Indian Ocean To Become Focus Of Trade And Warfare: Is India’s East Coast Prepared? 

Indian Ocean To Become Focus Of Trade And Warfare: Is India’s East Coast Prepared? 

by Rajeev Srinivasan - Monday, July 25, 2016 04:20 PM IST
Indian Ocean To Become Focus Of Trade And Warfare: Is India’s East Coast Prepared? Indian Air Force, Tambaram (ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty Images) 
  • Sensitive civilian and military establishments including the Koodankulam atomic complex, Thoothukkudi port, Mahendragiri and Sriharikota rocket launching stations must be safeguarded.

An Indian Air Force (IAF) plane, AN-32, is missing on a routine flight from Chennai to Port Blair, and nobody has any idea about its whereabouts. Some time ago, Malaysian Air MH 370 disappeared over the Indian Ocean, and we would have no idea even if it appeared close to the southern peninsula. So far as I know, the only military radar we have in the area is somewhere in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands chain, and it is not turned on all the time.

Now imagine if enemy aircrafts, from, say, Pakistan, or from a Chinese aircraft carrier coming through the Strait of Malacca attack the East Coast of the peninsula. There are sensitive civilian and military establishments there, including the Koodankulam atomic complex, Thoothukkudi port, Mahendragiri (ISRO’s rocket testing station) and further north, Sriharikota rocket launching station.

India is woefully unprepared for any enemy activity on the East Coast. And the deep south is not far from the shipping lines in the Indian Ocean, and there will be increased infiltration by both Chinese naval vessels and submarines. As is rather clear, the Indian Ocean (through which 80 percent of oil shipments pass already between the straits of Hormuz and Malacca) will increasingly become a focus of both trade and warfare.

India needs to be prepared for both. On the one hand, Thoothukkudi port has been refurbished and upgraded, and it should enjoy increased traffic as the national highways from Bangalore and Chennai have become functional. However, it suffers from its location, which requires a bit of a detour, discouraging larger vessels from docking there. But it could be perfect for smaller feeder craft.

On the other hand, two major ports are coming up on the West Coast, both near Trivandrum: Vizhinjam container transhipment port (in Kerala), and the recently-approved deep-water Colachel port (in Tamil Nadu). There is some confusion about their relative merits and how they can complement each other as Chennai (in TN) and Ennore (north of Chennai) do. Colachel could be a deep-water conventional port, and Vizhinjam the container port, and both can share the local infrastructure, being close to Trivandrum international airport and railway divisional headquarters. With goods and services tax (GST) close to becoming a reality, the state boundaries will cease to be bottlenecks.

But a more interesting idea would be to connect the coasts with a freight and industrial corridor from Vizhinjam and Colachel to Thoothukkudi, via Nagercoil and Tirunelveli. As part of the Sagarmala initiative, all this would need is a widening of the existing Trivandrum-Nagercoil National Highway 66 (which is already in the works), and also the doubling of the Trivandrum-Nagercoil railway line (also being surveyed now).

The road connectivity from Nagercoil to Thoothukkudi on NH 44/138 is already quite good, and there is a rail link, but that would need to be upgraded. Bulk cargo can then be shipped to/from either coast, and from both the north-south Golden Quadrilateral trunk routes are only 50 kms away.

This could lead to a few industrial clusters in the sparsely populated Tirunelveli district, which has plenty of vacant land (but is semi-arid, lacking much by way of fresh water sources). This would also be a boon to both TN and Kerala (which can design, say, electronics products in crowded Kerala, but manufacture an hour or two away in Tamil Nadu).

In addition to industrial clusters, it should also host a large airbase with long-range radar as well as P3-C Orion-type submarine hunter killers patrolling the sea, keeping an eye on traffic to and from Colombo as well. If you remember, Chinese submarines docked at Colombo last year.

Besides, even though the Southern Air Command is in Trivandrum, most of its aircraft sit elsewhere: in Car Nicobar, in Sulur (Coimbatore) and Port Blair. This, I presume, is due to lack of available space in Kerala. But if a large new airbase can be set up in the Tirunelveli area, the flight time from there for emergency operations in the Indian Ocean will be barely minutes, as compared to half-an-hour from Sulur. Indeed, the fate of the AN-32 aircraft, which was on a mission from Chennai to Port Blair, falls directly under this Southern Air Command, and its inability to locate the debris in the Indian Ocean points to be urgent need to upgrade its capability.

As for industrial clusters, the most obvious would be an aerospace cluster. There is Mahendragiri; then there’s Thumba and Valiamala in Trivandrum. There is also talk of setting up India’s second launch pad at Kulasekharapatnam, an old port in Tirunelveli district. Between these centres, most of India’s manufacturing and testing of launch vehicles happens in this general area, and possibly now some launches as well.

Let us go back the specific case of the IAF aircraft. Startlingly, nobody seemed very interested in its fate, or that of the 29 personnel abroad. It was shocking to see that the mainstream media, as well as social media, were full of self-congratulatory stories about the release of hostage Judith D’Souza from Afghanistan, but there was virtual silence about the IAF personnel and others on board the ill-fated plane. Shame on us, when the lives of 29 military personnel do not seem to matter at all, but the rescue of a civilian who ignored travel advisories to work for a wealthy NGO is big news.

Rajeev Srinivasan focuses on strategy and innovation, which he worked on at Bell Labs and in Silicon Valley. He has taught innovation at several IIMs. An IIT Madras and Stanford Business School grad, he has also been a conservative columnist for twenty years.

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