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Updated: September 11, 2012 13:19 IST

Fraying brotherhood over troubled waters

Nirupama Subramanian
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If Tamil Nadu politicians truly care about Sri Lankan Tamils, they should discourage the State’s fishermen from cornering the marine resources in the Palk Straits

When Tamil Nadu politicians raise the pitch against the Sri Lankan government’s perceived atrocities on the Tamils in that country, they invoke popular sentiment in Tamil Nadu, saying Tamils here are hurt and angry at the way their brethren across the Palk Straits are being treated.

But that sympathy is nowhere evident on an issue that truly hits the Sri Lankan Tamils where it matters — their livelihoods. In fact, it is an issue on which Tamil Nadu actively works against the interests of fellow Tamils across the Palk Straits.

For the last three years, Sri Lanka’s Tamils have been trying to pick up the broken pieces of their lives, shattered by a long and brutal war. One of the main livelihoods of people in Northern Sri Lanka is fishing. As people have gone back to their homes, this is what they have expected to do to earn a living — go out in a boat and come back home with a decent catch.

By itself, that does not sound like a big deal. But as the Sri Lankan government waged a long and hard war against the LTTE, the waters off Northern Sri Lanka’s coastline were barred to the fishermen of the area.

The waters were declared high security zones and fishermen could put out only a kilometre into the sea in the entire North and East; ditto on the north-western coast, from Mannar upward, while the catch frolicked in the waters beyond.

New enemy

Now those restrictions no longer exist. The Sri Lankan Navy is no longer the villain it was in the war years. But Sri Lankan fishermen in the North find they have a new enemy. It’s the hundreds of boats that put out to sea from the Indian side daily, sailing into Sri Lankan waters as if they belong there.

As Antony Pillai, head of the Jaffna fishermen’s union, told The Hindu’s Sri Lanka correspondent R.K. Radhakrishnan last month: “They come in large numbers; it’s as if a huge island is moving”.

Bad fishing practices have depleted the catch on the Indian side; all the Indian fishermen want is to get to where the catch now is. Tamil Nadu fishermen organisers, such as U. Arulanandan in Rameswaram, flatly say it is “not possible” to restrict themselves to Indian territorial waters as the marine wealth, and the area on the Indian side, are limited.

Decades of war ensured that at least the marine resources in Sri Lanka’s northern seas were protected, if not lives on land. The International Maritime Boundary Line, for the Indian fishermen, is drawn on water. In Tamil Nadu, all the stress is on the fishermen’s “traditional areas/waters”. The State is still sore that there was no consultation with it before the “imposition of an artificial boundary” in the Palk Straits, and before India ceded Kachchatheevu to Sri Lanka.

But Tamil Nadu fails to see that Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen too have the right to a livelihood.

An agreement between India and Sri Lanka in October 2008 — when Sri Lanka was still in the midst of its war against the LTTE — virtually gave carte blanche to Indian fishermen to cross the IMBL, and venture into Sri Lankan waters except for “sensitive areas” along the Sri Lankan coast, designated by that country’s navy.

Sri Lanka also gave the commitment that there would be “no firing” on Indian vessels; the Tamil Nadu fishermen had to carry valid identity cards issued by the State government.

Only after the war ended did the full impact of this agreement sink in for the Sri Lankan side. Equipped with powerful mechanised boats rigged for sea-bed trawling, Tamil Nadu fishermen have had no qualms about appropriating the resources on Sri Lanka’s side of the sea. The Sri Lankan fishermen can only watch helplessly as the Indian boats rip their nets, and speed away with the catch, leaving behind a muddied sea in their wake.

The authorities on both sides monitor how many boats cross the IMBL every night. Records for January to June 2012, obtained from Indian government sources, are revealing. In January, 5,166 trawlers were seen crossing the boundary; in February, the number was 6,376; in March, it was 4,740; in April, it came down to 1,050; in May, it dipped to 304; in June, it rose again to 3,026. Checking the identity of each boat is impossible. Every month, 10 per cent or less are recorded as “positively identified”.

