On Monday afternoon, a police jeep stood forlorn in the middle of a vacant plot of land alongside the banks of a national waterway, roughly two kilometers from the fishing harbour at Munambam in central Kerala. Three large fishing boats, all of them painted in dark blue, remained anchored at the coast. The police officers sat inside the jeep reading a newspaper and stealing cursory glances at ‘Sahayamatha’, the boat docked closest to the coast.
“We have been asked to keep an eye on this boat, to check who’s coming and going. We were told that this boat was the only one present here in the early morning hours of January 12,” one of the officers said, asking not to be identified.
It was here on this vacant plot of land at Malyankara, on January 12, that locals first came upon more than a dozen bags, filled with clothes, water bottles, and food, that they initially believed to have dropped out of an airplane. Police officers, who rushed to the spot, were able to connect the dots, as just a day earlier, they had similarly found a large number of bags at Kodungallur, eight kilometers away. Police now believe that it was from this private jetty ‘Devamatha’ – a large fishing boat, carrying as many as 230 men, women, and children – that set sail just before dawn on January 12, in what is being seen as a case of illegal migration. Officials suspect several of the bags had been abandoned as the boat was filled to capacity and could not hold any additional weight.
Ten days on, while the boat still remains untraced, its destination and the condition of its passengers unknown, the incident has thrown spotlight once again on the lack of any serious security measures at the harbour at Munambam and the grave risks it poses to the protection of Kerala’s coast.
Four years ago, an Intelligence Bureau (IB) report had recommended several security measures at Munambam harbour, considered one of Kerala’s most important fishing hubs where over 700 small and large fishing boats are registered. During the peak season, just after the 52-day trawling ban comes to an end in late-July, the harbour sees daily entry and exit of nearly 100 vessels a day. The IB report had recommended armed security guards, 24×7 patrolling and CCTV cameras to be installed at various points along the harbour coast to keep an eye on the passing vessels. But all these recommendations remain just on paper.
While the Munambam Harbour Society maintains a daily registry of the boats that dock at the harbour, it has virtually no information on the boats that passed through the harbour and are anchored at private boat-yards further on at places like Malyankara. The ‘Devamatha’ boat, involved in the illegal migration row, was one such boat.
“We are not a government department, but just a society. So we have limitations. We keep a daily register of the boats that come and go. We record the name of the owner, driver, registration number and the number of employees. But this boat (Devamatha) apparently used to operate from a mini-harbour, 1 km from here. It is not possible for us to keep a track on the boats that dock at private yards,” a source within the Society told the Indian Express.
“For example, the Munambam harbour falls under the jurisdiction of the coastal police station at Fort Kochi, 25 kms away. They also have charge of the harbours at Thoppumpady and Chellanam so they have a lot of work. We have a coastal police station at Azheekode, just on the opposite bank, but it falls under neighbouring Thrissur district. If the government wants, it can easily switch the two, but it still hasn’t,” he said. Such bureaucratic hassles, he stresses, along with indecision on the implementation of important security protocols makes it easy for illegal migration rackets to operate from Munambam. “Just think of it. If this fishing boat with so many people onboard went unnoticed by security agencies, a boat possibly carrying terrorists can come in too,” he said.
At Malyankara too, locals and fishermen said they came to know of the incident only when they read about it in the papers the next day. The large number of boats that access the region’s private boat yards, the increasing influx of migrant labourers from West Bengal, Odisha and Assam and the absence of any strict security mechanism make it easy for such operations, they say. “This is such an important harbour that you would think the coastal security agencies would keep a close watch, but no. There’s no security at all. The boats come and go, day and night as they like. Who’s checking?” asked Jackson Chavara, a fisherman from Kollam district of Kerala, who accesses the harbour on a regular basis.
“When we go out to sea, we notify the boat owner. Only he knows,” he said. A worker at the ice factory, beside the private boat-yard purportedly used by ‘Devamatha’, said he heard no sounds at all, the night the boat set sail. “Who would step out in the cold in the night? In any case, the machines here at the factory make so much noise that it’s impossible to hear anything outside,” he said.
Charles George, president of the Matsya Thozhilali Aikya Vedi (Fishing employees united front), said there have been grievous lapses at security, administrative and systemic levels behind the row which need to be addressed urgently. “Both Munambam and Thoppumpady harbours in Kochi have gates. If they install CCTV cameras on these gates, half the problems can be solved. Most of the fishing employees here have been given biometric passes. Since Cyclone Ockhi, we have been asking for a biometric attendance system which will identify every labourer going in and out. If it wants, the government can easily set up such a system. Even primary security mechanisms like these have not been installed here,” said George.
“In the National Marine Fisheries Policy, every boat must have an automatic surveillance system which will help enforcement agencies to track the boat. This has still not been done. For surveillance, we have Coast Guard, Coastal Police, Marine Enforcement wing and the Navy. This boat of migrants has evaded all these agencies. If locals hadn’t found the bags of migrants, we’d still not have known about the incident,” he added.
So far, the special investigation team of the police under Ernakulam Additional SP MJ Sojan probing the case, has arrested a number of suspects including Prabhu, a 29-year-old Tamil man from a colony in south Delhi. Srikanth, believed to be the middleman involved in the purchase of the boat, remains untraced.
From Prabhu’s custody, the police have accessed a number of cell-phone videos showing the men behind the migration racket onboard the boat. They were reportedly in Munambam and Malyankara areas for a month since December 2018 looking for a large boat that can accommodate over 200 people. The police are also accessing records from the homestays and hotels at Guruvayoor, Chottanikkara, Cherai, and Munambam where the families stayed before migrating onboard the boat.