"It was a very ordinary conversation. We discussed the catch of fish and then talked about the water levels off the coast of Goa," Nithyananda Kotian says reflecting on the last conversation he had with his brother Chandrashekar Kotian on December 14. He struggles to continue the conversation for much longer. Nithyananda's brother Chandrashekar (40) and six crew-mates were on-board Suvarna Tribhuja, the boat which left for deep sea fishing off the coast of Goa on December 13, and went missing three days later.
"My brother has been fishing for 15 years and usually, the boat is in the sea for 10 days but it can become 11 or 12 depending on how the catch is each time. For a few days, we waited in the hope that we will hear from our brother but after other boats which went with them came back, we decided to report the missing boat," explains Nithyananda.
On December 22, he approached the Coastal Security Police (CSP) in Malpe and lodged the complaint. The CSP alerted the Udupi district police soon after and the search for the boat was expanded.
The boat last made contact with six other boats from Udupi, which were also fishing off the coast of Goa, on the morning of December 16 around 1 am. "Even the last message sent from the boat was as normal as you would expect. Fishermen on different boats usually discuss about fishing,β adds Nithyananda.
After this, neither the boat nor the fishermen on board could be contacted. Along with Chandrashekar, who owns the boat, there were six other fishermen β Damodar (40) from Malpe, Lakshman (45), Sathish (35), Ravi (27), Harish (28), and Ramesh (30) from Bhatkal.
File picture of Suvarna Tribhuja boat
Udupi police intensified the search for the boat amid growing pressure from fisher organisations in Udupi. The first clue for the police emerged when three empty plastic canisters belonging to Suvarna Tribhuja were found off the coast of Malwana in Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra. βThe fishermen believe these cans belongs to the boat in question. They were found around 30-35 nautical miles from Malwana in Sindhudurg on 16 and 18 December,β one of the investigators told TNM
Encouraged by the trail of evidence, the police intensified their search for the boat. Nithyananda left Udupi on December 25 to assist the search himself along with police officials from Udupi. "I was there helping officials with the search for two weeks but there was no sign of the boat," he adds.
Even as Nithyananda continued to search for the boat in vain, the plight of the fishermen was highlighted by politicians from Udupi. MLA Raghupathi Bhat, in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, claimed that the fishermen community strongly believed that pirates or terrorists have hijacked the boat.
A group of fishermen from Udupi who went for deep sea fishing are missing since 13th December!β Raghupathi Bhat BJP (@RaghupathiBhat) December 28, 2018
We suspect that terrorists have hijacked the boat!
PM Shri @narendramodi I urge you to kindly look into the issue and do the needful! pic.twitter.com/8VuqG5l06u
Fishermen from the three coastal districts β Udupi, Dakshina Kannada and Uttara Kannada β revealed plans to hold a protest on January 6. Karnataka Home Minister MB Patil and Udupi district minister-in-charge Jayamala also paid a visit to the Malpe Fishing Harbour in Udupi on January 5 and spoke with the family of the missing fishermen. The state government has also written to the central government asking for assistance in the search.
But the repeated assurances of officials has done little to quell the fears of the fishermen. Thousands of fishermen took to the streets on January 6 to highlight the plight of the missing fishermen. According to Yathish Baikampady, ex-President of the Moguveera Vyavasthapaka Mandali, an organisation working for the welfare of fishermen in the coastal districts. the case of the missing fishermen highlighted the lack of coordination between agencies monitoring India's seas. "There is concern for fishermen in these three districts because there is inefficiency in the coordination between agencies involved in the search. There should be a better monitoring system to track boats. We want to ask how is it that the boat has not been traced weeks after it went missing?" Yathish asks, a question that is yet to be answered.
He further adds that he does not believe that the boat was hijacked by pirates or terrorists. "While there have been suggestions that fishermen from Goa have hijacked the boat, we do not believe it is the case since we have buried our differences with them. We also do not believe that the boat crossed international waters," he adds.
The police, in spite of expanding the search to include the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard, are yet to report any additional findings. Even as fishermen in the area plan another shutdown of fishing activities, Nithyananda simply hopes that his brother and his crew-mates are found. "We want the search activities to be expedited and we hope that the boat is found and the fishermen are reunited with their families," adds Nithyananda.
Featured Image: Photographed by Aayush Sinha for The Manipal Journal at the protest by fishermen in Udupi on January 6.