How the fishermen get into hot water

The story of Tamil fishermen who are under constant threat from Sri Lankan Navy.


RAMANATHAPURAM: On the morning of January 7, 2017, a mechanised fishing boat returned to the Rameshwaram Jetty with a huge hole on its body. The Sri Lankan Navy had allegedly damaged it near the International Maritime Border and rounded up the fishermen on board.

This never-ending conflict between Tamil fishermen and the Sri Lankan Navy has led to migration of over 2000 Tamil Nadu fishermen, said U. Arulanandam, a social worker who looks after the welfare of this community.

“There are no representatives from the fisher community in the talks held between the Indian and Sri Lankan governments regarding the conflict. How will they ever solve the problem?” he asked.

“Sri Lankan fishermen also stray the Indian waters sometimes. They go up to the coasts of Gujarat and Odissa. But they are never captured or tortured by India,” he added.

According to Antony (name changed) who is a country boat fisherman, trawlers, which dominate fishing around Ramanathapuram, use invasive methods that harm the ocean bed.

Trawling is a fishing method where a large net is dragged across the sea bed. But in the process of catching fish a lot of other sea creatures and marine lives get caught too. “Bottom trawling is unselective and severely damaging to seafloor ecosystems,” stated an article published by the Marine Conservation Institute of the United States. The article further elaborated that along with damaging deep-sea corals, ‘bottom trawling’ can destroy large areas of seafloor habitats that give the marine creatures food and shelter.

“Trawling widely in these areas should be illegal,” said Antony. But the powerful and the rich who own the trawlers always get away with it, he added.

Overfishing — catching more fish than what the sea can reproduce within a certain period — is another problem arising from trawling. “Trawlers take too much fish. That is one of the reasons why country boats have to cross the border to get fish,” said Arulanandam.

“The shallow water around this part of the Gulf of Mannar is good for breeding. So seasonally we get a good amount of fish. But at other times we have to go into deeper waters,” said Anthony.

On January 8, four Rameshwaram fishermen were detained near Kachatheevu island by the Sri Lankan navy.

The disputed island, a territory historically belonging to the King of Ramanathapuram, was ceded to Sri Lanka by the Centre during the Emergency period of 1975. The agreements of 1975 and 1976 stopped fishermen of both countries from fishing in each other’s waters.

Since 1991, Tamil Nadu has demanded retrieval of the island several times. During the Sri Lankan civil war, the northern part of the country was under the control of the militant organisation Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE). The organisation was fighting for a separate homeland for Tamils. Tamil fishermen who were sympathetic to LTTE has a trouble-free access to Sri Lankan fishing grounds.

However, following the end of the civil war in 2009, the Sri Lankan government beefed up security along the maritime border and started arresting Indian fishermen who crossed the line. “Before 2009, Sri Lankan Navy captured border-crossing fishermen alleging them of aiding LTTE,” said Arulanandam.

Ramanathapuram Collector S. Natarajan said, “Crossing of the marine border is illegal as of now. The government is trying to find a solution.” But meanwhile it could not stop fishermen from going into Sri Lankan waters or from getting caught.

The former panchayat head of Pamban village, M. Patrick, said people cross over to the other side because the punishment is often not severe but their economic need is. “The last time fishermen were shot was in 2011 and four of our people died,” he said.

The fishermen demurred of government indifference to their plight. “The [Sri Lankan] Navy has taken away hundreds of boats. Fishermen who come back get no loans to buy new boats. Nor does the government help,” said a fisherman from Pamban.

To that Patrick added, “Mostly local and private manufacturers make our boats but since the insurance companies do not have any tie-up with them, we cannot insure our boats”. There are no Government welfare schemes for fishermen who are caught, tortured, and lose boats.

The fishermen also complained that the government has no subsidy scheme for the fisher folk. Comprising boat rent or maintenance, rations, fishing nets and diesel, each long haul costs around Rs. 8,000–10,000. But often the boats return with little catch. “This is why the fishermen stray into the Sri Lankan waters.”

Giving his version, the District Collector said, “The government has sanctioned Rs. 10 crore for a cold storage building. We are creating infrastructure for deep sea fishing in international waters. We are also encouraging fishermen to take up mushroom and seaweed cultivation as alternative livelihoods.”

However fishermen protested that “displacing us from our traditional livelihood is not a solution.”

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