Role of Indian Coast Guard in Maritime Security

This blog post has been authored by Jay Maniyar


As a maritime nation-state, maritime security is critical to India. With a large coastline of 7516 km, India has much to worry about as far as its maritime safety and security are concerned. Challenged by a panoply of traditional and non-traditional security threats to its survival, India employs the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) to guard its waters. Official statements describe the Indian Coast Guard as a “multi-mission, round-the-year” organization tasked with monitoring India’s massive coastline every day. The ICG is headed by a Director-General while its headquarters are based in New Delhi. Five Coast Guard regions have been devised for effective command and control.

As a coastal security force, the ICG is concerned with the overall maritime security of the country. The ICG governs India’s territorial waters and its contiguous and exclusive economic zones which extend up to a total of 200 nautical miles from the maritime baseline of the country. The ICG is a maritime law enforcement agency and is concerned with illicit activities such as human smuggling, drug trafficking, potential terrorism, and other forms of maritime crime at sea. The ICG has 15,714 personnel within its ranks, 175 vessels for duty, and 44 aircrafts. The ICG was established through the Coast Guard Act of 1978.[1] It was devised and set on course for duty on February 1, 1977. The Act officialised its operations and legalized the ICG as an armed force of the Union of India.

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The ICG plays a pivotal role in India’s overall coastal security because it is an agency that is concerned with everything to do with the coastal waters. Moreover, its duties now extend to preserving India’s blue economy, which is an area which has emerged as an engine of growth for the country. The ICG is the foremost, first-rate force which provides coastal security to the country and is even involved in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR).

The ICG also assumes a key and central role in the overall maritime security of India because it is the second-most important agency of security after the Indian Navy (IN). The ICG, in particular, does not play second fiddle to IN and is actively involved in maritime-naval exercises, seabed security, security to the untapped energy reserves in the EEZ and other activities which have to take place across the EEZ. These further emphasize the importance of the Indian Coast Guard in India’s maritime security regimen.

Within the inventory of the ICG are several offshore patrol vessels (OPVs), pollution control vessels (which pertain to the health of the maritime ecosystem), fast patrol boats, hovercrafts, intelligence survey ships, and many others. The ICG has a strong inventory which can be expected to officiate duties that would otherwise pose hindrances and problems to India’s maritime security. The ICG is a stand-alone force and it is not merely a force which is to play second fiddle to the Indian Navy. It is to be a coastal and maritime security mechanism by itself through its well-arranged hierarchy.

The Indian Coast Guard undertakes duties ranging from the safety of islands, offshore terminals, installations, etc. to the protection of fishermen who are facing distress at sea.[2] As far as legal responsibilities are concerned, the ICG is responsible for enforcing the Maritime Zones of India Act 1981 which governs the fishing regulation by foreign vessels. The ICG also assists customs and other authorities in anti-smuggling operations.

As far as foreign Coast Guards are concerned, coast guard-to-coast guard cooperation takes place in the form of joint maritime-naval exercises, joint patrols called Coordinated Patrols (CORPATs), and cooperation and collaboration at the officers’ level (training, education, sharing of best practices, etc.).  Coast Guards cooperate much like navies do because maritime security has largely become an area dominated by common security concerns and the need for joint missions and better interoperability during crises.

The Indian Coast Guard is no different. The Indian and regional Coast Guards have agreed to cooperate by signing Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs). India cooperates chiefly with Coast Guards in its immediate proximity such as those of Thailand and Indonesia. Thus, it can be seen that the Indian Coast Guard takes ample interest in the larger maritime security affairs of India and is keen on linking up with regional bodies that serve their nations in a similar way to the ICG.

The technology used by the Indian Coast Guard includes a Coastal Radar Surveillance System, Automatic Identification System (AIS), and various cameras and sensors. These ensure technological adeptness and provide for better surveillance and improve upon the manual abilities of Coast Guard personnel. As can be understood from the above, the ICG is a high-tech force and continues to upscale its technologies to achieve maritime-naval dexterity and fight maritime crime and other such problems at sea.

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Maritime security is a continual process which requires that there should be round-the-year observance, surveillance, and response mechanisms in place. The Indian Coast Guard is a state-of-the-art coastal security force that is responsible for the coastal security of the country. The Indian Coast Guard battles traditional and non-traditional threats in an insecure environment around the Indian maritime zones. The Mumbai 26/11 attacks which shocked the nation were initiated through the maritime routes from Pakistan to India. Such destruction has catalyzed an improved Coast Guard and the accompanying security apparatuses.

At the time, India had accorded the responsibilities for coastal security to the State Marine Police. However, following the ghastly terror that was unleashed in Mumbai, the Indian Coast Guard was made responsible for the security of the Indian coastline of 7516 km. This was approved by the central government in February 2009. The Coast Guard has also been made responsible, in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, to ensure synergy and coordination between coastal and state maritime security agencies. This further entrusts it with a major role in the holistic maritime security of India. Today, the Indian Coast Guard provides much much more than ordinary coastal security and is integral to the entire maritime security of India.

The many forms of surveillance provided by the Indian Coast Guard[3] are the following:

1) On the Beat: This covers the ICG’s mere presence at sea. The ICG will also be expected to provide first response to maritime crime or natural disasters. The presence of the ICG is akin to a maritime policeman.

2) Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Surveillance: The ICG is expected to provide surveillance to the 2 million square kilometres (sq. km.) of India’s EEZ. This surveillance is expected to preserve resources, sustain the maritime environment, and secure communication between ships and oil platforms (for example).

3) Aerial Surveillance: Shore-based aircrafts and helicopters in the Indian Coast Guard are supposed to provide for rescue operations and options to assist the Indian Navy’s maritime-naval arm, too. High technologies are also provided to the aircrafts and they are also expected to respond to oil spills or other ecological disasters.

4) Extended EEZ Surveillance: The ICG is also expected to assist its partners with surveillance of their EEZs owing to low coastal security capacities within their navies or the absence of Coast Guards in their entirety.

5) Coastal Security: Coastal security is the fundamental and foremost duty of the Indian Coast Guard. Contingency plans created by various maritime-naval agencies are conducted by the ICG as part of its coastal security operations.

6) Offshore Security: Offshore security is akin to coastal security but envisages a broader plan and perspective for the maritime domain. Anti-terrorism, anti-piracy, and port security are undertaken by the Coast Guard as part of its offshore security mechanisms.

7) Boarding Operations: The ICG is also entrusted with searching vessels and other merchant ships such as oil tankers for nefarious activities such as maritime crime, smuggling, trafficking, etc. ICG officers board suspect ships to inspect them and then initiate the necessary mechanisms to ensure that the maritime domain remains crime free.

As can be seen from the above, the ambit of operations of the Coast Guard is quite exhaustive and extensive. The Coast Guard is expected to conduct duties such as surveillance, initiate first responses to contingencies such as disasters and pirate attacks, combat maritime criminals and bring them to the jurisdiction of law, and be responsible for the overall coastal security of the country.

The Coast Guard can be further expected to expand its duties. They can provide coastal escort for merchant ships to de-burden navies while they can also be expected to take up some of the duties of the navies themselves. The Coast Guard is a foremost coastal security force and it will serve the force well to continue to broaden the ambit and scope of its duties. The Coast Guard is presently India’s second most important maritime security force in comparison to the Indian Navy.

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A continually improving Indian Coast Guard will secure India better

The Indian Coast Guard remains a strongly vigilant force that continues to upgrade its capabilities and capacities in an urgent manner. With upgraded technologies, a broader scope and vision, and expanded duties, the ICG is a force to reckon with and remains at the helm of the maritime security affairs of the nation. A strong and capable Coast Guard provides for a safe and secure coastline and, effectively, a safe and secure India. Only such a worthy coastal and maritime security body will secure India in the short, medium, and long terms.

For a country that is now an aspirant to atmanirbharta (self-reliance in defence production and procurement), India must have a strong and capable Coast Guard in place to ensure that it achieves the goal of SAGAR or Security And Growth for All in the Region. This coupled with uniquely Indian initiatives such as the Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative (IPOI) or SAGARMALA (a chain of ports and coastal community-led development in India) will have to be secured by the Coast Guard and only then will they achieve their maritime security goals.

India’s maritime security has traditionally been weak since maritime security agencies have always been given no importance in the hierarchy. The Indian Army remains the most important instrument for securing the country. The Indian Navy is third even after the Indian Air Force. Thus, the Coast Guard suffers from a similar predicament and was only founded several decades after India’s independence. It is hoped that such negligence will become a relic of history and the ICG will be a prominent force for Indian national security.

To learn more about maritime law and security, enrol for Diploma in Maritime Law and Security. 

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