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Fishing in Troubled Waters

Dr Pushpita Das is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • December 05, 2008

    Investigations into the Mumbai attacks have revealed that the terrorists came in from the sea. It has been reported that in the course of their journey from Karachi they had hijacked an Indian trawler named Kuber with a Porbandar registration in the high seas off the Coast of Gujarat. The trawler, fitted with the latest communication and navigation equipment including a Global Positioning system (GPS), Very High Radio Frequency (VHF) sets, etc., was found abandoned nearly four nautical miles off Cuffe Parade in south Mumbai. It has also been alleged that the master of the trawler had been arrested by the Pakistan Maritime Agency and that he had been in a Pakistani jail for some time. Media reports have also stated that the Kuber was intercepted by the Indian Coast Guard, but was let off after its papers were found to be in order. In a further twist, the Indian Navy Chief told an interviewer that the Coast Guard was in fact aware of such a boat transporting terrorists to Mumbai, though this has been denied by the Coast Guard vehemently. Whatever be the truth, the fact remains that there have been serious lapses in securing India’s coastal areas.

    That a fishing trawler would be used to perpetrate a terrorist attack should not have come as a surprise for our security and intelligence agencies, because the writing has been there on the wall for everyone to see. The straying of both Indian and Pakistani fishermen into each other’s territorial waters has been a perennial source of concern. The arrest of Indian fishermen, many of them without valid photo identity cards, along with their boats, is a serious security problem. Many analysts had expressed apprehensions that some at least of the arrested fishermen could be recruited by Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) and used as agents against India. They had also warned that the ISI might use these boats to sneak in arms, explosives and operatives into India. Since these boats have Indian make and registration number, they could easily evade attempts by Indian security agencies to track them. This is what seems to have happened when Coast Guard let off the Kuber.

    There is a general notion that because the maritime boundary between India and Pakistan has not been demarcated it creates confusion in the minds of fishermen about the exact location of the maritime boundary thus leading to them straying into Pakistani waters. While this argument is true to an extent, it has been observed that fishermen knowingly cross the notional international boundary. Statistics reveal that there are 434 Indian fishermen and 369 Indian fishing vessels under Pakistani custody. Earlier, as a mark of goodwill, Pakistan used to instantly release many of these arrested fishermen and allowed the Indian Coast Guard to escort Indian fishing boats back to Indian waters. But now it has discontinued both these practices and has ordered its security agencies to arrest all Indian fishermen found in Pakistani waters. It has also stopped returning confiscated boats to India.

    Another issue of concern is of fishermen going to sea with invalid or fake photo identity cards. Photo identity cards are issued by the state fisheries department after detailed verification, but the arrests of many Bangladeshi fishermen by the Coast Guard exposes the fact that the process of verification is not foolproof. Also, on many occasions, it has been found that the photo on an identity card does not match the fisherman who carried the card. In addition, there is the difficulty of keeping a vigil on fishermen who gather in their thousands at small harbours. For instance, Jakhau is a small harbour in the Kutch coast, where tens of thousands of fishermen gather during the fishing season. The place has a small Coast Guard station as well as a Customs station. But the combined strength of the Coast Guard and Customs personnel does not exceed 30, which is grossly inadequate for surveillance given the sheer number of fishermen and vessels assembled there.

    To prevent fishermen from inadvertently or intentionally crossing the maritime boundary, the Indian government has implemented a scheme of installing GPS navigators and VHF radio sets in fishing boats. But this has not helped much and fishermen continue to fish in Pakistani waters for three main reasons. Firstly, Pomfret and Red Snapper, two types of fish that fetch good price, are found only along the creeks and the mouth of the Indus River off the Karachi coast. Naturally, the prospect of greater profit induces fishermen to move into Pakistani waters. Secondly, the compensatory allowance to families of fishermen arrested by the Pakistan Maritime Security Agency seems to blunt fears. Thirdly, the prevalent fine amount imposed on boats found violating the international boundary is only Rs. 1000/- per vessel, which is quite meagre for well-off trawler owners. And it has also been observed that on many occasions the concerned department does not even bother to collect these fines from offenders.

    The unabated incidences of fishermen straying into Pakistani waters coupled with the failure of the experiment of installing GPS devices in fishing boats have compelled the government to propose a Rs. 153 crore scheme for installing a tracking and warning system in boats, including biometric identification of fishermen. It is hoped that this would help track straying fishing boats and also allow only fishermen with valid papers board the vessels. When implemented, the scheme is expected to create a virtual fence along the India-Pakistan maritime boundary. To ensure this scheme’s effectiveness, the Gujarat government has made the installation of this system mandatory for all boats. Another step that the government should consider is the imposition of steeper fines on vessels found violating the maritime boundary, and upon repeated violation cancellation of the licenses of these vessels and the arrest of the owners. Effective implementation of the proposed scheme would contribute to addressing the many security concerns emanating from coastal areas and enable the country prevent the recurrence of incidents similar to the Mumbai tragedy.