Madras yacht club to reopen annexe

Chennai July 3. The controversy between the Coast Guard and the Royal Madras Yacht Club has come to a head with the latter deciding to defy the ``illegal'' ban imposed on it. The 91-year-old institution has declared it will reopen its Annexe and resume facilities to its members today.

The Annexe, which is located off Napier Bridge on Naval Officers Road, has been closed since May 28, when armed Coast Guard staff, acting under the instructions of Commodore R.S. Vasan (Commander, CG East) entered it without warning, ordered members to vacate and informed them that it could not be used any longer.

Commodore Vasan cited overall security considerations, including the presence of a hovercraft berthed nearby, as the reason for effecting closure. Soon after, it laid a power cord and a water pipe through the Annexe lands to the hovercraft without the club's permission.

The office-bearers of the RMYC, who had closed the club temporarily after the May 28 incident, claim they are now certain that security is an excuse to forcibly take control of the land the Annexe is situated on.

``We have decided to reopen the Annexe because we are now convinced that Commodore Vasan has absolutely no authority to enforce any ban,'' says V.R. Srikanth, RMYC president.

Questions of authority to enforce closure have arisen because the land on which the Annexe is situated was leased from the Tamil Nadu Government. Moreover, the road leading up to the Annexe is owned by the State PWD. Asks Mr. Srikanth: ``We have the highest respect for the Coast Guard. But under what legal provision can Commodore Vasan block access to our premises? He has simply taken the law into his own hands.''

When the question is put to Commodore Vasan, he does not cite a specific enabling provision, but insists he is legally empowered to ask people to vacate from ``sensitive zones'' in the interest of national security. ``Whole villages are sometimes evicted on this ground,'' he says.

Differences of opinion extend to the exact status of the land on which the Annexe is situated (some 8 grounds). The RMYC's lease expired in 1999. The club has applied for renewal and is in possession of documents dated last year, which suggests that the lease could be renewed. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard has pressed the Tamil Nadu Government for the land to be handed over in its favour.

According to Commodore Vasan, the State Government has ``already decided'' to transfer the land to the Coast Guard. But the RMYC vigorously disputes this claim. ``We challenge him to show us a piece of official paper which states the land has been transferred to the Coast Guard,'' says RMYC's Srikanth.

The point that the Annexe poses a security threat is also the subject of contention. Commodore Vasan maintains that the beach in front of the Annexe, which is also near the Coast Guard headquarters complex, is an appropriate place to berth the hovercraft. But RMYC's office-bearers reject this, pointing out that this area is not free from beachgoers and other members of the public.

Indeed, last week, this correspondent was witness to a film shooting along the stretch of Naval Officers Road. Parked vans, cameras, and other paraphernalia lined the roads as a crowd had collected to watch the filming of the Parthiban-starrer Ivan near the RMYC's annexe.

``Are film crews less of a security threat than yacht club members?'' asks Kuruvilla Abraham, RMYC's Captain of Boats, rhetorically. He adds: ``The main wing of the RMYC is located within Madras Port, a maximum security area. It has been allowed to operate undisturbed through two World Wars and the conflicts with Pakistan and China. Talk of the Annexe as a security threat is sheer hypocrisy.'' Adds Mr. Srikanth: ``We are law-abiding citizens and appeal to the sport-loving Chief Minister to save our Annexe, which is the only source of the club's income''.

Meanwhile, the controversy has been lent another dimension with whispers that the Coast Guard-RMYC face-off is really a result of yachting politics. Earlier this year, following a controversial election, some members of the RMYC floated a rival body, the Tamil Nadu Sailing Association. Commodore Vasan was invited as a member of the TNSA's governing council and his son has used its recently-acquired sailing facility, which is also located within Madras Port.

But Commodore Vasan reacts dismissively to the insinuation that politics and not security underlies his interest in getting the RMYC Annexe vacated. ``This is not even worth responding to. My only interest is the Coast Guard and I will do whatever is in my power to defend its interests,'' he declares.

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