October 17, 2021
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ICG: Navigating into the Future

The oceanic domain is known to contain enormous wealth of living and non-living resources; it is a significant generator of ecological-environmental services including a carbon sink; and offers employment avenues for a number of industries connected with the seas. The combined annual value of the above goods and services is estimated to be around US$1.5 trillion, and if harnessed in a sustainable manner, present a number of opportunities.

At another level, the seas are witnessing unprecedented threats and challenges that span the human-nature continuum. Terrorism, piracy, illegal fishing, gun running, and drug smuggling plague the oceans and have attracted international response. There is also the critical necessity to protect marine environment and monitor sea pollution. Simultaneously nature induced disasters such as tsunamis and cyclones and climate related global warming and sea level rise have gained primacy in the contemporary ocean security discourse and necessitate delivery of public goods at sea.

In the above context, ‘Bharatiya Thatrakshak’ or the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) with its motto `Vayam Rakshamah”, that translates as “We Protect’, is the primary agency constituted under an Act of the Parliament to enforce national jurisdiction in the Maritime Zones of India (MZI). The ICG is mandated to uphold and ensure law and order in the seas and oceans as prescribed by the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Simultaneously, the ICG is mandated to implement national legislations and related legal instruments to respond to the myriad threats and challenges in the 2.02 million square kilometers of India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This area of responsibility is likely to expand to nearly 3 million square kilometers after the delineation of the continental shelf.

India’s 7,516 kilometers coastline including island territories in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea are dotted with several Coast Guard Stations. These are responsible for surveillance of respective areas of operational jurisdiction and preserving order in the sea. The ICG also provides Search and Rescue (SAR) services at sea in 4.6 million square kilometers Indian Search and Rescue Region (ISRR) that extends 1450 nautical miles out in to the sea from the Indian coast.

The force has been at the forefront of a number of operations to ensure law and order at sea and boasts of significant successes. The ICG has countered piracy (MV Alondra Rainbow), intercepted vessels engaged in illegal fishing and drug/gun running, captured dhows carrying contraband goods and materials including gold and stopped vessels carrying illegal migrants. It has intercepted several fishing vessels from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, China, Taiwan and several Southeast Asian countries illegally fishing in the Indian EEZ particularly in the sea areas off Gujarat coast in the Arabian Sea and around Andaman & Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal.

Environmental protection and ecological preservation is the statutory function of the ICG. It is the designated national agency for ensuring marine environment security in India’s sea areas and has a number of credible and successful oil spill containment operations. It also imparts training to agencies connected with marine pollution operation through tailored exercises. As far as protection of marine life is concerned, the ICG has noteworthy accomplishment in conservation of marine life particularly Olive Ridley Turtles. It conducts Operation Olive for the protection of these species of turtles under which it deploys ships and aircraft for patrolling along the Orissa coast. It also undertakes capacity building of Central and State Government programmes to protect the Olive Ridley turtles and education of the fishermen. 

India has witnessed illegal migration from Sri Lanka, particularly of Tamils and in the Bay of Bengal from Bangladesh and Myanmar. This phenomenon is quite natural given their geographical contiguity and proximity to India and short distance by the sea route. The ICG has successfully apprehended vessels on the high seas attempting to land illegal migrants on Indian shores particularly the Rohingyas’, a stateless Muslim minority and a marginalized society who have been persecuted by the Myanmar authorities.

Post Mumbai terror attacks in 2008, India’s maritime security apparatus has been overhauled and significant changes have been instituted in the organizational structure for enhancing maritime security. The ICG along with the Indian Navy and state marine police agencies conduct intense patrolling to secure India maritime borders.

White Hull Diplomacy

The warships have been at the forefront and supported international efforts by showing the UN flag to exhibit concern over potential security crisis. The presence of warships is inherently intimidating and is most useful for high-end military operations. Unlike the grey hulls i.e. warships, the coast guard vessels are conspicuous by their white hull and two dissimilar blue bands painted across in the forward section of the hull, are most suitable for a number of diplomatic missions. There is a belief, particularly among the many smaller countries in the Indo-Pacific region, that ‘White Hull’ diplomacy lowers the level of response as also reduces the likelihood of war like situation.

Coast Guards also conduct bilateral exercises and train for maritime law enforcement and upholding order at sea. This has encouraged many of these countries to set up coast guards and marine enforcement agencies.  In the Indo-Pacific region, the Coast Guard agencies are highly proactive and have set up an institutionalized way to work together. The Heads of Asian Coast Guard Agency Meeting (HACGAM), a 22 member states regional grouping, is a good example and a useful arrangement for exploring opportunities for networking as also information sharing among coast guards of the region.

ICGs multiple cooperative arrangements have been instrumental in regular port calls, exchange of delegations, joint exercise and sharing best practices. It has established institutional engagements and even signed Memorandum of Understanding with seven Asian coast guards to fight piracy. It is an active participant in the 20 Asian nation anti-piracy initiatives called the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Anti-Piracy (ReCAAP). The latter co-hosted recently an international workshop in New Delhi to deepen knowledge on issues related to piracy and armed robbery.