The waters where these boats were found fishing? Forget Kachchatheevu, where Indian fishermen claim fishing rights — they were seen even as far away as Pulmoddai and Mullaithivu in eastern Sri Lanka; Chundikulum, Point Pedro and Kankesanthurai; in the islets around Delft Island off the peninsula; and, all the way down to Mannar.

On August 20, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa asked the Centre to take up “strongly” the issue of attacks on Indian fishermen, saying the Sri Lankan Navy had been “emboldened” by India’s “soft handling” of the issue. Between June 2011 and August 2012, she wrote 12 letters to the Prime Minister on this issue.

Direct action

Tamil Nadu fishermen allege the Sri Lankan Navy beats them up, humiliates them, even foists smuggling cases on them. But so fraught have relations become between the fishermen of northern Sri Lanka and the ones from Tamil Nadu that the Sri Lankans are quite happy when their Navy takes on the Indians. In one incident in February 2011, Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen resorted to direct action, rounding up more than 100 Indian fishermen, and handed them over to their navy.

Over the last two years, Sri Lanka has stressed that the Indian fishermen must respect the IMBL, most recently at a meeting of the joint working group on fisheries held in Colombo in August.

Should the Tamil Nadu government really wish to help Sri Lankan Tamils, there are several constructive ways of doing so. Sending back school children and cultural groups is not one of them. In fact, nothing is worse than raising the temperature for visiting Sri Lankans in Tamil Nadu. The links between the two sides run too deep and too strong, and destroying them serves no purpose. Think of the petty Tamil traders from Colombo who travel to Chennai daily, and how the new negatively charged atmosphere affects them. Think also of the Indians who have made Sri Lanka their home, live, work and have invested in that country over the four or five decades, their numbers increasing since the 1990s, and it should become clear that such brinkmanship serves no purpose.

Protesting the “training” of Sri Lankan officers at Wellington or NDC is certainly not constructive either. If anything, having them here is an opportunity to give them a first-hand experience of how a federal system in a multi-ethnic country works, with all its pulls and pressures.

But what can be truly constructive, and with an immediate positive impact on the lives of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils living in Jaffna is if Tamil Nadu can restrain its fishermen from plundering the Palk Straits with their bad practices, and from cornering all its resources. Tamil Nadu politicians, if they truly care about Sri Lankan Tamils, should encourage the State’s fishermen to see the fishermen on the other side of the straits as partners with their own rights to the marine resources of the region. Some fishermen know co-operation is the way forward.

As far back as 1985, according to Mr. Arulanandan, Rameswaram fishermen submitted a proposal for developing alternate areas for deep sea fishing. Others, such as N.J Bose, another fishermen’s leader, have suggested a bilateral agreement that will enable fishermen from both sides to fish in each other’s waters. Instead of resorting to damaging rhetoric aimed more at maximising their political mileage, Tamil Nadu politicians should take the lead in encouraging such options by which fishermen on both sides can share these resources.

(With inputs from T. Ramakrishnan in Chennai and S. Annamalai in Madurai)

nirupama.s@thehindu.co.in

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A voice of sanity amidst all the mayhem. Kudos Nirupama. India needs to do all it can to engage Sri Lanka and drive a tough bargain to secure Tamil rights. Apart from the racist tendencies/elements in lanka, silly fringe elements in TN are the second biggest threats to SL tamils.

from:  Sundararajan S
Posted on: Sep 13, 2012 at 00:21 IST

The other side of the story is that there is no fish to catch on the Indian side of the IMBL. It is very touching that the Indians want each other to share the resources, but there are no resources left on the Indian side because of the short sightedness of the TN government in allowing their fishermen to bottom trawl. Now, they want to do that in Sri Lanka and in a few years, there wont be any fish left on either side. The fishermen of both sides should stick to their side of the IMBL. Problem solved.

