Lanka’s Coastguard: Adrift sans resources
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi
It is midnight. A Canter lorry drives up slowly to a garden on the beach in Pinwatte, Pandura and five men hurriedly begin to load pohora ura, bursting at the seams, while a few more men armed with mobile phones are at vantage points, to warn them of “danger”.

Suddenly from the shadows emerges the danger -- a group of men who nab these sea-sand miners and take them along with their truckload of loot to the nearest police station, to be prosecuted subsequently. Sri Lanka’s Coastguard has completed one more task.

“The Coastguard Unit was set up on December 1, 1998 under the Department of Fisheries but in 2004 was moved under the purview of the Coast Conservation Department,” says Gamini Hewage, the department’s Acting Deputy Director (Planning). “We have 128 personnel, including six coastguard inspectors and 23 coastguard sergeants who man the coastal districts that have been divided into zones.”

What do the coastguards do?
Check on unauthorized structures within the coastal zone and issue demolition orders. “All around our island is the coastal zone consisting of about 1,650 km. No person can construct any structure be it a house, hotel or any other within 300 metres from the permanent vegetation line bordering the beach, without obtaining a permit from the CCD. All structures that do not have permits are illegal,” stresses Mr. Hewage, explaining that it is the task of the Coastguard Unit to keep such illegal activity in check.

Crackdown on coral mining activity along with the police. “People have now realized the dangers of coral mining in areas severely affected by the tsunami such as Peraliya, Hikkaduwa, Tangalle and Weligama,” says Mr. Hewage.

Crackdown on sand mining from the sea, which is illegal and only allowed with permits at certain points demarcated by the CCD.

Coordinating with the Fisheries Department to crackdown on blast-fishing which uses explosives such as dynamite and grenades. However, unlike the powerful Coast Guard just across the Palk Straits, which is a para-military force under the Indian Ministry of Defence, this island nation has a toothless unit with no boats, no vehicles and no facilities. The Sri Lankan Coastguard comes under the Fisheries Ministry and has no powers, The Sunday Times learns.

“Other coastguard units such as in India, Sweden and even the Maldives are powerful because they are doing an arduous task. In those countries not only do they have boats but also helicopters,” says Mr. Hewage, lamenting that his coastguard personnel have to go by bus or walk when they are on duty. “Office space is also scarce.”

A member of the raiding team at Pinwatte three months ago who nabbed the sea-sand miners, Buddika Hewage, 29, feels that the lack of facilities hampers their work. “Sometimes by the time we get to the beach, the lorry full of sand, about 1.5 cubes, has moved off.”

“The areas we have to cover are very remote,” adds Watson Wickremaratne, 34, who is working in Matara. “We have to go by bus and then walk miles to get to the beach. By that time the culprits have got away.”

The Coastguard Unit had six boats but three were destroyed in the tsunami, it is learnt. Even the other three are not suitable for their type of work – prevention of coral mining which has major impacts on the marine ecosystem and also blast-fishing. “The unit needs more funds and much more strengthening,” adds Acting Deputy Director Hewage. Coastguards without boats, it would be laughable, if not for the irony.

Life-saving mission
He and his team battled strong winds and lashing waves to bring home an injured fisherman, recalls Coastguard Inspector Upul Wanniarachchi, 36, when asked to pinpoint the most poignant moment while on duty.

“It was off Kirinda and we got a radio message that a fisherman had been severely injured in mid-sea, about 150 miles off the coast. Those were stormy times,” he says.

“It took our 11-member team two days to bring in the injured fisherman. He had cut his leg on a glass and was bleeding heavily,” says Upul, adding that their mission was accomplished once the fisherman was admitted to Tangalle Hospital.

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