It is 6.30 p.m., already pitch dark along the shore in Analativu, a tiny island off Sri Lanka’s northernmost tip.
Except for the silhouettes of palm trees and of the fisherfolk gathered there, nothing much else is visible under the star-studded night sky. The village is quiet — its silence only punctuated by the periodic splash of the waves against the shore and occasionally, by a lone pup barking shrilly.
There is yet another unfamiliar, faint murmur.
“Can you hear the engine?” asks Pushparayan Kayathampillai (63), head of fisheries cooperative in Analativu. He then points to a flickering light in the sea. “Here they come — the Indian trawlers,” he says.
This, apparently, is just the beginning. “Wait for a few more hours and you will see many more,” says Mr. Kayathampillai, sounding fairly certain. He is right. At 7.15 p.m., chilly and considerably darker, a few more sparks are visible in the sea now more clearly. The murmur is louder.
None of the fishermen of the village has set out fishing. Their small, wooden boats stand tied to the shore — trawlers are banned in Sri Lanka — as they watch the “Indian trawlers”, as they are popularly known here.
“Today being Monday, we don’t go fishing. It is pointless,” says Robert Jayakumar, who does not take any chance after a sharp-bottomed trawler recently tore his fishing net — worth about LKR 30,000 (approximately INR 14,100) — apart. “I had taken a loan to buy the net. But now, I cannot go fishing, nor do I have money to repair it. I have borrowed more money.”
The trawlers come on Saturdays, Mondays and Wednesdays, say fishermen about the now well-known ritual, which has left Analativu’s own fishermen out of business thrice a week. “All of us have borrowed heavily to ensure that our families can have two meals a day,” says Mr. Kayathampillai. Most fishermen in the village have taken loans amounting to LKR 2 lakh (About INR 1 lakh).
Much like most of Sri Lanka’s Tamil-speaking north and other islands off Jaffna, fishing is a crucial means of livelihood in Analativu, with its 2,175-strong population depending almost entirely on fishing and agriculture for survival.
“Agriculture has not been very promising here, but some of the women work in small farms for a daily wage. A majority of the population is engaged in fishing,” says V. Vadivalakaiyan, one of the two Grama Niladharis [plays the role of a village administrative officer] in-charge of Analativu.
Three public schools — only one of them up to A-levels (plus two in India) — one public health centre with a visiting doctor and one Ceylon Transport Buses constitute basic infrastructure for the island, which is administered through a divisional secretariat in Kayts. It is from a jetty in Kayts that we hired a private boat to reach Analativu. Kayts town itself is a good 7 km away from the jetty and Jaffna, about 17 km farther.
Life on an island may not be all that rosy, the 40-minute boat ride to the island indicates. It is about being literally cut off, Mary Antonica says. “We do not have an ambulance boat. Even when women are in labour, we take the Navy’s help to go to Jaffna by sea,” according to the 27-year-old working in a micro credit programme of the World Bank.
It is 8.30 p.m. now. There are a few more flickering lights now. They flicker less and shine more. Though the lights are vivid and seem closer, it is rather dark all around – a majority of the 600 families in this island still don’t have electricity – for my Nikon SLR camera to capture the trawlers that, Kayathampillai says, are certainly from India.
“As they come closer, we can hear Tamil film songs being played on their boats. They also speak Tamil — the way it is spoken in Tamil Nadu,” he adds, in his Yazhpanam or Jaffna Tamil.
The thrice-a-week arrangement for trawlers is an outcome of an agreement among fishermen in Tamil Nadu. Some years ago, owners of smaller boats in Tamil Nadu voiced their concern about trawlers — bigger, mechanised boats —which had spelt misery to their livelihood.
After some discussion, the fishermen agreed that trawler owners would go thrice a week and the small boats, the remaining four days, explains P. Sesu Raja, District Secretary, Tamil Nadu Coastal Mechanised Boat Fishermen Association.
‘Better fishing zones’
Trying to put forth the rationale of fishermen across the Palk Strait, he told The Hindu over telephone: “I am not saying we are not at fault. But you must try to see why the Tamil Nadu fishermen go that far despite so many arrests, trawler seizures and attacks by the Sri Lankan Navy.” The reason, he says, is purely a livelihood issue. Sri Lankan waters, according to him, make for better fishing zones and naturally draw fishermen from India. “There are more varieties in shrimps and prawns there.”
The Tamil Nadu fishermen “traditionally” fished in Sri Lankan waters over the last three decades when the northern fishermen of Sri Lanka kept away from the sea due to the ongoing war, which ended in May 2009, says Mr. Sesu Raja, based in Ramanathapuram. “After the war, the Sri Lankan fishermen have returned to the sea. Now, it is a livelihood issue for fishermen of both countries.”
Even after many rounds of talks between fishermen of both countries — Mr. Sesu Raja took part in three — proving futile, he has faith in the option. He suggests that the Indian and Sri Lankan governments seriously consider training fishermen in deep-sea fishing techniques.
When contacted, officials of the Indian Coast Guard declined comment on the issue of Indian trawlers allegedly poaching in Sri Lankan waters as it was a very “sensitive issue” to speak on, weeks ahead of the Commonwealth summit to be held in Sri Lanka.
Fishermen of Analativu are hoping that both sides arrive at a solution soon enough. “November to April is an important season for us — that is when there is a lot of fish. This is our only hope, and as fishermen like us, I hope they [Indian fishermen] understand our problem,” said Mr. Jayakumar.
However, even as they point to Indian trawlers — mostly from Tamil Nadu — invading their fishing territory, Sri Lankan fishermen say they value Tamil Nadu’s solidarity to the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils.
Differentiating the two aspects of their ties with Tamil Nadu, Mr. Kayathampillai says: “That [solidarity] is different, this [fishing conflict] is different. At the end of the day, they are our people.”
It is 10 p.m. What seemed like a small dot in the horizon a few hours ago has now become a string of trawlers, easily a few hundred at this point. They form an arch in the sea and shine bright, as if it were a carnival in Sri Lankan waters. The view evokes an image resembling the famous Queen’s Necklace at Mumbai’s Marine Drive. Like an invading army the trawlers marched ahead closer to the shore -- a distance that can be covered in hardly 10 minutes, the fishermen tell me. The engine murmur has now become an unmistakable roar.
Mr. Kayathampillai says: “At midnight, there will be many more, much closer. The noise gets frighteningly loud. I have not slept well in a long time."
The article has been corrected to incorporate the following correction:
A sentence in “As Indian trawlers charge ahead, these fishermen are all at sea” (Nov. 4, 2013, International page) read: “Trying to put forth the rationale of fishermen across the Palk Straight …” It is Palk Strait.