flourish till the early 13th century in the coastal parts of India, did not survive the advent of European onslaught, and even today despite our complete dependency on the seas, our continental look continues to make us ‘ocean blind’. This in turn has caused us to accept an opaque maritime construct. Today, sitting astride an ocean named after it, our ancient land should bemoan that India is really and truly at sea.

Why maritime India?
In the last decade, the Indian maritime spread has been significant. The Indian Navy does enjoy considerable reach with long sea legs. The coast guard and the Merchant marine are continuously expanding. All these augur well. What is needed is only focused optimisation through dynamic coordination.

There is a urgent need to vastly improve across the span of trade, commerce, development, ocean exploration, fisheries, security and maritime access. Present maritime arrangements, existing regulations and compartmentalised activities of the various stakeholders, and maritime players result in endemic inefficiencies, considerable fiscal shortfalls, significant security gaps, disjointed crises coordination and sub optimal decision making.

Indian Ocean commerce
A picture is worth a thousand words as one can see below. The Indian Ocean is the ‘lifeline’ between the West and the East. Oil is the prime energy source that keeps the wheels of the world moving. (See figure) India is dependent on the seas for 95% of its trade and 80% for oil.

Essence of maritime governance
The central and state governments, the Indian Navy, Coast Guard, as well as other agencies have made progress in the overall maritime domain. It is understood that a national committee of secretaries with suitable participation from the Navy and Coastguard, has been instituted. This is a welcome move.

However the complexities of the maritime scenario, the functioning patterns, traditional practices, organisational behaviour and turf protectionism involuntarily create disjointed, reactive solutions with short-term advantages. Hence, the creation of a legislated statutory Maritime Governance Authority (MGA) with autonomy and accountability, is an imperative essence of our completely ocean dependent nation.

The sea-borne attack on Mumbai on 26 November, 2008, has starkly highlighted the reality of a disorganised maritime India. The bigger and unspoken fear is that such an attack could have taken place anywhere in any major port, the Andaman & Nicobar group of islands, off-shore oil platforms etc. The same goes for a major environmental disaster or a natural calamity, notwithstanding the Indian Navy’s yeoman service in the last tsunami.

In reality, India and Indians are neither situationally aware, let alone be optimally prepared on the ground to manage any major contingency that may occur in our waters. Consequently, the system tends to be reactive rather than be responsive as behooves a nation of our stature and strength.

Span and scope of the MGA
A broad outline on the span and scope of the Maritime Governance Authority (MGA) is necessary to understand the import, importance and impact it would have for creation of a maritime vision, and it’s sustenance for sovereign India. Maritime governance is knowing, monitoring “order and disorder” at sea in a constant, timely, coordinated and responsible manner. It also calls for proactive participative, optimal response to search and rescue, disaster management situations of varying scales.

The primacy of MGA would not be, to replace the role and functioning of the various stakeholders, but to bring to bear on them; holistic maritime domain awareness and understanding the significance of their participation with synergy. Coordinating the activities of the various stakeholders including national readiness to deal with matters maritime, both in peace and war would be its primary charter. India’s complete dependency on the sea being a given, it is imperative that sea lanes of communication are continuously kept open both during peace and war. A review of the existing maritime acts and getting them updated, is an onerous overdue task that should get focused priority of the MGA.

MGA would in essence, also cater for Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) The Indian Navy alongside the Coast Guard would be the lead agency in creating, setting up and monitoring this. Coastal surveillance would be integral to MDA. Peace time as well as war time actions and contingency planning would all be factored in. It is understood that efforts are being made in this direction. The formation of the MGA would be both opportune and optimal. A single point authority would be able to monitor, coordinate and report to the CCS (Cabinet Committee on Security)/NSA (National Security Adviser) on matters maritime, regularly. This in turn would spread awareness and synergy among all decision makers as well the maritime stake holders.

The ministries of defence, shipping, home, intelligence agencies would have suitable representation in the MGA both at the central as well regional/ state echelons. Existing systems only need tweaking up to cater for this. The CCS through the aegis of the NSA would be the apex body accountable for maritime governance.

The role of Legislation
Legislation would have to be ensured to enable continuous monitoring of all ocean activities. This would enable creation of data bases, monitor cargo movement, regulate traffic and bring to bear the importance and advantages of maritime management. The MGA would provide a unifying standard for all coastal states. The coastal state would be very much integral to the MGA set up in that region. This would ensure:

  • Formalised link-ups with the Department of Fisheries to set up operating patterns, fishing areas, trawler/boats, issue of biometric cards to fishermen, organising local watch groups, storm warning, exercise alerts and training.
  • Creation of networks linking all fishing villages, ports and jetties to marine police stations and Navy/CG ops centres.
  • Oversight of coastal surveillance infrastructure and integrating this with the national grid.
  • Infusion of marine police with standardised equipment, training, and joint exercises with all sea going entities.
  • Follow standardised processes in handling merchant vessels, management aspects, cargo handling, customs, excise enforcement, harbour and waterway security, emergency and contingency planning/monitoring activities.
  • Conclusion
    The MGA is the prime essential for sustaining and growing India, alongside creating much needed Maritime Situational Awareness. India is fortunate that concerned Maritime Stake holders are individually growing, learning and contributing to Their Nation in several Ways. If these valuable entities learn to operate, communicate, coordinate in holistic ‘Maritime Awareness’, India would be able to accelerate its growth. Equally important would be the International Cooperation among the Indian Ocean littorals and other maritime powers. The MGA could make this happen in a facile, cost effective manner.

    Jai Hind!


    Vice Admiral Venkat “Barry” Bharathan (Retd.)

    Vice Admiral Venkat “Barry” Bharathan (Retd.), writes now and then on matters of topical interest. He is grateful to life and the Navy for enabling him to be heathy and hopeful.