India Seaports Security Concern

The devastating November attack on Mumbai which killed 179 people in a three-day siege has awakened India’s navy to the idea that the 10 terrorists who arrived in the Mumbai harbor by rubber boats to create such mayhem could just as easily have eluded detection if they had been carrying a "dirty" nuclear bomb.

An investigation later showed that not only were Mumbai port authorities woefully unprepared for the attack, India’s entire coastline and smaller ports are probably even more vulnerable, not only because of poorly trained and inefficient security personnel but because of widespread corruption. Heads have rolled across the country’s entire security apparatus.

The terrorists arrived by a hijacked trawler off the coast after a trip from Pakistani waters, according to the investigation, after killing the crew of the trawler, then took to the rubber boat to enter the harbor itself. They were observed by myriad people who never gave the alarm.

Beyond that kind of operation, containers pose a bigger problem. India’s Naval chief Admiral Suresh Mehta warned last week that ports lack adequate security measures, saying that 70-75 percent of global cargo is shipped in containers which could be successfully used by terrorist organizations to ship weapons of mass destruction or nuclear weapons into India.

The containers could also be used to smuggle related equipment/technology unless thoroughly scanned by X-ray machines. The naval chief stressed that India must achieve 100 percent foolproof safety of its ports and shipping containers.

Sources in India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) have spoken about Indian fears that jihadi terror groups are looking smuggle ‘loose nukes’ into countries such as India with lax security and anti-terror apparatus. India, the officials say, lacks a well-implemented action plan at the ports with inadequate ‘special security audits’ at major sea ports, ‘vehicle tracking systems’ and ‘keeping tabs on all trucks entering the port premises.’

According to a technical explanation by the website PEAC, a dirty bomb is neither a nuclear fission nor thermonuclear weapon. It is rather a conventional bomb with radioactive materials attached to it that can be set off by the explosives within the bomb, which then disperse the radioactive materials across a relatively wide area. It is not as deadly as pure nuclear device, but it can do plenty of damage. A large dirty bomb can be delivered by boat and would be considerably cheaper and less detectable than the missiles Pakistan is testing and which India watches closely.

As an example of the porous condition of security at India’s ports, drugs and contraband are smuggled in constantly and more so at the Mumbai areas, the commercial hub of the country. Gujarat ports such as Dahej and Hazira, with proximity to the Mumbai can easily be affected. Beyond that, however, India has 12 major ports and nearly 200 minor ones, with about 90 percent of the volume of foreign trade and nearly 80 percent of total value of foreign trade via containers.

Experience shows there is cause for concern. In the early 90s the officials at coast and ports were bribed by underworld gangsters such as the notorious Dawood Ibrahim to smuggle in the military explosive RDX and other incendiary material into Mumbai. Customs, handlers, coast guard personnel were involved in the logistics, though many did not know that what they were shipping and clearing was meant for one of the most horrific bomb attacks on the city, in 1993 in which more than 250 people died and over 700 were injured.

In addition, in May 2005 a cache of arms was found by Indian police in a container at the port of Mumbai. In late 2004, bomb disposal squads of the Indian Army and the National Security Guards defused live rocket shells from a scrap consignment that arrived from Iran. There has been intelligence feedback that explosives used in the Mumbai train serial blasts in July 2006 that killed nearly 190 people and injured over 800, were smuggled into India through the porous Gulf of Kutch coastline (in Gujarat).


The fact remains that the perpetrators of the November Mumbai attacks escaped notice of a bewildering myriad of authorities involved in the security of Indian waters and ports. From the sea-side it is the Indian Coast Guard that patrols the waters under the federal ministry of defense, traversing an area between 10 and 30 nautical miles. From shore to five nautical miles out is under the coastal police and customs authorities. The high seas are protected by the Indian Navy.

From land, it is the Central Industrial Security Force under the federal Home Ministry that mans the ports.

While the involvement of a multi-layered security network with different reporting structures makes infiltration difficult, it is hardly impossible. Corruption is a big issue. IB sources say that this is best reflected in resistance by staff to be continuously monitored by CCTV cameras at ports. And even if CCTV cameras are installed, there is no guarantee that they work, that they are pointed at the right direction or recordings of proceedings are happening.

Personnel in various agencies are known to be familiar with known agents and middle men, who use secret codes that are understood by staff. In such coordinated efforts money is known to change hands with the slush fund then divided between security personnel.

In the wake of the Mumbai attacks, New Delhi announced a new coastal security apparatus, though Indian implementation standards need to be fine tuned. The government is establishing a Coastal Command headed by the Coast Guard Director General and a Maritime Security Advisory Board for effective linkages across the entire maritime domain.

Joint operation centers on both the east and west coasts are being drafted for better co-ordination. Security agencies will outfit trawlers with transponders to pin point their position in the high seas. The Indian Navy has stressed the stringent application of an ‘International Ship and Port Facility Security Code’ (ISPS) that forms part of the international convention ‘Safety Of Life At Sea,’ a set of measures on security arrangements for ships, ports and government agencies.

Under the ISPS level 2 codes no outsiders are allowed within the sanitized port area. The ISPS Code was instituted as part of the international community's response to the hijacking of an Italian cruise ship in October 1985.

After the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks in the US on September 11, 2001, the United States considerably tightened its security through the so-called Container Security Initiative and Proliferation Security Initiative. India, however, has not subscribed to them. Washington wants the Indian government to ratify the container security initiative, for instance, so that all US-bound cargo could be checked by US customs officials at the Indian ports where the cargo originates.

India sees this as a surrender of sovereign rights though the US guarantees reciprocal rights to participant countries. Admiral Mehta has called for a universal application of the initiative and not a US-specific one for foolproof security on a par with airport security systems.

New Delhi has also appointed the Electronics Corporation of India Ltd (ECIL) as the lead agency for implementation of electronic cargo inspection systems (ECIS) and absorption of the technologies involved.

Cooperation between Indian security agencies and American Federal Bureau of Investigation, after the Mumbai attack is expected to bring about a qualitative enhancement of Indian understanding of anti-terror measures. The Indo-US Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) signed in December, 2005, provides the two countries with a legal mechanism that enables assisting each other in crimes related to terrorism.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at