With no other means of income, kin of fishermen are leading a miserable life as the breadwinners are in Lankan jails

The repeated arrests of fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy on charges of illegal fishing have taken a heavy toll on the livelihood of the fishing community in the district in general, and Rameswaram island in particular.

After a 45-day ban period, fishermen refurbish their boats spending money ranging from Rs.50,000 to Rs.1.5 lakh each and begin the new fishing season on June 1 with renewed hopes, but it has turned out to be disastrous, if their present living condition is any indication.

Ninety per cent of the families are trapped in debt and their jewellery pledged in banks and private financial institutions are being auctioned as they cannot pay interest or redeem the jewellery, says P. Sesu Raja, district secretary, Tamil Nadu Coastal Mechanised Boat Fishermen Association.

The fishermen began the new fishing season on a happy note with a good catch on the first day, but the season soon met with ‘rough weather’ as the Lankan Navy arrested 49 fishermen in two batches and seized nine boats on June 6, and followed it up with the arrest of eight fishermen and seizure of two boats on June 15, he said.

Having invested a large amount of money in refurbishing the boats after borrowing money from traders and moneylenders, the fishermen had no option but to take a risk, and they continued to venture into the sea, said U. Arulanandham, president, Alliance for Release of Innocent Fishermen (ARIF).

But the Lankan Navy increased the frequency of arrests. In July alone, it arrested 86 fishermen and seized 14 trawlers.

While 21 fishermen were arrested on July 6, 65 were arrested in two batches on July 30, he recalled.

In August, the Navy of the island nation took into custody 55 fishermen – 35 from Pamban on August 26 and 20 from Rameswaram – along with nine boats on August 4.

On September 19, the Navy arrested 19 fishermen with five boats from Jagadapattinam, and three days later 20 fishermen from Rameswaram along with four boats, he said.

The repeated arrests had thrown fishing activities in Rameswaram out of gear, Mr. Raja said.

The fishermen went on a strike and lost a month, and a section of the workers moved to Kerala, Mangalore and other parts of the country, looking for better prospects, he said.

“In the last four months, we would have hardly had 10 to 15 ‘kadal’ (fishing days),” he said.

Many of the allied businesses – ice factories, fish export companies, dry fish making units, etc. – were also hit hard, rendering the workers jobless, he said.

About 1,000 poor women in the district who were engaged in dry fish business stopped visiting Rameswaram, he noted.

Children’s education jeopardized

The imprisonment of fishermen in Lankan jails has cast a shadow on the education of their children too.

As the breadwinners are languishing in jails, the families, with no other means of income, are leading a miserable life, fighting to pay the education bills of their children.

An informal chat with a cross section of families revealed that they depend on neighbours and relatives for food and finding it difficult to pay school and college fees of their wards.

Arokiya Kosma, studying first year BCA in a private college at Muthupettai, has paid only the first instalment of Rs.6,000 of the first year fees of Rs.35,000. She could not pay the second instalment or bus fees as her brother Innasi Vidaran (22), the breadwinner of the family, is in a Lankan jail for more than a month.

“Every day she is going to college with tears in her eyes as she could not pay the tuition fees and bus fees,” says her aunt Ravina.

Vidaran was one of the 35 Pamban fishermen arrested on August 26.

He was the sole breadwinner after his father fell ill and his younger brother died while fishing in the sea last year.

He drowned after an Indian Coast Guard vessel crashed into his boat.

The Government offered a job for one of the family members and his other sister Maria Jeniffer dropped out after Class X, hoping to get the job. She neither got the job nor could continue her studies, says Ravina.

Richard Raj, a second-year Computer Engineering student at a private college in Chengalpattu, returned home on learning that his brother Yoswath (17) was among those arrested by the Lankan Navy.

“He has been at home for the past 10 days as he is yet to pay the mess bill,” says his father Irudayaraj.

They paid only Rs.30,000 in the second year and the principal has extended the grace period to pay the full fees, he said.

Yoswath had dropped out after Class VII five years ago to help his father in fishing. He was the youngest of the 35 fishermen in Lankan jail, his father adds.

The case of Mekkalamma from Thangachimadam is more pathetic. She has four daughters and a son.

They are studying Class X, IX, VII, IV and III respectively in a local convent, and she could not pay the school fees for anyone, she says. Her husband Puthiyar was arrested on September 22.

Casilda from Rameswaram is also struggling with three school-going daughters and a son after her husband Kissinger was arrested on September 22.

“Our life has become a question mark, and I pray for my husband’s safe return,” she says.

It was a double blow for Kanishka whose husband Bathinathan was arrested and their boat was seized. They bought the new boat only about six months ago, raising a loan of Rs.25 lakh.

“We are not sure whether we will be able to further educate our two sons – studying Class IX and Class V – and daughter in primary,” she says.

Her father who was supporting the family died two days ago, she cries.