An Indian Coast Guard (ICG) delegation led by the Director General visited Karachi in July to hold discussions on coastal security, among other issues, with the Maritime Security Agency (MSA), the national safety and security agency of Pakistan. The visit was important as it came in the backdrop of the suspended composite bilateral dialogue between India and Pakistan in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Pathankot airbase in January 2016.
Earlier, in March this year, the ICG and the MSA mutually agreed through diplomatic channels to extend the 2005 MoU for another five years. The MoU is a proactive confidence building measure on maritime safety and security cooperation between the two agencies and envisages exchange of information on Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) violations and apprehended vessels, marine pollution, natural disasters/calamities, combating smuggling, illicit trafficking in narcotic drugs and piracy, and coordination in search and rescue of fishermen and return sea passage. The MoU also facilitates periodic dialogue between the Directors General of the two agencies, such as the one in July, and a ‘hot line’ enables regular weekly conversations between the operational headquarters of the agencies.
Given the deep animosity between New Delhi and Islamabad, over the years, coastal security (2008 Mumbai terror attacks) and fishermen issues (who cross into each other’s waters and are apprehended) have dominated discussions between the two sides. It is quite evident that the ICG and the MSA have thus far not attempted to expand the bilateral agenda to include issues such as marine environment and ecology, which are mandated by the respective Acts approved by their Parliaments - 1978 Indian Coast Guard Act and Pakistan’s Maritime Security Agency Act, 1994. In the case of the ICG, section 14 (1) enunciates that the Force should ensure safety and protection of offshore infrastructure in India’s maritime zone; preserve and protect the maritime environment; prevent and control marine pollution; protect fisheries, and help collect scientific data. Similarly, Section 10 (e) of the MSA Act calls upon the Force to "assist other departments and agencies of the Government to maintain and preserve the quality of marine life and to prevent and control the effects of marine disasters including marine pollution in and around the ports, harbours, coastal areas, estuaries and other areas of Maritime Zones."
There are at least four issues that merit discussion during the next dialogue scheduled in 2017. First, marine ecology in the northern Arabian Sea. The Indus River Delta is the fifth largest mangrove area in the world and home to 150 to 250 marine species and over 60 bird varieties. Similarly, the Sir Creek, in the Rann of Kutch marshlands, is rich in marine biodiversity. These are ecologically sensitive areas and require cooperative monitoring particularly when either side engages in resource development projects or for tourism. A cooperative ICG and MSA agenda could include issues of protection of marine species and their habitats, ecotourism, and sustainable use of marine living and non-living resources.
Second, in 2015, the international community through their states agreed to work towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030 through 17 Goals to be achieved over the next 5, 10 and 15 years. Goal 14 calls on states to reduce marine pollution, conserve coastal and marine areas, and enhance marine biodiversity. As regards fisheries, it calls for regulated harvesting and to curb overfishing and illegal unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. India and Pakistan are committed to SDGs 2030 which provides a sound and benign basis for ICG and the MSA to initiate a joint project to support national SDG targets.
The third issue is of environmental pollution, which was also on the agenda for discussion at the recent between the ICG and the MSA. The South Asia Co-operative Environment Programme (SACEP) encourages member states to adopt the Regional Oil and Chemical Marine Pollution Contingency Plan for South Asia. However, in 2003, Pakistan decided to obtain assistance from the UK instead of India during the Tasman Spirit oil spill incident off Karachi. The ICG and MSA can potentially move beyond exchanging marine pollution data and work towards bilateral and regional marine oil spill response exercises to include Iran and Oman, the other two littoral states of the northern Arabian Sea.
Fourth, in light of the November 2014 Kathmandu Declaration, India and Pakistan have "recognized the manifold contributions of ocean-based Blue Economy in the SAARC Region and the need for collaboration and partnership in this area." India and Pakistan can explore the idea of declaring the Sir Creek a Marine Protected Area (MPA). This has the potential to result in trans-boundary dialogue to preserve the marine biodiversity of the Sir Creek which will contribute to the Blue Economy of both countries.
Finally, it is useful to explore a north Arabian Sea partnership built around cooperative marine and maritime agendas to include issues such as a sub-regional approach to the protection of the marine ecosystem, marine sensitive areas, and develop a sophisticated communication network and perhaps a regional response centre to provide information to national/state/local authorities on the impending oil spill and the response options. This databank could be made accessible to all concerned through the SAARC headquarters as also through respective national marine pollution response centres.