Indian Coast Guard Director General K. Natarajan, in this exclusive interview ahead of Coast Guard Day 2021, tells Defence.Capital editor N. C. Bipindra that due to increased responsibilities since 2002, the ICG is reviewing manpower, assets, infrastructure, maintenance and repair facilities requirement to meet emerging challenges.
Ques. As you have completed over 18 months as the Director General of the Indian Coast Guard (ICG), please enumerate the major accomplishments and the areas of major thrust?
Ans. It is indeed a privilege and honour for me to be at the helm of this fine professional maritime service since Jun. 30, 2019. Looking back at the year gone by, it has been a very satisfying as well as progressive wherein we have achieved many a milestone. However, I would restrict myself to a select few.
- The preventive and measured response initiated by the ICG were by warning fishermen and mariners in vernacular languages about impending adverse weather, ensured no loss of lives at sea, during the passage of more than 10 cyclones.
- ICG created yet another maritime history by averting a major ecological disaster in our immediate neighbourhood, by saving a massive 333m Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) MT New Diamond reported to be on fire off Sri Lanka coast, without cargo crude oil escaping into the sea. The ship was on passage from Kuwait to Paradip Port (India) with about three lakh metric tons of crude oil.
- The apprehension of contrabands worth about ₹ 1600 crore in addition to seizure of weapons in the year 2020 alone is a testimony of our hawk’s eye vigil on the vast Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which is more than three times the land mass of the nation.
- Enhanced co-operation with all stakeholders to ensure safe secure and clean seas. We ensured close liaison with the Ministry of Civil Aviation, Ministry of Shipping and Department of Fisheries to ‘harmonise maritime and aviation search and rescue mechanism’ to undertake mass casualty evacuation. Joint operations with other law enforcement agencies to ensure secure seas around the Indian peninsula is providing great results.
We also have been working closely with all ministries and departments to promulgate new stringent national maritime laws.
- Concluded Phase-II of the chain of static sensors project with Bharat Electronics Limited, Bengaluru, will be operationalized by Nov. 2021, and this would provide near gap free surveillance of the entire Indian coastline.
- Continuing our thrust on Government of India’s vision of ‘Make in India’, ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’ and ‘Digital India’, I feel proud to state that all our platforms are indigenously produced/manufactured. Also, to give boost to ‘Digital India’ as well as to reach maximum candidates across the country and to speed up the recruitment process, we have implemented online examination process for our enrolled personnel.
Ques. The Indian Coast Guard has been tasked to safeguard India’s interests in coastal security and maritime zones. What are the new, emerging challenges and threats that the ICG is facing and expects to fight in the next decade?
Ans. On the operational front, the biggest challenge is surveillance of our vast and vulnerable coastline, which extends over 7,600 km. Post 26/11, there has been close coordination with various central and state agencies, which has led to significant success. These include the promulgation of Standard Operating Procedures, joint coastal security exercises, formation of coordination committees at the state and district levels under the civilian administration and the establishment of Joint Operations Centre’s (JOC) under the overall supervision of the Indian Navy.
The length, topography and nature of the Indian coastline make coastal security an extremely challenging task. It demands a coordinated approach involving many central and state agencies. The Indian Coast Guard and navy are continuously striving to achieve seamless cohesion and flow of information towards ensuring a robust Coastal Security Mechanism.
The increasing responsibilities vested with the Indian Coast Guard have resulted in concurrent and continuous operations.
The increased apprehension of contraband including arms in our neighbourhood is a cause of concern. The increase in frequency of cyclones at sea has resulted in deployment of more assets for efforts like warning fishermen at sea in vernacular languages, escorting them towards safe harbor.
The ICG has 156 surface assets and 62 aircraft to cover the vast EEZ of 2.01 million sq.km. and 4.6 million sq.km. of Indian search and rescue regions, which is more than the entire area of the land mass of the country. In addition, there are few surface platforms at various stages of construction and 16 new generation Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) under production are likely to join the fleet. The main strength of the ICG is the motivated, trained and professional manpower which has been consistently delivering at sea despite being thin on ground. We will continue to meet the maritime. Our challenges with the same vigour, ensuring that our seas are safe and secure.
Ques. Considering the challenges of the future, would the present surface and aviation fleet of the ICG be adequate? What could be the future requirement of Surface platforms and air assets compared to the present strength, taking into account phase out of platforms and assets, say a decade from now?
Ans. As brought out earlier, the area to be covered is vast and the challenges at sea very dynamic, it is nearly impossible to put all the areas under constant surveillance. We have 156 surface assets and 62 aircraft at present and few surface platforms are under construction at various shipyards. Further 16 ALH MK III is under production by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. In addition, case for acquisitioning 16 Twin Engine Heavy Helicopters and six MMA in progress. We are thus expected to have 200 surface platform and 100 aircraft in our inventory in the near future.
The increased responsibilities assigned to ICG since 2002 has stretched us thin on ground both on assets and manpower. We are reviewing the requirement of assets, infrastructure, maintenance and repair facilities to meet these challenges. It will be a comprehensive document which will cover the entire gamut of CG responsibilities, challenges vis-à-vis the assets requirement.
Ques. Is Phase II of the coastal surveillance network through a chain of static radars being taken up? What are the contours of the Phase II plan to bridge the gaps?
