THE WEEK visits Project Seabird, Indian Navy’s most ambitious project
By Syed Nazakat in Karwar
The sea breeze kicked whitecaps to life in the Arabian Sea and then swept into Karwar harbour. It rattled the thatched bamboo huts on the shore and swept over the old brown houses standing on Kadamba-era ruins. Then on to the Hanuman temple and the small restaurant with umpteen fish dishes on its menu. Then upward to ruffle the leafy crowns of the coconut palms. Then, to Karwar Naval base, where the Indian Navy is developing a mammoth base.
Part of a larger blueprint called Project Seabird, the base will be one of the larger naval bases in Asia and will have an exclusive military harbour. It will house around 40 warships, an air force station and submarines. Most of the Indian Navy’s recent and future acquisitions will come home to this little port town in Karnataka.
Around 110km south of Goa, Karwar Naval base has been off-limits for most people. Workers on the project know little about the scale or scope of the base. Not surprisingly, visitors, including the media, are shown only what the Navy wants them to see.
The beautiful Casuarina and Arga beaches and the idyllic Anjadiv island also fall under the base, which has a multi-layer security protocol comprising checkpoints, watch towers, infrared devices, CCTV cameras and air patrols. All maps and documents of the base are cocooned in secrecy, and places are identified only by code names. The main project file might be hidden deep inside some cabinet in the Navy HQ. Rear Admiral C.S. Murthy, director-general, Project Seabird, keeps a hawk-eye on every tiny detail of the project.
Spread over 11,200 acres and with a 26km-long coastline, Karwar Naval base has 1,200 officers and sailors. Said Commodore Rajiv Jaswal, who heads the base: “As a long-range base, Karwar is perfect. It is convenient, isolated and safe. The extent of the land available in and around Karwar will help the Navy disperse its assets, a crucial wartime necessity.” He said Karwar’s hilly terrain provided excellent camouflage for ground installations, and there could even be rock-cut pens for submarines.
Jaswal said Karwar Naval base had generated enough curiosity abroad to make most defence attaches come calling at least once during their tenure. In 2008, Admiral Wu Shengli, the first Chinese navy chief to visit India, called at Karwar. Most visitors are restricted to administrative buildings and non-classified facilities. FAQs are about the classes and number of warships that will berth here, and whether there will be a nuclear submarine. Jaswal’s reply is an expansive shrug: “Nuclear submarines are out of my ambit. I can’t possibly give you any idea about it.”
Karwar Naval base will enhance the strategic capability of the Indian Navy’s twin fleets—the eastern fleet in Visakhapatnam on the Bay of Bengal and the western fleet in Mumbai on the Arabian Sea. In addition to the smaller bases in Kochi and Port Blair, a base is coming up in Lakshadweep.
While Visakhapatnam was considered adequate for India’s security needs in the east, Mumbai was always congested. And, Mumbai’s shallow waters are an impediment for aircraft carriers. A dedicated naval base south of Mumbai will upgrade India’s capabilities on the west coast and enhance all coastal security measures that are being put in place after 26/11.
It was the 1971 war with Pakistan which convinced the Navy of the importance of having a base to itself. Admiral Oscar Stanley Dawson, former chief of the naval staff, proposed the base in Karwar. In 1971, Dawson was director of naval operations.
“It was a monumental task,” said Dawson, of the challenges of operating out of Mumbai harbour in 1971. “The movement of commercial ships made us prone to espionage. The base [in Mumbai] was and is a kind of open book. The heavy movement of merchant vessels often results in naval ships having to wait out at sea sometimes for a whole day. After the war, I did a study of the Pakistan navy and air force and concluded that we need to shift our capabilities to a new place.”
Dawson said, over the phone from his hospital bed in Bangalore, that Karwar was less vulnerable to Pakistani missile and fighter attacks. The base is about 900 nautical miles from Karachi and over 1,500nm from new Pakistan bases coming up in Gwadar and Ormara. Mumbai is only 580nm away. “Its location gives us more time to react against any threat,” Dawson said. “It is critical for the country to have berthing facilities not only for nuclear submarines but also for nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.”
Lying in the rain shadow of the hills, the project’s first phase is almost complete. The deputy director-general of Project Seabird, Commander Vinayak Apte, said he had spent many years studying the soil saturation and rainfall patterns of Karwar. “When the Navy came here there was nothing but the sea,” Apte said. The only infrastructure was a forest department building, which was the nerve centre for the project. Today, when phase one is complete, along the western shore lie a sprawl of offices, barracks, storehouses, and the beautiful Baithkol beach. A narrow ridge separates the main area from the rest of the base. One needs clearance to move from one block to another.
In phase one, the Navy has provided berths for 10 warships, created the harbour, dredged the approach channel and anchorage area and reclaimed 49 hectares. At the base, the ships and submarines can be refuelled through a 7km pipeline. A submarine tunnel secures fibre optic cables and power cables for berthed ships.
