By Meera Srinivasan, Walter Scott
The issue of alleged poaching by Indian fishermen continues to be a big challenge for India and Sri Lanka. Fishermen from both sides of the Palk Strait react to the scenario. The recent release of five Indian fishermen, sentenced to death in Sri Lanka on charges of drug trafficking, came as a huge diplomatic victory for India, but the issue of alleged poaching by Indian fishermen continues to be a big challenge.
Despite a notion of ‘Tamil brotherhood’ binding them, the fishermen on either side of the Palk Strait are unable to come to a consensus. Still recovering from the impact of a brutal ethnic conflict, the Tamil-speaking fishermen across Sri Lanka’s Northern Province are among the most vulnerable. Returning to the seas after the three decade-long war, they find that aggressive bottom-trawling from the Indian side is wiping out marine resources and damaging their nets.
Several rounds of talks have been held between fishermen from both countries and at an official level, but the problem persists. At the heart of the Palk Bay conflict is an issue pertaining to livelihoods — of Northern Sri Lankan fishermen on the one side, and of the Tamil Nadu fishermen on the other.
On the Indian side, the fishermen from Rameswaram never thought that trawling, which was introduced as part of a mechanisation process four decades ago, would become a bone of contention in the Palk Bay. “The fishermen have been using the trawlers for more than 30 years. They should be given time to phase out the trawlers,” says U. Arulanandham, President of the Alliance for Release of Innocent Fishermen (ARIF) who took part in two rounds of talks.
While political parties in Tamil Nadu keep the debate over Katchatheevu — a tiny island between the countries — alive, the possibility of India retrieving the island is highly unlikely in the near future, considering that a 1974 agreement between the countries officially acknowledges it as being in the Sri Lankan territory. The governments now go by the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) — that both countries agreed upon in 1976 — earmarking territorial waters, which the Indian fishermen are accused of often crossing.
Given that New Delhi seldom took a public position on the erring Tamil Nadu fishermen, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s recent message, urging fishermen not to cross the IMBL, was significant. This year alone, as many as 744 Indian fishermen were caught for alleged poaching in Sri Lanka, and 156 trawlers were seized.
Mohamed Alam, Mannar District Fishermen’s Cooperative Society Union: We consider the fishermen from Tamil Nadu our brothers, but why don’t they see our plight? Why are Tamil Nadu fishermen — or for that matter the media in Tamil Nadu —reluctant to even acknowledge that they cross the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL)? They have been poaching for years together now. During the war, we were not allowed to go to the seas but now, so many families depend on the sea for their livelihood. Fisherfolk are struggling to make ends meet and many are in heavy debt.
Though the Sri Lankan Navy arrests Indian fishermen for poaching and seizes their trawlers every now and then, it does not seem to deter them. They return to our coasts every other day. Is it because they think, no matter what, their leaders and government will bail them out? We have been pleading with them for a long time because we don’t want to antagonise our own folk. How long can we be patient?
K. Rajachandran, President, Jaffna District Fisheries Federation: Our fishermen are scared to get into the sea fearing the trawlers. Many have lost their nets when the sharp blades under the trawlers tear through them. You can see the Indian trawlers very close to our shore. They come every other day and we go fishing only three days a week. Life is really hard for us because there has been no improvement in the situation. Fishermen are borrowing money to repair their nets but there is no guarantee that they can fish peacefully.
We find that some of the species of fish found in this part of the sea are not seen anymore. The trawlers just scoop out all marine resources from the ocean bed, destroying some small species over a period of time.
The issue is highly politicised and the two governments are talking; but not much has changed in our lives. Many of our fisherfolk lost their family members and homes during the war. It is only now that they are slowly rebuilding their lives, but the Indian trawlers have made life an everyday battle for us. More....