DESPITE the extreme vulnerability of the 750-km-long Mumbai coastline, the government has not strengthened its fishing licensing procedure. Fisheries Ministry authorities admit that between 800 to 950 Gujarati fishing trawlers are licensed to fish in Mumbai’s waters, in violation of the Maharashtra Marine Fisheries Regu – lation Act, 1981. Thandel reveals that once Gujarati trawlers are hijacked by Pakistanis or Bangladeshis, “they are safe from the Coast Guards in Gujarat because their boats have Gujarati registrations, and they’re safe from Coast Guards in Maharashtra since they have a license to fish here.” He added: “It shouldn’t be this easy.”
The poor management of fishing licenses is debated every time there is fear of RDX being smuggled in via the sea. Long before the 1993 blasts, the Coast Guard received news of boats from Pakistan offloading RDX on the city’s west coast and sent an alert. They have repeatedly pleaded for identity cards to be issued to fishermen, which would help spot illegal sea intrusions by foreign vessels.
“We don’t even know who to call if we see anything suspicious,” says Hiran, a resident. “About 20 fishermen sit idle at the jetty. We could guard the coast ourselves if we’re told how to.” Some residents saw ten young men climb out of an inflatable dinghy that fateful Wednesday night, carrying two large bags. “They did not look like fishermen, but like college students,” says one. When the fishermen asked them who they were, they were told to “mind their own business”.
The Navy says the dinghy was launched from a larger vessel, the MV Alfa, which arrived in Mumbai on November 26. While the dinghy docked at Machchmar, the Alfa docked at Sassoon Docks. When the Navy intercepted wireless communications from near the Taj Hotel after 9 pm, it realised that there was something amiss.
‘Four months ago I learnt that illegal people had leftGujarat’s shores with RDX’
Maharashtra Fishermen’s Union ‘We don’t even know who to call if we happen to see something suspicious’
Machchmar resident ‘We are not accomplices to killers, we had warned, no one took us seriously’
“Ten suspected Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists hijacked a Porbandar (Gujarat)- registered fishing trawler called Kuber,” says Mumbai police chief Hassan Gafoor, “Their plan, clearly, was to launch a seaborne amphibious attack.”
The searoute that the Navy and police now reveal bears an eerie resemblance to the smoke signals the fishermen sent out four months ago. Many powerful heads have rolled. Maharashtra’s chief minister, its deputy chief minister, and the Union home minister resigned citing deep regret and a pricking conscience. But to questions as to why they were caught off-guard even when they clearly had enough time and information to prevent the assault on Mumbai, they have no answer.