A scene from the joint exercise 'Sahyog-Kaijin' about 50 nautical miles of Chennai Coast

by Cmdr Udai Rao (Retd)

While the country, and indeed the world, battles the outbreak of COVID-19, sailors of the Indian Navy (IN), the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) and the Indian merchant marine are going through their share of hardship far from our shores, often out of sight and out of mind.

The Indian Navy was among the first to get off the mark, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi called upon the armed forces to set up quarantine facilities for returning evacuees from abroad. The navy responded quickly by creating quarantine facilities in Mumbai, Kochi and Vishakhapatnam. The navy then, as a measure of abundant precaution, decided to postpone the multilateral get-together of ships and sailors from at least 30 friendly countries, called ‘Milan’. This biennial feature was scheduled to be held from 18-28 March 2020 at Vishakapatnam.

While the country is in lockdown mode, naval ships, submarines and aircraft are deployed 24x7 in the far reaches of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), with suitable precautions in place. In fact, naval units often practice operating in lockdown conditions, preparing for possible nuclear, biological or chemical attacks. Naval units often stay out at sea for over 60 days at a stretch. Their reach and sustenance is enhanced by the fleet tankers, which supply them everything, including diesel fuel, aviation fuel, rations, water, etc., so that they don’t have to enter ports to replenish, thus, in the current situation, minimizing the chances of Covid-19 transmission. Submarines, specially the nuclear-powered ones, can remain submerged for days on end without access to something as basic as fresh air. In that sense, the navy is always prepared for lockdown and isolation. 

A few days ago, Indian warships deployed near the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Aden for anti-piracy operations were quick to detect and track a Pakistani Naval ship, PNS Yarmook, as she exited the Red Sea. The newly-commissioned corvette was transiting from Romania to Karachi on her maiden passage home. The message to Pakistan could not have been clearer: We are watching you, Corona or no Corona.

To the east, Indian Navy warships also tracked a Chinese Navy Y901-class tanker, as it entered the Andaman Sea, through the Malacca Straits. The Indian Navy’s P8i long-range surveillance aircraft now regularly keep an eye on Chinese warships, submarines and other hydrographic and oceanographic survey vessels that operate in the IOR, often clandestinely collecting data to be used against India’s interests.

Indian merchant mariners make up over 8% of the global community of sea-farers. These are a professional lot, who most often go unsung. Over 90% of the country’s trade by volume and over 72% by value, including crude oil, is transported across the seas, which is vital for our economy and energy security. While doomsday experts talk of an impending recession and an economy in free-fall, our sea-farers quietly keep imports and exports going and thereby keep the wheels of the country’s economy turning. They are often on ships for months on end, far from their country and separated from their families in trying circumstances, battling heavy seas and strong winds and facing dangerous pirates. 

This year, the ‘National Maritime Day,’ which is celebrated every year on April 5, comes amid the national lockdown. This was the day in 1919 that the SS Loyalty, the first ship of the Scindia Steam Navigation Company, set sail from Mumbai for the United Kingdom, and created nautical history. Without waiting for April 5, let us acknowledge the contribution of our merchant mariners and pay our tributes to them by saluting the ‘Red Ensign’ that flutters on the masts of our merchant ships.

India has historically always been a maritime nation, blessed as she is with an envious maritime geography. It was the statesman-diplomat Sardar KM Pannicker who said that India, with its continental mindset, is sea-blind, which sadly holds true even today. There is still a strange lack of maritime awareness and consciousness in this country after so many years.

Fortunately, the security establishment in the country is wiser today after the 1993 Mumbai blasts, the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and the Chinese surge into the Indian Ocean Region. Most of our civilian maritime agencies, except for ‘merchant marine’, are limited to the territorial waters of 12 nautical miles. Most of our civilian populace is quite happy to be on ‘terra firma’. For them, going to the beach is not about indulging in water sports, but more about wolfing down some ‘bhelpuri’. Similarly, it is ‘chicken tikka’ that excites most of us, and not a fresh haul of seafood from our coasts.

Therefore, it may be a good time now to remember and thank our sailors who sail the high seas. Let us raise a toast (of salt water) for ‘those who serve at sea’. The ‘men in white’ will battle all perils at sea, both seen and unseen.

The writer is a former Principal Director Naval Intelligence and has been a Director in the Cabinet Secretariat