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Smuggling rampant on Tamil Nadu coast

S. Vijay Kumar and C. Jaishankar

A well-oiled mechanism ensures illegal transport of medicines and explosives to Sri Lanka.

THE SECURITY implications for Tamil Nadu following the collapse of talks between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are becoming only too evident. The State is witnessing not only an influx of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, but also an increase in smuggling along its south-eastern coast. Besides fuel, medicines and callipers, components for making explosives figure among the items taken to the island clandestinely by boat from several "landing points" along the Ramanathapuram coast.

As was evident in recent seizures, the smugglers seem to have in place a well-oiled mechanism for transport of consignments. After boosters, capable of enhancing the impact of open mines, were found in a vehicle that met with a road accident near Manamadurai in Sivaganga district in November 2006, the security agencies intensified patrolling in coastal districts that led to more seizures. Loads of ball bearings and aluminium ingots meant for smuggling to Sri Lanka were found in different parts of the State.

An alert from the Intelligence Bureau during the recent visit of President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to the southern districts of Tamil Nadu read: "In view of the recent developments in Sri Lanka, a number of Sri Lankan Tamils are coming as refugees to Ramanathapuram district coastal areas. It is reported that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam is in possession of high-speed boats and its cadres are capable of reaching our coast in a short time..."

Since January 2006, about 18,600 Tamil refugees have arrived at Rameswaram. Of them, more than a hundred were sent to special camps, because of the suspicion that they could have links with the LTTE, says a `Q' Branch police officer.

Enquiries reveal that mechanised and high-speed fibreglass boats owned by clandestine operators are mostly used for smuggling. Country boats registered with the Fisheries Department are used only occasionally; the smugglers find them ill-equipped to carry heavy consignments. The "couriers" and "crew members" are either fishermen or refugees who are already staying in the southern districts.

Boats also operate clandestinely from Sri Lanka, especially to ferry refugees into Tamil Nadu. But smuggling assignments are undertaken with boats from the Indian side in exchange for cash and liquor from Sri Lankan Tamil operators.

Thousands of Indian boats still enter the sea unchecked and cross the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) freely across the Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar. Security agencies believe that about one per cent of the boats indulge in clandestine activities, according to the `Q' Branch officer. In Ramanathapuram district alone, where the coastline runs to 271 km with 17 landing points for fishing boats, there are about 1.24 lakh fishermen. All the 8,403 country boats and 2,861 mechanised boats are registered with the Fisheries Department. The mechanised boats are issued tokens authorising entry into the sea.

Intelligence agencies suspect that most of the smuggling is either for the LTTE or with its assistance for onward transhipment to western countries. "They can smuggle anything that could aid a war effort such as medicines, fuel, arms, ammunition and components for making explosives. Now the LTTE is under pressure with depleting financial resources and increasing war expenditure. India offers the only easy access to essential supplies," says a senior police official.

According to Commander Subroto Mukherji, Area Commander (South), Indian Navy, 21 uninhabited islands between Tuticorin and Rameswaram remain a security concern. "We conduct a random check of the boats when they enter the sea. Our focus remains concentrated along the Rameswaram bay where there are no complaints. But the rest of the coastline is vulnerable to smuggling activities."

All the security agencies involved in coastal security have to sit together and evolve a strategy. The move to establish marine police stations along the coastline was a good step towards curbing the menace, Commander Mukherji adds.

Sri Lankan Tamil refugees camping in and around Ramanathapuram district are often considered "readily available couriers" for smugglers as they have good contacts in both countries. The local police feel that many refugees employed by fishermen as crew indulge in transporting "certain goods" for easy money.

Safe haven

Certain landing points near Tuticorin and Kodiakarai along the 1,076-km-long coastline of Tamil Nadu are seen as safe havens for smugglers transporting medicines and callipers, which are allegedly used by injured LTTE cadres and civilians in the war-torn districts of north-eastern Sri Lanka. Clandestine boat operators of Sri Lanka drop refugees on islets near the Tamil Nadu mainland and return with "consignments" delivered by boats from the Indian side. While some goods reach destinations in LTTE-dominated areas, others, mainly drugs, are handed over to agents in mid-sea for loading on to foreign ships. Many smugglers communicate through satellite phones, a Coastal Security Group official says.

But where do these goods come from? In a few cases, smuggled goods came from Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. How loads of suspicious consignments reach the coast despite the presence of so many checkposts on the mainland remains a mystery. The seizure of explosives in recent months seems to be just the tip of the iceberg.

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