“Would you please bring us some news about the boat?” pleaded Dhanlakshmi, a resident of South Delhi’s Madangir, on Monday. “Will I get to see my sister again?”

Her sister Aarti, 38, along with her husband Manikaran, 45, and their four children, aged 11 to 17, are believed to be on board the fishing boat Devamata 2, which is missing since sailing from Kerala’s Munambam harbour, around 25 km north of Kochi, on January 12.

The vessel is reportedly ferrying undocumented emigrants to New Zealand, likely through the straits between Indonesia and Australia where the seas are rough and storms and typhoons common. There is no clarity about how many people are on board, with the Kerala police, the Indian Coast Guard and Munambam’s boatmen offering varying numbers, ranging from 25 to 200. The Delhi police estimate that nearly 40 people from Madangir are on board.

Twenty more people who were supposed to take the vessel could not because it was packed beyond capacity. They include Prabhu Dandapani and Raviraj from Madangir who have since been arrested for helping buy the boat and arrange the journey.

Many residents of Madangir said they have known both men for years but claimed ignorance about what they did for a living. A neighbour said he last met Dandapani in early November, when he came seeking help to admit his six-year-old daughter in a local school. When the neighbour, who asked not to be identified, went looking for Dandapani in December, he found his home locked. He returned in early January to take his son for a surgery but did not say where he had been, the neighbour said.

Dandapani’s three brothers, a sister and a sister-in-law are reportedly on the missing boat. So are Raviraj’s wife and two children. He returned to Delhi nearly a fortnight ago to attend a court hearing. His neighbours said they have no idea why he did not go on the boat himself.

People in Madangir claimed they only learned about their relatives and neighbours undertaking the perilous journey when the police came knocking on their doors two weeks ago. Manikaran’s brother Kumar, who, like many people in the locality, goes without a second name, remembers last meeting him on November 28. Manikaran came to his home and said he was winding up his eatery in the neighbourhood to take up a new job in Chennai. “He said nothing about what the new job was,” Kumar added. “He only told me his family will be accompanying him.”

Relatives of some of the suspected emigrants on board the missing boat gather in a park in Madangir on Monday. Photo credit: Andrew Amsan

History of emigration

On Monday afternoon, police teams from Kerala and Delhi were marking the homes of Madangir’s residents who are believed to be on the boat. Most of the homes were locked. The missing persons include a few pregnant women, the residents said. One woman, they added, gave birth at a private hospital in Kochi, where most of those on the vessel are believed to have spent around a month before starting their journey.

All those missing from Madangir are Tamilian and had lived there for decades. Madangir, in Ambedkar Nagar constituency, is home to a substantial Tamilian population. Many came from Sri Lanka in the 1980s, when the conflict between the Tamil separatists and the military was at its peak. Others migrated from Tamil Nadu, mostly Madurai and Coimbatore, in search of work. They were later joined by some Telugu-speaking families as well. The number of Tamilian and Telugu families living in the area is not known, however.

Most people in Madangir earn their living as carpenters, plumbers, mechanics, drivers and manual labourers. Some run small shops and eateries. A few have, over the years, purchased small apartments. Dandapani’s family, for one, have a house of their own.

In the past, people from Madangir have migrated to Australia in “similar fashion”, said an official at Dakshinpuri police station which has jurisdiction over the area. “But there has never been a case of a missing boat and so there has never been a case,” he added.

Several residents claimed this is the fourth such migration trip from Madangir in the last eight years, but the first to New Zealand. All previous trips were to Australia, but emigrating there has become difficult now, they added.

Why do they emigrate? For work, the residents said.

The system works much like subcontracting of labourers from Assam, West Bengal, Bihar or Uttar Pradesh to Kerala, the residents said. One person who goes abroad as a labourer initially becomes a subcontractor and takes others from his hometown for a “commission”.

Communication happens mostly through social media now, said a resident who asked not to be identified. “Last year, one contractor was asking people for Rs 6 lakh to take a family of four, including two adults and two children, [to Australia], or a flat rate of Rs 2 lakh per adult.”

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Where is the Kerala boat ferrying Indian emigrants from Delhi to New Zealand? Nobody seems to know

The 250-year history of Indian diaspora in Australia and New Zealand