It has been almost two decades since S. Koteeswaran lost his right leg when the Navaly St. Peter’s Church in Jaffna was bombed allegedly by the Sri Lankan Air Force. About 125 civilians were killed.
Getting by with a prosthetic leg fitted a few years later, the 47-year-old fisherman says he is now suffering more than ever before because of Indian trawlers, which have nearly wiped him out of business. “My leg hurts very badly at the end of the day, but I have no other option. I know only fishing,” says the father of three.
Worse, he has no hope that things may get better soon. “The [Indian] trawlers will continue to come to our shore. And we will continue to suffer.” Koteeswaran is among the hundreds of fisherfolk in the coastal village of Karai Nagar — once a small island that was later linked by a causeway to the Jaffna peninsula — which bears the brunt of the Indian trawlers that, he says, come virtually to their shore.
He lost one of his nets to such a trawler, suffering a loss of LKR 1 lakh (about INR 48,000). These days, he goes fishing only thrice a week, days when they don’t expect Indian trawlers; that too, very close to the shore, fearing more loss.
Koteeswaran sees no hope in the outcome of the recent talks, both at the ministerial level and among fishermen of the two countries. “Oh, all that is eyewash. They make all sorts of claims and promises sitting in air-conditioned rooms, but nothing has changed for us. Ordinary fishermen like me are only pawns.”
“We don’t get our best varieties of fish any more. Even if we manage a decent catch along the shore, it goes for just LKR 30 a kg, as against 60 earlier,” says Kadiramalai Yoganathan, secretary of the fishermen’s cooperative in the area, amid the buzz at the auction centre where shiny fish were scattered on gunny bags.
A fisherman does not return home with all the money for his catch. Koteeswaran, for instance, engages 10 people to pluck fish out of the nets, paying each LKR 200 a day. And then, there is the cost incurred on fuel for the boat. “Finally, I get just 1,000 rupees, after sharing the money from the catch with my brother and partners who help me, and the labourers,” he explains.
With barely enough to feed their families, repaying the debts on repairs to nets is another huge burden on many.
Vijayakumar Thevarani, a mother who raises four children, does the work of five people, trying to repay her outstanding loan of LKR 2.5 lakh. Her day starts at 4 a.m. and she works non-stop till 10 p.m. — unloading and plucking fish, cleaning and mending nets, cooking for her children, feeding the cow and goat at home, milking the cow, taking up odd daily wage jobs in between and weaving coconut leaves all evening.
“I grew up in my parental home as a happy child, with a lot of care. But ever since I turned 16 and got married, I have only been working. I have a severe back pain. This is tiring,” Thevarani says, breaking down. “We lost our nets, we incurred heavy losses. We work so hard every day and still, we are unable to repay our debt or have three meals without worrying.”
“Much of our resources in our sea have been destroyed by the trawlers that virtually scrape the ocean bed. The talks are not helping. With no fish left here, we might probably have to go to the Indian side henceforth,” she says, raising her voice.
Fishermen are already worried about certain missing species this year. T. Prabakar, 49, says he did not find a single fish of the mural species — a silver-coloured fish known for its taste, which is found aplenty during this time of the year. “Despite the talks, the trawlers continue to come. Before long, I am afraid all our fish will be gone,” he says.