Victims of political manipulation

Unless India acknowledges that fishermen from Tamil Nadu trespass into Sri Lankan waters, the northern province fisher folk will have no hope

June 10, 2014 01:23 am | Updated 01:23 am IST

Fisher folk of Pesalai, Mannar, are among those worst hit by the Indian trawlers that trespass into their waters. Photo: Meera Srinivasan

Fisher folk of Pesalai, Mannar, are among those worst hit by the Indian trawlers that trespass into their waters. Photo: Meera Srinivasan

“I will have a job only if the Indian trawlers stop coming.” Gently nudging a reluctant crab out of the fishing net with a stone, J. Rajeswari speaks of the acute impact the Indian trawlers have had on Pesalai, one of the biggest fishing villages in Mannar, Sri Lanka.

“On the days that the trawlers come our fishermen don’t go to the sea. If they don’t go, I have no job.”

Removing the fish and crab entangled in the muddy net seems a tedious task, but on a good day the seashore has many women like her doing that for hours together to make LKR 500 (about Rs.225) a day. Ms. Rajeswari, who heads a family of five, depends on her daily wage to make sure her school-going children have at least one proper meal a day. Increasingly, fishermen are unable to employ her.

“How do we employ her unless we have a substantial catch? The situation has become worse in the last year and on many days we return from the sea virtually empty-handed,” says Newton, a fisherman. The Indian trawlers, he says, have spelt misery for his village.

Standing under an airy shelter on the Mannar shore on May 31 — the day that the 45-day ban on trawlers observed by Tamil Nadu fishermen ended — he was sure that the Indian trawlers would return. “Come after 7 p.m. tonight, it will resemble Madurai town there,” says Newton, pointing to the emerald sea barely a few yards away.

The Indian fishermen proved him right. Early next morning, 33 Indian fishermen were arrested by the Sri Lankan Navy on charges of poaching. Newton compares the view from his shore to vibrant Madurai, for he has fond memories of the temple town from the mid-1980s, when he spent almost five years there as a refugee.

Issue of survival

Trapped between a natural affinity for Tamil Nadu and growing anger over its response to the fisheries issue, he says: “They [people of Tamil Nadu] are our people and we have very strong links with them. They always speak up for us. But the Tamil Nadu fishermen should realise we are just piecing our lives together after a brutal war. We need to eat. We need to live.”

Of the nearly two lakh people — a fifth of the Northern Province’s population — who depend on fisheries for their income, fishermen like him living in Mannar and Jaffna are among the worst-hit by the Indian trawlers. Mannar alone has nearly 40,000 people whose lives are tied to fishing activity along its 163 km long-coastline. Compounding the issue are a few local fishermen engaging in banned fishing methods, including bottom-trawling, citing the Indian trawlers as the reason.

With these challenges looming large, small-scale fishermen who own plastic boats are severely affected, according to Justin Soysa, president of Federation of Mannar District Fishermen Associations. “Many of us have lost our nets. Some fishermen have mortgaged their assets to cope with the crisis. We have nothing more to lose,” he says.

The frustration of fishermen has only grown after the second round of talks between fishermen of the two countries, held in Colombo on May 12, proved futile. “The Tamil Nadu fishermen are adamant in their stance. They want three years to phase out trawling. Isn’t that unfair?” asks Mohammed Alam, president of the union of fishermen’s cooperatives in Mannar.

Almost all the fisher folk are deep in debt, and some are taking up odd jobs to make both ends meet. Eager for an urgent solution, Mr. Alam asks: “What do they plan to do after three years? Why can’t they do that now?”

Echoing their sentiments, fishermen of Karai Nagar, a fishing hamlet off Jaffna, say the fish auctioned at their cooperative’s market in the last month was barely 10 per cent of their usual sale. “This was during the 45-day ban period. There were no trawlers, but day boats came from India to our shore. They use thangoosi valai (monofilament nets which are banned in Sri Lanka) which damage our nets that lie below,” says K. Yoganathan, a member of the cooperative.

At a shed behind the auction hall of the fish market lie bundles of nets in pastel blue and green shades. “Their nets got stuck in our boats’ propellers, so we have kept it safely.”

The problem has to be seen at two levels, says K. Rajachandran, president of a Jaffna-based cooperative. To start with, the trawlers pose a serious threat to marine resources and in the long run, it would affect not just fishermen of northern Sri Lanka, but all fishermen in the region. At another level, he says it is unreasonable on the part of Tamil Nadu fishermen to expect them to negotiate without bringing in the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) into the discussion. “How can we speak about the issue without bringing in the problem of poaching?” asks Mr. Rajachandran, who participated in the recent talks in Colombo.

With little support from Colombo or the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) heading the Northern Provincial Council (the TNA is accused of soft-pedalling the fisheries issue to avoid antagonising Tamil Nadu) northern Sri Lankan fishermen have nowhere to go.

The fisher folk are fatigued and disillusioned but have no other option but to push their case with the Indian fishermen. “After three decades of war we have lost virtually everything. We cannot afford to give up now,” says Mr. Rajachandran.

When the Indian fishermen unfailingly returned to the Sri Lankan waters just as the 45-day ban on trawling observed by them ended on May 31, their worst fears came true yet again. Following the arrest of the 33 Indian fishermen caught by the Sri Lankan Navy on Sunday, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa was quick to write to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as has been her practice, seeking a “strong and robust diplomatic response”. What transpired through diplomatic channels remains unknown but the following day, President Rajapaksa ordered their release in a “goodwill gesture.”

In less than a week, on June 7 and 8, nearly 80 Indian fishermen — all from Tamil Nadu — were arrested by the Sri Lankan Navy on charges of poaching. As many as 18 trawlers they used were also seized. Within a day of their detention the Sri Lankan President on Monday ordered their release on the occasion of the first joint sitting of Indian Parliament.

Seeing the repeated arrests of fishermen who trespass, Tamil Nadu’s demand for their immediate release and the diplomatic trade-offs that follow, northern Sri Lankan fishermen say they have been made victims of political manipulation. “When the arrested Indian fishermen are released so easily, we wonder if either of the governments really cares for us,” says Mr. Alam.

Need for long-term solution

The Palk Bay conflict was one of the key issues that Ms. Jayalalithaa discussed with Mr. Modi. In the memorandum to him, she has sought assistance for deep sea fishing for Tamil Nadu fishermen.

Considering that Tamil Nadu has to necessarily think of deep sea fishing in its pursuit of a long-term solution to the Palk Bay Crisis, this is a welcome move. The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister has also made out a case for what she terms “traditional fishing rights” of Tamil Nadu fishermen, and for the retrieval of Katchatheevu, both heavily politicised matters.

However, what Ms. Jayalalithaa has been reluctant to admit is that Tamil Nadu fishermen go well past Katchatheevu into what is legally Sri Lanka’s fishing territory across the IMBL. After a brutal war spanning nearly three decades the fishermen are desperately trying to put their lives back on track. Unless the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister recognises this and acknowledges that fishermen from her State are trespassing into Sri Lankan waters — as has been repeatedly proved by satellite images — the fisher folk of Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority Northern Province will have no reason to cling on to hope. They have already been pushed to the very edge.

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