The Kerala police on Friday arrested three persons for helping buy a boat that is suspected to be carrying suspected undocumented migrants to New Zealand. The arrests drew wide attention, generating headlines around the world. Yet, over a fortnight after the boat sailed from Munambam, 25 km north of Kochi, the case remains cloaked in mystery and contradictory claims.

There is no clarity about where Devamata 2 is now or how many people it is ferrying. While the police claimed there are over 100 “illegal migrants” on board the vessel, the Indian Coast Guard estimated their number at 43. “The number won’t be higher,” said Commandant Vijay Singh in Kochi, explaining that they arrived at the figure after checking the places near Munambam harbour where the passengers stayed before embarking on their journey.

Reuters quoted police officials as saying the boat sailed off with 100 to 200 people while the British daily Independent reported that it was so overcrowded the passengers had to leave their luggage behind. Boatmen in Munambam, however, insisted that Devamata 2 could not carry more than 25 people.

The matter of the “migrant boat” came to light after the Kerala police were informed about abandoned bags in and around Munambam that contained dry goods, clothes and identification documents. The vessel was bought by two men identified by the police as Anil Kumar and Srikanthan. While Kumar was arrested on Friday, Srikanthan is yet to be found.

Most of the suspected emigrants are from Ambedkar Colony in Delhi, the police said. They are all either related to each other or neighbours. Twenty other people were supposed to take the boat as well but could not since it was packed beyond capacity. They included Prabhu Dandapani, one of the three persons arrested by the Kerala police. His wife and daughter are reportedly on the vessel.

Some news reports suggested that the boat is being operated by a “human trafficking racket” but about a dozen relatives of the passengers told Reuters on Friday that they went on their own, seeking to escape unemployment. “They had to leave to find jobs, to eat,” Dandapani’s mother Sugana told the news agency. “They have been promised work in New Zealand.” They are believed to have paid nearly Rs 1,50,000 each for the journey.

To reach their destination, Reuters noted, they will likely have to pass through the straits between Indonesia and Australia where storms and typhoons are common.

It is a “life threatening journey”, said Inspector General of Police, Kochi Range, Vijay Sakhare, so “our immediate aim is to rescue them”. Since the police have jurisdiction only up to 12 nautical miles off the coast, Sakhare added, they have alerted the Union government and various international agencies about the incident.

Rescuing the passengers would be difficult, however, not least because neither the Coast Guard nor the police know where Devamata 2 is now. “We couldn’t trace the boat,” said Singh. “It might have crossed our Exclusive Economic Zone.”

Singh said the Coast Guard were informed about the boat late. “Yet, we put in a lot of effort but we could not locate the boat,” he added. “Chances of locating it are remote now.”

Additional Superintendent of Police MJ Sojan, a member of the investigating team, said their “search is still on” for the boat.

How many passengers? 

Sojan reiterated the police’s claim that “the boat can accommodate more than 100 people”.

But Joseph Xavier Kalappurakkal, general secretary of the All Kerala Fishing Boat Operators Association, said Devamata 2 could carry a maximum of 13 people. “The vessel has a length of 35 metres and a width of 10 metres,” he explained. “We have many such vessels operating out of Munambam and other harbours which set out with a 13-member crew.”

Though such boats come with large spaces to store fish, Kalappurakkal said, “one has to enter it through a manhole”. “It is not a comfortable space for a group of people to stay in on such a long journey,” he added. “People will die of asphyxiation.”

That only leaves the deck. “But travelling on the deck is dangerous,” Kalappurakkal said. “Moreover, extreme heat during day and extreme cold at night will kill people.”

In any case, the crew would not allow many people to travel on the deck for fear of getting caught by sea surveillance agencies, argued Charles George, president of the fisherfolk union Kerala Mathsya Thozhilali Aikya Vedi.

He also contended that the missing boat could not fit 100 people. “It does not have such a huge space to accommodate so many people,” he explained. “The maximum number of people that can be accommodated on Devamata 2 is less than 40.”

George urged the Indian government to ask other countries to help locate the boat and bring back the passengers safely. “Those on board are illegal migrants who left India in search of greener pastures,” he said. “Relatives and neighbours would not gone together if it was an organised people smuggling racket. We have to treat them humanely. So, the Coast Guard and the Navy should seek help from other nations to locate the boat and rescue the migrants.”

Distress sale of boats

The incident has brought into focus the distress sale of fishing boats in Munambam and other harbours in Kerala. Srikanthan and Anil Kumar purchased Devamata 2 at Munambam.

Several boat owners told that fishing is “no longer a viable business”. They have incurred heavy losses as their catch has dwindled and fuel prices increased. If that wasn’t enough, they are often heavy fined by the fisheries department for even minor violations of the Kerala Marine Fishing Regulation Act. Many are indebted as a result and have put their boats up for sale.

Kalappurakkal claimed that half the registered trawlers in Kerala are for sale. “Kerala has 3,600 registered trawl boats and more than 2,000 boat owners have debts to tune of over Rs 30 lakh each,” he added. “They are planning to sell their vessels.”

Posing as a potential buyer, this reporter contacted a boat owner in Munambam and he promptly agreed to sell his one-year-old vessel for Rs 20 lakh. “I spent Rs 40 lakh to buy the vessel,” he said. “I have a debt of Rs 15 lakh. I don’t have any means of repaying it. That’s why I am selling it at half the price. I don’t want to continue in fishing business anymore.”

The Coast Guard said they have taken “serious note” of the sale of fishing vessels for non-fishing activity. “We have noticed the distress sale of boats across Kerala,” said Singh. “We will raise this issue with the Kerala police. Hope it will check illegal immigration.”