TAMIL NADU

Straying into troubled waters

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM SEPT. 6. When Wimalasena and his four- member crew set out in their fishing vessel, "Ranmenika- 3," from Mirissa in Sri Lanka on November 9 last year, they had high hopes of returning home with a bountiful catch. Two weeks later, when they were arrested at sea by the Indian Coast Guard for crossing the maritime border, their world turned upside down.

Taken to Kochi for trial, the skipper and his crew were remanded to judicial custody and their vessel confiscated. Back home in Sri Lanka, the families of the "missing" fishermen were traumatised.

Thanks to the legal aid provided by the Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fishermen (ARIF), an NGO group, the four crew members were released by the Court and taken to the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission in Chennai from where they were sent home by flight in January.

But the skipper Wimalasena continues to languish in Kochi though he was allowed bail. He has been charged under the Maritime Zones of India Act, 1981. Deprived of their sole breadwinner, his family has been struggling to eke out a living.

The boat owner, Anil Shanta, who spent over Rs. 4.5 lakhs trying to locate the missing vessel, is relieved, yet frustrated. He has joined the efforts launched by NGOs and fishermen's unions to secure the release of Wimalasena. He is worried that his boat, which has been idling in the embarkation jetty in Kochi, would be damaged beyond salvage.

Despite the intervention of the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Sri Lankan High Commission, the release of the skipper remains a knotty issue. Wimalasena is only one of the hundreds of innocent fishermen who are arrested and detained in India and Sri Lanka every year.

As many as 16 Sri Lankan boats and their skippers have been held in Kochi for over two years since their arrest at sea by the Indian Coast Guard. An ARIF team from Sri Lanka, which spent over a month in Thiruvananthapuram to get the detainees released, is returning without success.

The director of the Fishermen's Development Solidarity Centre, Sri Lanka, Sirimal Pinto, who was a member of the team, said they had received no assurance from the State Government on the release of the skippers. "The authorities are convinced that they had only strayed into Indian waters while fishing. Yet, they are treated like criminals or smugglers,'' he said.

Lukas Fernando, president of the Sri Lankan National Union of Fishermen, feels that Kerala should take a cue from Tamil Nadu where the Government has adopted a humanitarian approach to the detainees' issue and take steps to repatriate them at the earliest. According to ARIF, more than 50 Sri Lankan fishermen are now languishing in various jails in India.

Mr. Pinto said that in March, the Sri Lankan arm of ARIF had managed to release 26 Indian boats and their skippers detained in Sri Lanka, two months after their arrest from the Gulf of Mannar. He said efforts were on to secure the release of another 36 Indian seamen held in the Jaffna jail.

The prolonged detention of fishermen in jails contravenes the United Nations Convention on the law of the sea. But once caught, the fishermen are remanded to judicial custody during the trial which often takes more than a year. At the end of the trial, they are forced to undergo imprisonment in lieu of the hefty fine which they are unable to cough up.

The ARIF coordinator for South India, Vivekanandan, feels that the problem of repatriation of fishermen would have to be thrashed out by the Governments of the two countries. "It is a humanitarian issue which affects the livelihood of several families,'' he says.

Activists feel that the aggressive action against fishing vessels along the maritime boundary is a fallout of the tensions created by the civil war in Sri Lanka.

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