Loot At Sea: Court Pushes Indian Government To Act
A four-week deadline has been given to the Indian government to respond to a petition filed by an activist to ascertain the loss suffered to the exchequer in allowing looting of marine wealth by foreign vessels, brought by Indian companies, for deep sea fishing in the Indian waters.
The petition also has sought to catch the culprits who have been looting Indian marine wealth and bring in the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to probe the security lapses and risks.
In the case, which is being fought in the Kerala High Court since 2016, between petitioner MK Salim and the Indian government, on Wednesday, the court has told the Indian government to respond by 20 December 2019.
“Misusing the License of Permit (LoP) scheme, which was introduced in 2002, foreign trawlers were looting our marine wealth. Under the LoP scheme, foreign vessels come to India, fake their registration papers, use shell companies, fish in the Indian waters and export their catch by trans-shipping at mid sea and leave our seas and anglers poorer,” Salim said.
“So, to fix this, I filed the PIL in 2016. And in 2017, the LoP was revoked,” Salim added.
Under the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone, 200 nautical miles from the Indian coast where the Indian government has economic and jurisdictional control, only registered Indian fishing vessels can operate.
But the LoP scheme of Department of Fisheries allowed Indian fishing firms to buy technologically advanced foreign vessels from foreign countries.
Under the scheme, the permission for a foreign vessel to operate in Indian EEZ is issued once it surrenders its registration in the country of origin and 10% of its cost is paid by the Indian firm to the original firm.
The vessel is supposed to employ 25% Indian crew. Within three years, the Indian firm is supposed to completely own the vessel and the crew must be Indian.
“As usual, the Indian companies con the authorities. They set up shell companies, fish in the Indian waters and export their catch by trans-shipping at mid-sea by leaving our fishermen in the lurch,” Salim added.
No Clear Answer
And when Salim asked about the marine wealth loss suffered due to the deep sea fishing looting, the government was not able to give a proper update, and in the last minute, in 2018, they filed a report prepared by a committee.
Salim found the report incomplete, and he approached the court again.
“I was told to challenge the report and I did the same. Now, on Wednesday, the court has told the Indian government to respond to my challenge in four weeks,” Salim told The Lede.
The Indian government report stated that there were no misuse of the Letter of Permit (LoP) and there was no loss (either direct or indirect) suffered by the government on account of the LoP scheme.
Further, the report stated that the committee set up to study the issue could not find any misapplication or non-implementation or lack of procedural formalities in the LoP scheme, excepting that there was possibility of ineffective monitoring of the LoP vessels in the mid-sea.
And the committee also concluded that there is no information regarding fishing or mid-sea trans-shipment in the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone by any foreign vessels.
Talking more in detail, Salim said that the report was prepared by the department of fisheries after a contempt of court petition was filed by him.
“The contempt case arose out of the court's direction in 2017 in the Writ Petition filed by me. After due consideration of the rival submissions, the court ordered for appropriate investigation to determine the extent of loss that has been caused to the Indian government on account of the LoP Scheme and action was directed to be taken by the government on that basis,” Salim said.
The court said that government will set up a committee and conduct an enquiry into the loss suffered by Indian government on account of the misapplication or non-implementation or lack of procedural formalities in implementing the LoP Scheme and a report shall be obtained within a period of six months, which shall be published in the website of the Ministry and appropriate action shall be taken based on the said report.
The court also said that while framing new scheme, the Indian government shall also consider the report and ensure that there is a proper accounting system for the sea wealth that is being caught from the EEZ and proper mechanism to monitor the same.
“Unfortunately, the Indian government failed to take any action to comply with the court's direction within the time frame of six months forcing me to initiate this contempt proceedings,” Salim said.
In the order, the court said that only after the contempt case was filed in November 2018, the authorities appeared to have risen from their slumber, as can be seen from the averments in the affidavit filed by the Fisheries Development Commissioner.
“It appears therefrom that the first meeting of the committee to enquire into the loss suffered by the Indian government was held only on 14.12.2018. It is therefore apparent that there was no sincerity on the part of the respondents, to honour the verdict of the court,” the court order had said.
According to Salim, this has forced him to challenge the report, which will force the government assess the loss suffered due to LoP scheme and also set up a high-level panel which can also look into security lapses as foreign vessels are involved in the entire game.
Salim said that the economic losses caused by this looting is huge.
“Consider that a tuna longliner LoP vessel catches 200 to 250 tonnes of the fish in one season. The total annual catch of one such vessel thus comes to around Rs 700 crore. In return, do we know what the Indian government gets? It is only Rs 10,000, the deposition fee, and some taxes levied on the catch,” Salim added.
India has a long coastline of nearly 8118 km and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of nearly 2.02 million square kilometres, of which 42.6% is on the west coast, 27.7% is on the east coast and 29.7% around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.