India’s land border on the western front is not only clearly demarcated and fenced, but is also sufficiently illuminated for it to be visible from an international flight overhead. In contrast, the maritime border is neither visible nor discernible in the endless, ever moving ocean, being only a line marked on navigational charts. The ocean, scornful of such inane matters as boundaries, continues far beyond the twelve mile line that marks the limit of the sovereign Republic of India, while on the charts another discreet line 200 nautical miles seawards, demarcates an area of tremendous value to India. It is in this immense sea area that India has exclusive rights to oil and gas exploration, drilling, mining for rare minerals, fishing and any other form of economic activity.
The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) abuts the entire coast of India, over a sea area of roughly 2.7 million sq km, which, in perspective is nearly three fourths of India’s land area. Within the EEZ various companies, both state owned and private have been awarded blocks for the exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbons. There are 10 such areas, collectively known as the Offshore Development Areas (ODA), are also known by their operative names, perhaps the most well known being Mumbai (formerly Bombay) High.
Exploitation of the ODA commenced in the early seventies after the discovery of the Bombay High oil field. Initially ONGC was the only player in the offshore exploration sector, but since the late eighties, private firms have also joined the fray. In the Western ODA, the farthest field lies 160 Km into the Arabian Sea. There are 13 process complexes, 214 well platforms and 25 – 30 rigs or drill ships. In terms of economic investment, ONGC alone has pumped in as much as $ 24 billion and was set to invest a further $ 1.7 billion as of 2012. The offshore fields currently produce 25% of India’s demand for crude. On the east coast, the offshore produces 75% of India’s demand for natural gas. Clearly, the offshore is a vital area from the point of monetary investment and maintaining India’s energy security.
Although the ODA falls within the beat precinct of the Coast Guard, security has in fact been entrusted to the Navy. Towards this, an organization was raised in 1983 with the specific aim of facilitating security of the western ODA. The Offshore Defence Advisory Group (ODAG) is headed by a Rear Admiral, who is also the advisor to the Government of India (GOI) on offshore security.
The threats to the Offshore are numerous and ever changing – apart from the possibility of infiltration and sabotage from inimical elements, and physical occupation of platforms, which are obvious, a vigil also needs to be maintained against hijacking of vessels, deliberate collision by ships against platforms, damage to pipelines at land-fall points and attack by hostile craft, among others. This requires that all ships and boats operating around platforms be observed closely.
In order to better monitor movement of ships and boats, a number of radars were installed on offshore oil platforms. Since 2006, these radars have been networked to provide a composite maritime picture of the entire ODA, which enabled single point naval surveillance of offshore areas. This surveillance is backed up by armed patrol boats maintaining a physical presence in the area. The sea area of the ODA has been placed off limits to shipping, with general ship traffic being re-routed around the ODA. Vessels entering the ODA for legitimate purposes are required to obtain permission from the GOI before they are permitted to enter. This includes a physical verification of the vessel and crew by the Navy.
Vessels displacing more than 300 tons are required to have Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders installed, that provide essential ship identification information when interrogated. Thus at any time, the Navy is aware of the credentials of all ships inside the ODA. Ships that do not fulfill the security criteria, or are observed to be straying from their designated courses are visited by the prowling patrol boats. Backing up the patrols are Naval and Coast Guard aircraft and ships that regularly sweep these areas. While the entry and movement of ships has been effectively controlled and monitored, the security imperatives are complicated by the presence of numerous fishermen in their small boats.
During the fishing season, there are literally hundreds of boats, none of which have AIS transponders. Although a zone of 500m around the oil platforms and rigs has been designated as a no fishing zone, fishermen have been found fishing in the immediate vicinity of platforms, since fish are known to be attracted by the lights from the platform and the gas flare at night. In such cases, identity papers of the offending fishermen are confiscated and handed over to the Yellow Gate Police for further action. However, with many fishermen having neither the knowledge nor understanding of rules and regulations, keeping them away from the immediate vicinity of platforms becomes an uphill task. The patrols are also required to check the identity papers and antecedents of fishermen, lest some undesirable elements try to sneak in under the garb of Indian fishermen.
Given the fact that the ODAs cover an area of 9000sq km, and that it takes a single boat nearly six hours to cover an area of radius 10nm (17km), it is evident that the patrolling effort is enormous and clearly needs to be backed by technology. Boats being used at present are commercial craft and trawlers unequal to the size and scale of the task. While there are also proposals to issue RFIDs to all fishermen, however at present, of the 15,59,640 coastal fishermen identified in India, only about 50% even have identity cards. The Home Ministry has also proposed that not only should all fishing boats be registered, but their movements in and out of port must be regulated. They should also have AIS transponders and communication equipment to facilitate tracking and monitoring. Further, the Navy has been advocating for an extension of the no-fishing zone around offshore platforms since the present distance of 500m provides very little response time. However there is a long way to go in all these areas.
The Navy has also been observing with concern the trend of pirates to shift eastwards and has accordingly been preparing for newer and hitherto unforeseen emergencies. In order to maintain the edge of its personnel tasked with emergency response, fast attack craft, helicopters and commandos are regularly drilled to react within the shortest available time. In addition, the Navy is awaiting a number of Immediate Support Vessels, which would be more effective for security duties at sea.
However, despite these measures, the risks remain, for the ocean is a vast and lonely place which does not brook man-made boundaries and artificial barriers, thereby imposing a level of vulnerability to any offshore asset, which must be guarded by men at sea. On the other hand, the resources available to patrol will always be restricted in numbers by their availability and ability to cover a given area, which in turn depends upon factors like endurance, weather, seakeeping ability in various sea states, maintenance and repair support, manpower etc. It is no mean task to patrol the seas day after day, in small open boats, with few creature comforts, ignoring sea-sickness, induced by the constant motion, and the searing heat of a bright sun reflected off the sea surface. But it is this ceaseless dedicated effort at maintaining constant vigil, while disregarding discomfort, by the men in white, drawn from all corners of India, that has ensured security of the offshore and will do so in future.
A flag officer of Electrical Branch, Commodore Sanjay Tewari ( Retd) writes under the pen name of Kris Tee. He retired most recently after nearly 32 years in the Indian Navy. He has authored two books for his service: “In The Wake Of The Swordfish – A history of INS Valsura and the Electrical Branch” and the “Through The Labyrinth Of History – A Journey Through 275 Years Of The Naval Dockyard At Mumbai”.