Wrecked and buried, now stripped and sold

It’s big business as racketeers sell off as scrap iron, ship wrecks that are being salvaged illegally
By Chris Kamalendran

A racket involving the illegal salvaging of ship wrecks in the territorial waters of Sri Lanka and selling them off as scrap iron has surfaced, but officials appear to be lost at sea as loopholes in the law and political patronage have made things smooth sailing for the racketeers.

The Sunday Times learns that since the conclusion of the war, a group based in Colombo together with operatives in the north east and area politicians are behind the vandalising of sunk vessels.

These file pictures were taken some time back during a legally-sanctioned operation to retrieve items from a sunken ship off the coast of Galle. Pix by Gamini Mahdura

More than 80 vessels, including foreign ones and those that once belonged to the defeated LTTE are known to have sunk off the northern and eastern seas in the past few years. Legally the state owns these wrecks.

However, well-organised racketeers, with powerful backing have begun salvaging these wrecks with the expertise of master divers and high-tech equipment. The iron is later sold off as scrap for millions of rupees in the open market.

The racket surfaced recently following the arrest of a group of people in Ampara along with a large stock of scrap iron. It was later revealed that these had been salvaged from a sunken ship off Ampara coast.

The group had carried out their operations armed with a document purportedly issued from the Coast Conservation Authority, endorsing the salvaging of the ships. However, the CCA does not have the mandate to issue such a permit, the Sunday Times learns.

A kilogram of this scrap is sold between Rs. 35 to 40 in the market. The racketeers are given a helping hand from local fishermen and villagers who have a good knowledge of the exact locations of these wrecks.

Merchant Shipping Corporation Director S. Weerakoon would not comment on the racket but added that tenders would be called shortly to sell the wrecks. He said a ship wreck automatically becomes the property of the state if the respective owner fails to salvage it within one year.

“The corporation on the other hand cannot afford to salvage the wrecks, therefore it has been decided to call for tenders to do so,” Mr. Weerakoon said. Meanwhile, Ampara Government Agent, S. Kannangara says he has alerted authorities to be vigilant about any salvaging activities and take necessary action.

Such illegal salvaging carries a fine of a mere Rs. 1,000 or six months imprisonment according to Coastal Conservation laws, Mr. Kanangara said.

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