Shore facilities include the country’s sole naval repair yard, store depots, transport workshops, armament depots and a missile depot. The naval armament depot at Amdalli village is now functional. Commander Basav Raj, who is closely involved with the project, said building the breakwaters was the most challenging job. The longest breakwater is 3.1km long and runs between Round island and Arga island. Around four million cubic metres of rock was used to build the breakwaters.
“We simply filled the belly of the ocean with rocks. At times, it was hopeless work.” said Basav Raj, as he pointed to Aligadde Hill, where the quarries are. He said breakwaters protect the base from high tides and provide safe passage for ships during war.
Karwar Naval base has a shiplift with a capacity of 10,000 tonnes. A shiplift is simply a large elevator to lift ships on to land. As one shiplift can serve many repair yards, many warships can be repaired simultaneously. Basav Raj said a shiplift is a “force-mutiplier” as ships spend less time waiting for free repair yards. When THE WEEK visited the yards, the INS Nirdeshak was being repaired.
Though the base was inaugurated in 2005, the next phase has not started yet. As always, the issue is that of money. Defence ministry budget planners accuse the Navy of failing to prioritise its various missions. Though the admirals are not satisfied, since 1998, Project Seabird has enjoyed enhanced budgetary support from successive governments.
In 1985, Project Seabird was first approved with an initial outlay of Rs 350 crore. But budgetary constraints forced the Navy to redraw its plans in 1995. The original plan was to build berths for 22 warships, but the plan was partially shelved as it received money for only 10 berths. Dawson said that the Navy’s internal politics delayed the plan by 15 years. Withholding names, he said, some officers did not want his idea to be approved.
The work finally commenced in 1999 with an allocation of Rs 2,500 crore. Problems in land acquisition and compensation for families from 13 villages compounded the delays (see box). At the Navy HQ, planners are now giving the final touches to phase two, which should have started in 2005 and be completed by 2010. The Navy has received approval for phase two and the Cabinet Committee on Security is expected to clear funds in late 2011. The phase will see expansion of the base, induction of a second floating dock and upgradation of dockyards and aircraft repair yards.
Navy sources said the base should be able to host an aircraft carrier after completion of phase two. It will have to develop infrastructure for the maintenance of the carrier assigned here. The base will also house a wide variety of smaller ships, including 10 of the 80 fast-interceptor craft of the Sagar Prahari Bal, the specialised force created for coastal security.
Phase two will also include an airport at Alageri village near Ankola. With Goa’s Dabolim airport seeing more civilian use, Alageri will become the premier naval aviation hub. It will be home to long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft, a full range of helicopters and the MiG-29Ks that will come with the INS Vikramaditya.
Opinion is divided on whether the western command in Mumbai should eventually shift to Karwar, as it will put the huge facility to optimum use. But officials at the Navy HQ say there is no such plan. “The western command in Mumbai will remain critical for the Navy’s operational plans,” said a senior Navy official. “Karwar could have its own Flag Officer Commanding, who could report directly to HQ.”
During his annual press conference, Admiral Nirmal Verma, chief of the naval staff, said: “Our expanding maritime interest requires a growing Navy to cater to growth plans. We also have had to put new infrastructure in place; these include a second phase of expansion of the Karwar base.”
But Dawson has a word of caution: “My concern is that the Navy should not wring everything in. That will prove detrimental to India’s security, especially in the event of nuclear attack. India will see the importance of the base in future. It will emerge as the Navy’s principal war-fighting base.”
In the regional perspective, too, Karwar is seen an important outpost. Australian strategic expert Alexander Gordon, author of India’s Rise to Power, said the base would play a major role in securing the seas also for countries like Australia, which rely on imports and exports through maritime routes in the Arabian Sea.
“India is the naval power of the future in the Indian Ocean region. [And] it has a three to one steaming advantage over non-littoral powers and will play an increasingly important role in addressing the non-conventional security threats,” said Gordon. “Karwar will doubtless play an important role in this regard. India’s major challenge is not so much to be ‘assertive’ in the Indian Ocean, but rather to police its massive territorial waters and act as part of a common approach to ensuring that the vital sea lanes are protected.”
And, it is not just the Navy that has a stake here. The Army, does, too. At Karwar, as the sun sets, Indian Army soldiers return to their camp after a tough day of amphibious military assault exercises. The soldiers are taking advantage of the base to develop capability to deliver a full brigade strength contingent of troops with arms, ammunition and tanks outside the Indian mainland.
The soldiers and their equipment and tanks came off the INS Jalashwa. The soldiers who are stationed here for the exercise are not allowed to move beyond their camps. Why so hush-hush, we ask Captain Punkaj Singh, commanding officer of Karwar Naval base. “We know the base is already on Google Earth,” said Singh. “The people know we have a base here and that it is okay with us. But the enemy should not know what capability we have here. That is critical. Even if you stay here for a month you will not be able to figure out the assets the base contains.” Military planners in Delhi will be pleased to know that critical assets are safe and ready out there in Karwar. Somewhere above or below the sea.
