Fish out of water

Written by M Sarita Varma | Updated: Mar 21 2012, 06:34am hrs
A state thats looking at by-elections, plus hosts big fishing & Christian communities, is not going to offer an easy resolution to the Italian encounter

Italian deputy foreign minister Steffan de Mistura, who jetted down to India in February, is yet to become fully happy with the results of his diplomatic assignment. GoI has not made any move to free the two Italian Navy staffers accused of murder. Since he airdashed to Thiruvananthapuram, seeking Italian trial for his countrymen, nearly four million pair of eyes in Kerala are keeping intent watch on his moves. Contributing 21% of fish landings in India, Keralas fishing community is precious to the states economy and also to its socio-religious fabric, especially with a crucial Assembly by-election taking place on March 17. This workforce is upset.

After two naval guards on a Naples-based cargo-ship shot two Indian fishermen to death in a boat off the Kerala coast on February 16, in broad daylight, the main dispute has been over jurisdiction. Italy argues that Indian courts have no jurisdiction to try the marines as the shooting took place in international waters; India argues that the incident occurred in its own territorial waters. The South Asian Fishermen Fraternity is annoyed that the probe started late and is going slow.

The seeming clout of Italians on Indian turf is perplexing. Its the national pride thats been hurt, says 17-year-old Derec, son of Jelestin, one of the fishermen shot to death. The Italian PM has phoned the Indian PM, seeking the handover of the two murder-accused to Italy. Earlier, Italian foreign minister Giampaolo Di Paola had rushed to India to lead the diplomatic efforts. Mistura himself has avowed that hell stay put in Kerala till the issue is completely resolved.

It is beyond the comprehension of the fishing community living in ramshackle huts along the 520-km coastline of Kerala how murder-accused prisoners can demand five-star comforts like ACs inside the jail. It is understood that the state police is considering moving them to suitable luxury rooms in a private hospital, to balance criminal management and diplomacy. A court had earlier ordered that they should be provided food and refreshments based on an Italian menu. How is the prison law different for white skin and brown skin, wonders Jackson Pollayil of Kerala Swathanthra Matsya Thozilali Federation, a fishermens association.

Christians form 19% of Keralas 33 million population. The Latin Catholic and Syro-Malabar churches are the main Catholic denominations, and call the shots within fishing community. The Syro-Malabar church, with 3.7 million adherents, is one of the richest churches in the country, sitting on a chest of over R3,000 crore in assetsincluding about 5,500 organisations like schools, colleges, technical institutes, management schools and hospitals.

Ironically, Italy is also wired into this close-knit church network through the spiritual threads of the Vatican. Thats why when cardinal Mar George Alencherry was quoted as promising the Vatican that he would make efforts to pacify the situation, there were some uneasy flutters within the congregation. The situation became so charged that the Syro-Malabar church, one of the 22 autonomous oriental churches in the global Catholic communion, rushed in with a damage-control statement that the cardinals comments were misquoted.

The timing of the episode has been awkward, considering the by-poll campaign in Piravom, a constituency with a more-than-moderate share of Christian voters. For the Congress-UDF government in Kerala, the influence of the Syro-Malabar and Latin Catholic churches has usually provided some of its strongest ammunition during election season. In effect, this puts the Oommen Chandy government in a catch-22 situation. The CM cannot quite slap shut the hospitality doors on the Italian prisoners because of the Vatican connection but he cannot entertain them either because this would disturb the fishermen. Treading a cautious median, Chandy said, Let the law of the land take its course, we will not meddle with it.

Latorre Massimiliano and Salvatore Girone, the two Italian naval guards, are currently in prison. On February 20, court sent them to 14 days judicial custody, later extended twice by seven days each. They were being kept in the CISF guest house in Kochi, and later at Kollam, before being sent to a jail till March 19.

Meanwhile, the morale of the fishing community has fallen to its lowest ebb, after another incident where a passing merchant ship rammed into a small fishing boat off the Kerala coast, this time in the night. Three men lost their lives and two are missing. These are not isolated incidents. This was the 15th instance of collision mid-sea in three months, says TJ Anjelose of the Matsya Thozhilali Federation. The unions observed a black day recently, threatening to stop venturing into the sea for fish, if the ship-risks continue.

While Somalian pirates have been unleashing terror in Indian Ocean in the recent times, this new fear stranglehold is creating a parallel pressure on Indias western coastline, which is veritably the fishbowl of the country. Merchants ships have been choosing to come closer to the Indian territorial water, fearing attacks from sea pirates. The Coast Guard estimates that the ship traffic is so thick in the night that after 10 pm in the Arabian Sea, close to the coast, 20 big ships pass a single point every 30 minutes. This sea traffic could get busier when the Vallarpadom terminal gets busier. This issue should also make Indias defence top brass sit up and examine the porousness of the coastline, especially in light of the Mumbai terrorist attacks.

In the short run, this is a situation that warrants better coordination on disaster-prevention and mitigation among Centre, state and fishermen organisations, admits Shibu Baby John, Kerala labour minister, who runs a family firm of marine products. Marine resources are already shrinking in Indias fishing zone that stretches to 200 nautical miles. So, illegal transgression of international cargo tankers through this fragile marine ecology should also be noted by the Union commerce ministry, which takes pride in R12,190-crore marine products exports. The current emotional pitch may slide down slowly, but the larger dangers will still loom large.