Kin of two sailors who went missing at sea are demanding a fair probe

Three years is a long time by any measure, especially so when you are waiting for someone close. For two families, the last three years have been spent in futile manner, knocking on doors to trace their sons who had gone missing at sea in 2009.

The families who were strangers to each other till last month, after they discovered the similarities in their plight, decided to fight it out together.

The stories of Sanaj Gangadharan from Kozhikode and Pradeep Raj from Kasaragod, who had set out to sea in the prime of their youth, run eerily parallel.

Sanaj joined the vessel MT Ratna Urvi owned by the Kolkata-based India Steamship Company as the fourth engineer on February 26, 2009. Barely two weeks later, his parents got a message from the Captain that he went missing on March 8, 2009.

At that time, the ship had anchored at the Fujaira port in the UAE for bunkering operations. The Captain claimed that a thorough search yielded only Sanaj’s footwear.

In response to his family’s petition, the Kerala High Court ordered an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation. The CBI claimed that Sanaj committed suicide by jumping into the sea. Its report says he was facing a financial crunch and related mental stress. His family disputes this claim as well as the cause of death being drowning.

“My son was getting a salary of Rs.1.5 lakh a month. He could have easily repaid his educational loan of Rs.1.7 lakh in two months. Also, he was an experienced swimmer, trained in rescue operations at sea. He would not drown even in open sea, leave alone when the ship was at anchor. The only evidence that the ship authorities could produce was the oral evidence of the crew, which is hardly trustworthy,” says his father C.V. Gangadharan.

The CBI report says Sanaj requested to be signed off from the vessel as soon as it reached Fujaira. The authorities declined this request saying it was impossible to sign off at a bunkering port. However, Captain Ankush Mandve was signed off at the same port, five days after Sanaj went missing, the parents allege in an affidavit in response to the CBI report.

Case of Pradeep Raj

Pradeep Raj from Kasaragod joined as an oiler in the vessel MT Eltanin, owned by the Singapore-based company Sibamar shipping in October 2008.

On April 30, 2009, his parents got a telegram from Marlow Navigation, the company that recruited him, informing them that he went missing while his ship was sailing in the Pacific Ocean, from Panama to China.

It said the U.S. Coast Guard had searched for Pradeep but failed to find him and so the ship continued on its journey to China.

Two months later, an investigation report from the ship Captain claimed that Pradeep Raj committed suicide by jumping into the sea. The cited reason was ‘mental stress.’ However, his family disputes this claim.

“Five days before he went missing, Pradeep had called us. He was happy with his job and expressed a desire to pursue higher studies in maritime engineering. He would never commit suicide and we suspect foul play. Also, his work was in the engine room and so the chances of him coming on the deck are rare,” says his father Nagesh Chettiyar, a retired employee of the cooperative weaving society.

As in Sanaj’s case, two of Pradeep’s colleagues signed off from the ship on reaching China. Also, the name of the ship was changed from M.V. Eltanin to M.V. Stella Eltanin, within 12 days of his disappearance.

In August 2009, the family filed a writ petition in the Kerala High Court. But the court accepted the company’s investigations and ordered the payment of compensation and issuance of death certificate.

The family refused to accept compensation, just like Sanaj’s family. But the company has been forcing them to accept it and even threatened them once, Mr. Chettiyar says. When contacted by The Hindu, Marlow Navigation and India Steamship authorities refused to divulge any detail.

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