In the context of the sub-continent, the ICG and the Maritime Security Agency (MSA) of Pakistan, engage each other under the 2005 MoU through diplomatic channels. It is a proactive confidence building measure on maritime safety and security cooperation between the two agencies and envisages exchange of information on EEZ violations and apprehended vessels, marine pollution, natural disasters/calamities, combating smuggling, illicit trafficking in narcotic drugs and piracy, and coordination in search and rescue of fishermen and return sea passage. The MoU also facilitates periodic dialogue between the Directors General of the two agencies, and a ‘hot line’ enables regular weekly conversations between the operational headquarters of the agencies.

Safeguarding Blue Economy

Blue Economy is high on India’s agenda and the government has endorsed the concept and stated its intention to promote sustainable use of the oceans for economic purposes under the mantra of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR).  Prime Minister Modi sees the oceans as a catalyst for economic growth and has likened the blue economy as the Chakra (wheel) in the Indian national flag and has observed that development of coastal areas and island territories are the “new pillars of economic activity.” This has led to the national plan for ‘port-led’ development projects that link the hinterland with coastal areas.

Blue Economy is increasingly being securitized and national maritime security strategies are being conceptualized keeping in mind the ocean realities which needs to be managed keeping in mind the competing maritime interests, resource development and environmental considerations. For instance, Bangladesh Prime Minister has called for strengthening the Bangladesh Navy and Bangladesh Coast Guard to ensure protecting resources in the Exclusive Economic Zone and the Continental Shelf. The ICG is fully equipped and has the requiste apacity to support the national vision of development of Blue Economy.

Future Plans

The growing lawlessness at sea has placed greater responsibility on the ICG to protect India EEZ. It is the fourth arm of the Indian armed forces after the Army, Navy and Air Force and is the fourth largest Coast Guard in the world. It has over thirteen thousand personnel and the force levels have grown from a motley collection of half a dozen vessels transferred by the Indian Navy in 1976, to a formidable force with a sizable fleet of ships, boats and aircraft including helicopters. It currently has 136 ships and 62 aircraft. The ICG has a 15-year perspective plan for a structured growth of the force. A former Director General of ICG has argued that the optimum force level of the ICG by 2020 should include a variety of ocean going patrol ships, littoral surveillance vessels, interceptor boats and aviation platforms. Similarly, the ICG would also need to increase the current manpower from 11,000 personnel to 20,000 with ‘teeth to tail ratio’ of 2:1. At the institution level, ICG may even require its own training academy.

Maritime Domain Awareness

Since the 2008 Mumbai terrors attacks, ICG’s focus has majorly shifted to coastal security with emphasis on surveillance, intelligence and information collection, collation and dissemination among a number of stakeholders to ensure an effective response to any security crisis at sea. The ICG is an important part of India’s sophisticated Coastal Surveillance Network (CSN) built around Static Sensors having Radars, Automatic Identification System (AIS), Day/Night Cameras and a host of other sensors. These are located along the Indian coast and island territories. This network has now expanded to foreign countries such the Maldives and several other Indian Ocean littorals states such as Bangladesh, Seychelles, Madagascar, Myanmar and Sri Lanka would receive similar infrastructure.  In December 2018, India launched the IFC-IOR centre for ‘collaborative, inclusive and high tech approach’ to ‘detect and deter maritime security threats’ in the Indian Ocean. The centre will operate as the maritime information hub for the Indian Ocean region and share common coherent maritime situation picture with a variety of stakeholders.

Smart Force for Maritime Security 

The commercial and military operations at sea and ashore across the globe are in throes of technological and organisational transformation. The commercial marine and maritime domain has witnessed rapid assimilation of information and communication technologies through increased digitalization in all the sectors. Maritime and naval planners are keen to harness the benefits of the ongoing transformation in the digital world led by Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies and make part of their war fighting menu for operations and battle space management. The trends indicate that in the future navies and coast guards will harness the potential of Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality / Virtual Reality, Deep Machine Learning, Big Data, Blockchain technology, Internet of Things, Robot, Drones and 3D printing to build and operate naval platforms to overwhelm the adversary. In 2018, the Indian government constituted a Task Force to study the strategic implications of AI in national security perspective and use this dual-use technology which is fast pervading the commercial maritime industry and naval/coast guard domains.

Concluding Thoughts  

The ICG is an effective, efficient and dependable national law enforcement agency and has made seminal contributions to further national interests. In the last four decades, the force has gained a wealth of operational expertise and developed sophisticated strategies to contend with the existing and emerging challenges at sea. It has also built operational linkages with several coast guards and marine police agencies resulting in interoperability which is pivotal to ensuring law and order at sea. These interactions and institutional linkages have resulted in synergy in operations, convergence of ideas on maritime security and development of best business practices.


Dr Vijay Sakhuja is former Director National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi.