Five years after 26/11, why Mumbai's coast is still at risk
Five years after a group of 10 terrorists on a boat made a mockery of our safety measures at sea, the agriculture ministry has given biometric cards to fishermen across the country, but the crucial card readers necessary to verify them are yet to be distributed
It’s been five years since that fateful night when 10 heavily armed Pakistani terrorists landed on Mumbai’s coastline at Badhwar Park via the sea and laid siege to several key locations, including Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Taj Mahal Hotel, Chabad House and Leopold Cafe. And while, the terror assault that killed 166 people and maimed another 300, not enough lessons seem to have been learnt from the carnage.
Following the attacks, realising the chinks in coastal security, grandiose statements were made about improving security measures. The authorities promised us that such an attack would not take place with the new measures implemented. One of the measures taken was to hand out biometric cards to fishermen, in an attempt to safeguard the waters from foreign elements. However, this activity goes to waste, as MiD DAY has learnt that there are no operational biometric card readers available, displaying the inanity and futility of the safeguards and the shocking lapse in safety.
In December 2009, the Union agriculture ministry, under the head of Fishery, had launched the Central scheme of issuing biometric identity cards to fishermen across the coastal areas at a cost of Rs 72 crore. As part of the scheme, the law enforcement agencies coast guard, customs and marine police were to be given card readers so they could verify the issued cards.
The readers have a virtual card and a master card, which will verify the identity of fishermen through their photographs and thumb impressions. However, till date, the state is yet to receive a single functioning card reader. Jayant Banthia, state chief secretary, said, “We have distributed over 1.2 lakh biometric cards to fishermen staying in the coastal areas of Maharashtra. But, we are yet to receive the card readers. The government of India is resolving the issue.”
When asked how security measures had been improved since slain terrorist Ajmal Qasab and his accomplices entered the city through its waters, Banthia added, “Coastal security is an ongoing issue and security systems would be enhanced in consultation with other central and state coastal security agencies.”
SD Shinde, commissioner of state fisheries, said, “So far, we have issued 1.27 lakh biometric cards against the approximate 1.75 lakh registered fishermen in the state. There are an additional 25,000 other fisherfolk who come from other parts of the country to the city and are hired by the registered fishermen.
Their cards have been withheld, as it is required by law for them to get a no-objection certificate from their states.” Commenting on the absence of functional card readers, Shinde said, “As per the plan, we were supposed to receive 315 card readers from the Indian Telephone Industry (ITI), Palakkad, Kerala but they supplied us with only five card readers. However, those are useless, as they do not have the master card (a chip which reads the data and stores it). I will be writing to the ITI shortly and request them to expedite the delivery of the readers.”
Mahesh Tandel, president of Maharashtra Fishermen’s Association, said that often fishermen were fined Rs 1,200 for lack of proper documentation. Tandel said that they received their cards in December 2012, three years after the scheme was implemented. He added that the authorities only carried out a physical check of the card, displaying how farcical the implementation of the scheme was.
Echoing the concern, a police officer from Sagari police station, which has been set up to look after the coastal security, added that they only checked fishermen for proof of identification, as they didn’t have the required card readers to verify the biometric cards. When MiD DAY approached the Coast Guard, an official from the Western Regional Headquarters, Worli, refused to comment citing security issues.
Objectives of the biometric card
(i) To empower every Indian coastal fisherman through issuance of application-oriented biometric ID card.
(ii) To establish a National Marine Fishers Database (NMFD) which could be accessed by all the authorised agencies both at the Centre and the States/UTs.
(iii) To strengthen coastal security; the threat from sea route would be reduced through this mechanism.
(iv) Issue of the National Biometric ID cards would eliminate duplication of cards issued to fishermen by different agencies/states.
The other side
K Sasidharan, deputy general manager (National Population Registry), ITI, Palakkad, Kerala said that while the cards were manufactured at two places — Bharat Electronic Ltd, located at Bangalore and Electronic Corporation of India at Hyderabad, the manufacturing of the card readers were solely done at ITI, Palakkad. He said that as per the proposal from the Union government, around 4.5 lakh biometric cards were to be issued to fishermen across the country and 2,000 card readers were to be issued.
When asked why the card readers were still not made available, Sasidharan explained, “The delay was because the card reader had be first approved by the National Informatics Centre, Delhi and only after approval would manufacturing commence, which took more time.” Sasidharan further stated that sometimes, owing to the fishermen being in deep sea, they miss out on registration for the card, owing to which there is a delay in the issuance of the cards.
Number of fishermen in Maharashtra who are yet to receive the card
Estimated cost of a single biometric card
Estimated cost of a single card reader
Number of cards distributed across the coastal areas of Maharashtra
Rs 72 crore
Estimated cost of the project
Biometric cards issued
Maharashtra: 1.27 lakh
Kerala: 1.5 lakh
West Bengal: 2 lakh
Chinks in the armour
Former Home Secretary GK Pillai said there was reluctance among personnel from state police to take up marine police tasks. He said fishermen were like the ‘eyes and ears’ of the security apparatus and young personnel from their community could be encouraged to join the marine police.
Vice Admiral (retd) Sanjeev Bhasin comparing coastal security to that along the line of control, he said it was nearly impossible to make it fool-proof. “Alongside other measures there is need of good intelligence,” he said.
Rear Admiral (retd) K Raja Menon said a huge amount of money had been spent to improve coastal security, but there is also a need to augment offensive capacities. “It (improvements in coastal security) is as effective as human effort can be,” he said.
Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, said there was ‘much rhetorical focus’ on strengthening coastal security after 26/11. “Fitful efforts notwithstanding, we remain as vulnerable to terrorist attacks along our coastline as we were in 2008,” he said.
He said the core of any effective system of coastal defence capacity was to detect illegal movement of ships and boats. “Unless there is a GPS tagging system to identify those whose presence is legitimate, it is impossible to identify the interloper,” he said.
GK Pillai added more mock anti-terror drills should be conducted. “We are short of practice... There should be proper coordination so that everyone knows what to do,” Pillai said.