from:  Rajiv
Posted on: Sep 12, 2012 at 21:40 IST

The article is very revealing. May be there are many politicians

involved in this fishy business. Rhetorics are no substitute for arguments based on justice.Our leaders" altruism for the Srilankan Tamils seem to be hollow.Persons like S/Sri Arulanandam and Bose deserve to be heard for their humane and sensible approach.

from:  N.Swaminathan
Posted on: Sep 11, 2012 at 17:13 IST

Excellent piece of journalism which unfortunately will go over the head of Tamil chauvinists. The plunder of marine resources along Sri Lanka is a crime which may have serious ramifications in the long term. The Somali pirates are a creation of such bad practices of western fishing trawlers during their civil war. Tamil politicians including the CM should stop trying to out-do each other in proving their 'Tamil-lover' credentials, it is not an emotive issue anymore. Ensuring better means of livelihood for these fishermen should be a priority than bashing up hapless Lankan pilgrims.

from:  arvind
Posted on: Sep 11, 2012 at 17:00 IST

Guess the author did not understand the issue fully..

from:  Karthik
Posted on: Sep 11, 2012 at 16:55 IST

The author is clearly one-sided. The author seems to forget one point,
why would the fisherfolks risk their lives, getting into SL territory
and that too repeatedly. The repeated harrassments by SL navy, suggests
there's an other side of the story, that the author is ignorant of.

from:  Senthil
Posted on: Sep 11, 2012 at 16:10 IST

Shallow writing about deep water fishing!

from:  krishna
Posted on: Sep 11, 2012 at 16:09 IST

Excellent article. Every word of this should be mandatory reading for
Tamil Nadu politicians, and this should be conveyed to the Tamil
fishermen as well. I am very surprised to see there are no other
comments, by the way.

from:  Gayathri
Posted on: Sep 11, 2012 at 15:06 IST

There seems to be a much much bigger issue here!
What about the environmental degradation that is going on?
Clearly they need to regulate the fishing happening to ensure that there is
no over-fishing. A "come all, take all" policy to fishing will only lead to
this kind of situations. This, however, is sadly the case with fishing
everywhere. Even though they are no way non-renewable resources like fossil
fuels, over-fishing with no thought towards keeping the marine population
sustainable has pushed marine populations everywhere to the brink, and
fishermen are increasingly, well, scraping the bottom.

from:  Vaidya
Posted on: Sep 11, 2012 at 14:29 IST

Suprise.The author is pointing out that only issue between the Tamils and India is Fishing.. What a insight sirji..Pls do not deviate the mass just by concnetrating on the fishing issue..There are lot..First help the eelam Tamil to come out of So Called Camps...

from:  Balaji RajaSekar J M
Posted on: Sep 11, 2012 at 14:15 IST

Excellent piece. Let us call a spade a spade and discard this 'holier than thou' attitude while dealing with neighbours.

from:  Vineeth
Posted on: Sep 11, 2012 at 13:26 IST

Referring to the last para, how can a state govt. take the lead in exploring options like joint fishing, it is the duty of the central govt. to sign bilateral agreements. Crossing international maritime boundaries is not a criminal offence according to international law but Srilankan navy blatantly kills Indian(Tamil), did India consult these fishermen before handing over Katchaitheevu? This apart, the author gets it all wrong when she says the high security zones have been removed. Does she know that for a Tamil fisherman it requires a set of 12 signatures to go to the sea and another 12 for the boat owners. Why does the ever watchful Indian navy and coast guards allow the Tamilnadu fishermen to stray into lankan waters?Look at the reaction of India when fishermen from Kerala are killed by Italians. Pakistan a so called enemy country has never killed Indian fishermen but our 'friendly' neighbour Sri lanka does. Stop the bias.

from:  Paul
Posted on: Sep 11, 2012 at 13:01 IST
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