The fragile goodwill between India and Pakistan almost seems to have sunk in the waters of Arabian Sea off the coast of Gujarat. In an unsavoury departure from a decades-old practice, Pakistan has abruptly stopped returning boats belonging to Indian fishermen who stray across the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL), separating the two nuclear-armed neighbours in search of a lucrative catch.
Reciprocating, India has also taken a decision not to exchange Pakistani boats that stray into Indian waters.
The Maritime Security Agency, Pakistan's equivalent of the Indian Coast Guard, has apprehended close to 320 Indian boats in the recent months. However, it has refused to barter the Indian boats along with a crew of over 1,900 fishermen for its 75-odd boats and 450 crew apprehended by the coast guard for infringing into Indian territory. Instead of repatriating boats and fisherfolk on the high seas, Pakistan has adopted the more convoluted practice of returning Indian fishermen from the Wagah border in Punjab.
Expressing concern over the stalemate, Defence Minister AK Antony, who was in Daman on Tuesday to attend the silver jubilee celebrations of the Coast Guard's aviation wing, told Hindustan Times that the foreign ministry was negotiating with Islamabad to find a solution.
He described delayed repatriation of fisherfolk and permanent confiscation of boats as problematic issues that needed urgent attention.
With more than 30,000 Indian fishing boats operating off the Gujarat coast, fishermen straying into Pakistani waters is hardly a rare phenomenon. Likewise, the vice-versa also holds true. Although the director general of the coast guard and his Pakistani counterpart are linked up on a hotline and speak every week, the issue remains unresolved.
Inspector General A Rajasekhar, Commander, Coast Guard Region (West), which monitors the Indian coast from Gujarat to Kerala, confirmed to HT that the mode and channels of such repatriation had become unfriendly and cumbersome.
The Coast Guard, India's peacetime law enforcement agency at sea, is now doing the next best thing --- it is educating Indian fishermen about the dangers of venturing into Pakistani waters and encouraging them to go for gadgetry like GPS (Global Positioning System) and VHF communication links so as not to lose their bearings on the high seas.
The Coast Guard is coordinating with the Gujarat government to solve the problem of Indian fishermen drifting away into Pakistani waters. This approach, however, requires cooperation from the fishermen, whose response has been lukewarm in terms of adopting technology.
Rajasekhar said, "Barely 10 per cent of fishing boats operating in these maritime waters have GPS and VHF links. Boats without such devices easily stray outside Indian waters, sometimes up to 200 kms into their territory."
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