Towards the end of last year, the Indian Navy had inducted two ‘potent’ indigenously built platforms — INS Visakhapatnam and INS Vela .
Speaking during the induction ceremony at Visakhapatnam on November 21, 2021, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had underlined the Navy’s role in ensuring a safe and open Indo-Pacific and thus safeguarding the country’s economic interests.
In a backdrop to this, it is the right time to ponder over how our seas touch each of our lives, including those living in hinterland.
What is it that the Navy does, which makes it the preferred instrument in safeguarding the nation’s as well as the world’s economic aspirations?
Trade and cultural exchange throughout the known history has been transacted through the sea routes. The seas have traditionally been highways for commerce and exploration.
Maritime trade and commerce are economic activities, which need a safe and conducive environment to thrive. It is this requirement, which led to development of navies.
The Cholas had a powerful navy up until the 13th century, which allowed them to trade and establish their influence right upto Southeast Asia. The largest temple in the world, the Angkor Wat in Cambodia, bears testimony to this fact. India was discovered by the west through the sea route by Vasco Da Gama in 1498.
The imperialistic designs of European powers remained in check till the time there was a credible navy guarding the Indian shores. The decline of Maratha naval power in the mid 18th century allowed the European powers, particularly the British to flex their muscles.
The subsequent conquest and plunder of the great Indian subcontinent by the British also took place through the high seas.
Thus, it becomes amply clear that through the ages, the presence of capable naval forces had allowed us to flourish and the ‘sea blindness’ resulting in weakening of naval power led to the ultimate conquest, downfall and exploitation of the Indian subcontinent.
How this lesson from the past is significant in the present era?
To put it simply, the dependence of the world in general and India in particular on maritime trade has never been greater. A total 95 per cent of all Indian trade by volume or 70 per cent by value is handled through the maritime route.
To further put it more clearly, about 80 per cent of the fuel that we fill in our vehicles at petrol pumps is brought in to the country via the sea route.
Similarly, be it a smartphone, a television or a computer, almost all the semiconductor chips inbuilt devices and components such as batteries, display components are imported into the country through sea.
On the other hand, all automobiles manufactured in India, raw materials, food grain and others (produced in India) are exported all over the world via the sea route.
To understand the importance of maritime trade a little better, let’s look at what happened in the Suez Canal on March 23, 2021.
MV Ever Given, a 400-metre long container carrier, loaded with 17,000 containers ran aground in the world’s most busy waterway.
After remaining stuck for six days, it was finally towed out. The blockage of Suez Canal during the period sent shock waves throughout the world. The Suez carries 12 per cent of the entire world’s sea trade. So, for six full days, about a tenth of the entire world’s sea trade was disrupted due to a single ship.
It would be interesting to note that the entire loss caused to world maritime trade due to this single incident can perhaps never be quantified accurately because the after effects of this incident may still be catching up with some individuals and agencies. Such is the depth of the extent of dependence on maritime trade on our individual lives.
While the Ever Given incident may have happened due to human error, the possibility of such an incident happening in other busy constricted waterways by way of deliberate military action or a pre meditated terror attack remains a grim possibility.
The after effects of a coordinated terror attack with such disastrous consequences are almost unthinkable. Imagine the effect it could have on an import dependent country like India. Needless to say, world maritime trade remains vulnerable to all kinds of threats and requires protection.
As the nation progresses towards becoming a global production hub, it need more and more sea trade to bring in raw materials, oil and petroleum and take out finished products to their destinations worldwide, thereby ushering in employment, growth and prosperity.
Such a vast and diverse sea trade requires protection against traditional and non-traditional threats. As history shows us, such protection can be provided only by a capable and a professional navy.
The Indian Navy is mandated to ensure safety of the nation’s maritime trade through protection of Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs). This remains the Indian Navy’s primary military mission. The mission is achieved by ensuring that the SLOCs are monitored and patrolled by the naval ships and aircraft.
Through sustained presence and continuous surveillance, the merchant traffic emanating from and bound for Indian ports remains unhindered in times of peace and war.
While protection of trade remains a continuous and omnipresent mission for the Indian Navy, protection of country’s vast coastline, offshore development areas and island territories — which are far from the mainland is also a crucial mission.
Just as the Indian Army and the Border Security Force are responsible to ensure that country’s land borders with neighbouring countries are well guarded and protected from external attacks, the Indian Navy take continuous measures to ensure that anti-national elements do not infiltrate into our country through the sea route.
In the aftermath of the 26/11 terror attacks on Mumbai, an extensive coastal radar network and surveillance mechanism has been put into place. The coastal areas are continuously patrolled by ships, aircraft, RPAs and boats of the Indian Navy, coast guards and marine police assets from various states.
The Indian Navy has also been highly successful in thwarting large scale drug trafficking attempts that is known to take place along the ‘Hash Highway’. The narcotics, which emanate from Afghanistan, are trafficked by the sea route from Makran coast for further distribution into East Africa, Middle East, Maldives and Sri Lanka.
In April 2021, the INS Suvarna seized narcotics worth Rs 3,000 crore originating from Pakistan from a fishing boat off the Kerala coast. The seizure of these narcotics consignment ensured that the money generated from their sale would not go into funding of international terror outfits.
The missions and deployments of the assets of the Indian Navy are aimed to ensure that the conducive conditions are created on the high seas as well as coastal waters to further guarantee that the economic progress of the nation remains unhindered.
So the next time you see a large sophisticated windmill churning away silently or a solar power panel on top of your house, remember that there are ships and aircrafts of the Indian Navy on 24×7 patrol, ensuring that the ships that are carrying these vital cargo proceed to their destinations unharmed to bring about prosperity and realise the dream of Aatma Nirbhar Bharat (Self-Reliant India).
(Sumit Kumar Singh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)