Ans. The Contract for setting up of Phase II of the Network at 38 sites has already concluded with BEL, Bengaluru and is expected to be operationalized Nov. 2021. The network is expected to provide near gap free surveillance up to a range of about 15 nautical miles from the nearest coast.
Ques. The ICG is also mandated to protect India’s offshore and critical assets during monsoons every year. The force prepares to meet unexpected challenges of drifting ships and such other threats to the offshore and critical assets along the coastline. Please enlighten our readers on the challenges faced by the ICG annually and how these challenges are overcome? What amount of effort and assets are required to perform this role?
Ans. The implications of climate change are becoming a reality in the form of recurrent cyclones. Indian Ocean Region and Indian coast, particularly, stand at high risk from the weather disturbances. ICG has evolved comprehensive Standard Operating Procedures for the response, which are regularly updated and activated in the form of Preventive Stance and Measured Response.
With the first sign of weather disturbance, the warnings are continually issued in vernacular languages to fishermen, mariners, offshore operators and all vessels transiting by our ships, aircraft, Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres, Remote Operating Centres and Remote Operating Stations of the Indian Coast Guard in addition to escorting the fishermen to safe harbours. I am elated to share that during the last 10 cyclones, the ICG’s preventive and measured response has ensured no loss of lives or loss of property at sea.
It has been our endeavour to warn the ports about impending adverse weather condition, so that ships at anchorage are advised to initiate appropriate safety measures onboard and to proceed to sea to avoid running aground or becoming a navigational hazard. We also take up the issue of derelict ships with maritime administrator so that their safety is addressed well before onset of monsoons/adverse weather conditions. We deploy about 50 ships and 12 aircraft every day to mitigate plethora of dynamic challenges in our vast sea area.
Ques. What are your plans to build up and consolidate the ICG capability in performing SAR roles?
Ans. India has a Search and Rescue Region (ISRR) of approximately four million sq.km. Indian Coast Guard has been assigned the responsibility for providing Search and Rescue in the ISRR. Coast Guard Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCCs) located at Mumbai, Chennai and Port Blair coordinate all cases pertaining to the Search and Rescue in the ISRR. These MRCCs are further assisted by the Coast Guard Maritime Rescue Coordination Sub Centres (MRSCs) co-located with the Coast Guard District headquarters in each of the coastal states of India.
Further, for effective SAR efforts, ICG is also in the process of developing common SAR support software for Maritime SAR along with other stakeholders. I am happy to state that our efforts have yielded desired results and we were able to save about 10,000 lives in distress at sea, since inception which translates to saving one life every two days.
To extend ICG’s reach to the limits of the ISRR, we are consolidating the CG force level as per ICG perspective plan. We are inducting Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV) capable of carrying twin engine helicopters for extended SAR operations. We are also in the process of inducting the Twin Engine Heavy Helicopters to support our ships and augment our SAR efforts. These state-of-the-art aviation assets will have higher speeds and longer endurance, which are vital for the successful culmination of SAR operations.
Ques. What are your views on cooperation with neighbouring maritime nations and are there any plans to foster international cooperation with them?
Ans. One of the most significant thrust areas for the ICG has been in the realm of maritime co-operation with littoral nations of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). We have taken several initiatives with the aim of establishing meaningful ties to share information, develop professional relationships to ensure safe and secure seas with various littoral States in the IOR.
ICG ships have visited Thailand, Indonesia, Mauritius, Re-Union, Seychelles, Maldives, Philippines, Japan, Vietnam, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Brunei, Bangladesh, Australia and Myanmar. These visits have helped in the ICG being recognised as a maritime force to reckon with. Ships have carried out joint exercises with their foreign counterparts during such visits, thus significantly enhancing interoperability between maritime forces. This is a critical aspect in tackling common threats at seas.
We have also signed eight Memorandum of Understanding for cooperation with the maritime law enforcement agencies of various countries, which include Pakistan, Oman, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan. Additionally, DOSTI Exercises for imparting training to Maldives National Defence Force (Coast Guard) and Sri Lankan Coast Guard are also being conducted periodically.
As part of the newer initiatives, ICG is undertaking Maritime Law and Ops Course for officers and sailors from friendly foreign countries in Africa, IOR and South East Asia at coast guard units in India. As part of the initiatives towards enhancing maritime safety, our Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres have begun conducting Search and Rescue Communication exercises with their counterparts in 34 countries so that in any real emergency, the response action can be initiated without delay. With regard to Marine Pollution Response, we are planning to conduct specialised courses on Oil Spill Preparedness and Response, SAR and Maritime Law for partner agencies from 15 countries.
Ques. Any message for the Maritime Community from the Director General, Indian Coast Guard?
Ans. The Indian Coast Guard, being the largest in the region, plays a stellar role in protecting the wide-ranging peacetime maritime interests of our nation. Following “on the beat” philosophy to protect vast coastline from anti-national elements and keep our oceans safe and secure, we continue to maintain 24x7x365 vigil at sea, despite various limitations and challenges presented by ongoing COVID pandemic. Mere presence of Indian Coast Guard units at sea serves dual objectives of “Deterrence” and “Reassurance”. Our presence deters people with ill-intent and at the same time reassures maritime community, who look up to us as “saviours at sea”, as they are aware that Indian Coast Guard will swiftly respond to any distress call or life-threatening situation at sea. ICG remains committed to ensure ‘safe, secure and clean seas’ around the Indian subcontinent for mariners and live up to our motto ‘We Protect’.