1985: Centre approves a massive naval base at Karwar. It is supposed to be complete within 10 years, but budgetary constraints derail the project for a decade.
1986: Foundation stone laid.
1990: Land acquired. 4,111 families displaced.
1998: Defence ministry and Karnataka agree to enhance rehabilitation package.
2000: Construction begins.
2004: First Indian naval ship enters harbour.
2005: Phase one inauguration.
2007: INS Shardul becomes the first ship to be commissioned at the base.
2008: Admiral Wu Shengli, first Chinese navy chief to visit India, visits base.
2011: Navy submitting report on phase two.
Interview of Commodore Rajiv Jaswal
“Nuclear subs will need dedicated facility”
How important is the Karwar base for the Indian Navy?
This is an exclusive naval port and is one of the biggest projects the Navy has undertaken. Phase one is complete, except for a few structures related to recreation. We are going into phase two, which is being scrutinised at the Navy HQ. It will be submitted to the defence ministry in two months. It has massive outlays which will enhance the infrastructure of the base.
What is the capability of the base?
The centrepiece of phase one was the harbour with a shiplift. We also have a maintenance facility for the warships. As a result, we have been able to decongest Mumbai by around six ships.
Phase two will bring more jetties, more docking facilities and advanced maintenance facilities. There will be an airfield and facilities for an aircraft carrier. Much will depend on the Navy’s strategic thinking and plans for optimisation of maintenance facilities. We cannot duplicate facilities all over the country.
Will Karwar be Asia’s biggest naval base?
It will be one of the bigger bases in the region. We do not know about Chinese naval bases, which may be as big as Karwar. No doubt, Karwar will be large and exclusive.
What is the strategic importance of the base?
This is an exclusive harbour. It will allow us to shift some of the important assets from Mumbai.
How does the base’s coastline compare with the Mumbai base’s?
We have about 26km of coastline here. In Mumbai we occupy just 2.5km.
Many say building the breakwater was one of the bigger challenges?
True. We were helped by foreign consultants. We have two breakwaters, one is about 3.1 km long and other one about 1.8 km. We have created a protected harbour using the islands and these breakwaters.
Why is this project behind the schedule?
There is no real delay. Development of a base like Karwar depends on the economic progress of the country. If you want Rs 20,000 crore for phase two, your economic growth should be on par.
Is Karwar ready for a nuclear submarine?
Nuclear submarines are out of my ambit. Nuclear submarines require very specialised and dedicated maintenance facilities.
Will the western command move to Karwar?
Mumbai is a financial hub and it will remain a very important base. We may decongest Mumbai and shift some assets here.
It has been 26 years since the government acquired 2,500 acres in Karwar for Project Seabird. But, the dispute over compensation has not ended yet. As Karwar is the headquarters of Uttara Kannada district, almost every day district authorities receive complaints from affected families. So much so that there is a separate department which deals with the displaced. Shailash P., manager, special land acquisition office, said 4,111 families in 13 villages were affected by the project.
In 1986, the government paid Rs 150 per gunta (40 guntas equal one acre). But around 1,300 people moved court saying the sum was too meagre. In 1989, the court forbade eviction of people until “proper rehabilitation measures” were in place. The court also directed the government to pay Rs 11,500 per gunta.
however, the defence ministry appealed to the High Court saying the government cannot pay such a huge amount. The High Court upheld the order of the lower court. The matter is now in the Supreme Court. Under the government package, the head of every displaced family received Rs 50,000 and a house in the rehabilitation centre, while two adult sons and one unmarried daughter, above the age of 35, got Rs 70,000 each.
Many people complained to THE WEEK that huge projects on the Karwar coast left no beaches for the people. Uttara Kannada’s major projects include the Konkan Railway, Kaiga atomic power station, Kali Nadi hydroelectric project and Project Seabird. Asked local resident T. Ganesh: “What is left for us? Nothing. Compared to Goa, Karwar is beautiful by far. But the government is not interested in developing Karwar. They just want to sell our land.” Recently, people opposed the decision to hand over a part of Karwar beach to the Coast Guard.
Deputy Commissioner of Uttara Kannada B.N. Krishniah said the government had started rehabilitation schemes like carpentry training and poultry farms for the displaced. Said he: “We are helping the displaced in many ways. The compensation was paid only after they agreed to the amount. The matter is sub judice and we will respect the court’s verdict.”
The Navy also said it had taken care of the affected families. Said Captain Punkaj Singh, commanding officer, Karwar Naval base: “We have paid compensation and have given them jobs. Over 50 per cent of our civilian staff is from local areas. We have built a hospital which is open to civilians.”