4 fishermen from Ramanathapuram district are the most recent casualties within the decades-old Palk Bay fisheries battle between India and Sri Lanka. L. Srikrishna, C. Jaisankar, R. Rajaram and Meera Srinivasan report on the human price of the difficulty pertaining to bilateral ties, livelihoods, and ecological issues

Samson Darwin was a toddler when his household fled their house in Jaffna within the 1990s, to flee the civil conflict that was tearing aside Sri Lanka’s north and east. Mandapam camp in Ramanathapuram grew to become their “house”. Away from incessant bombing and destruction, they thought that they had one other likelihood at life.

Final week, 28-year-old Darwin’s physique was introduced again house after he and three different fishermen died within the Palk Strait, in Sri Lankan waters. Darwin’s spouse (they received married only a 12 months in the past) had given start to their first baby weeks earlier than that, and simply as their new life as a household was about to start, his life ended.

Darwin fled the civil conflict practically 25 years in the past however the adversity that started chasing him then got here a full circle that deadly evening. “After escaping the battle in Sri Lanka, we got here right here [Ramanathapuram]… however Darwin died within the palms of the Sri Lankan Navy,” a relative says, requesting anonymity. He echoes the grief that pervades their village following the tragic loss of life of Darwin, together with A. Mesiya (30), V. Nagaraj (52) and S. Senthil Kumar (32), all hailing from Ramanathapuram, on the evening of January 18.

Outraged by the incident, Tamil Nadu fishermen have accused the Sri Lankan Navy, which was patrolling the seas for “poaching” fishing trawlers, of killing the 4 males. The Sri Lankan Navy, then again, maintains that the fishermen and their boat “sank” whereas “resisting arrest” by a Navy vessel.

The Indian authorities conveyed its “sturdy protest” to Sri Lanka, and insisted it undertake a humanitarian strategy in coping with fishermen. Sri Lanka’s Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda, a Tamil from Jaffna, arrange a three-member committee tasked with discovering a “everlasting answer” to the Palk Bay fisheries battle, affecting fishermen of Tamil Nadu and northern Sri Lanka.

Palk Bay fishing dispute | Casting the net in a sea of conflict


Not one of the official statements mentions a probe being sought or agreed to. The 4 Tamil Nadu fishermen and the Sri Lankan Naval personnel alone had been witnesses to what occurred late that evening, mid-sea, and just one facet is alive to inform their story.

An extended-festering drawback

“What fallacious did my brother do? He was unarmed and he has been brutally killed,” says A. Simon, Mesiya’s older brother, in his thatch-roofed hut in Thangachimadam, a predominantly fishing village in Ramanathapuram. “Each time we set out fishing we pray that we return house safely, regardless of whether or not the catch is nice or not. The harmless fishermen’s finish is horrifying.”

That too at sea, to which their lives are so intimately tied. Fisherfolk get up to the sound of the ocean, head to the waters for a residing, come again to the shore, catch some sleep at odd hours, once more with the reassuring sound of the waves. “After fishing for about 30 hours, we return to the shore. On many days, the Sri Lankan Navy, below the pretext of surveillance, chases us. Typically they throw stones at our boats or hurl empty liquor bottles,” says one other fisherman mourning Mesiya’s loss of life.

Fishermen’s representatives in Tamil Nadu accuse the Sri Lankan Navy of injuring tons of of fishermen through the years. “About 300 of our fishermen have died within the Palk Strait,” says P. Sesu Raja, Rameswaram-based chief of a fishermen’s affiliation engaged largely in backside trawling. The Sri Lankan Navy has persistently denied the mounting allegations — by means of the years of the conflict and because it led to 2009.

Whereas the reason for loss of life of the deceased fishermen has by no means been established in a courtroom of legislation, the truth that these younger fishermen died at sea stays a grim reminder of the human price of the Palk Bay fisheries battle. Their distressing loss of life, after they had been out at sea to earn a day’s residing, is one more stark reflection of a long-festering drawback — of depleting marine assets within the Palk Bay, competing livelihoods of fishermen, and an answer that continues to be elusive, because the fishermen on each side are unable to agree on it.

Tamil Nadu fishermen are usually not a homogenous group with the identical pursuits. They’re a part of a fancy ecosystem of moneyed and sometimes politically influential house owners of trawler fleets who interact different fishermen; of those that practise conventional fishing of their small, mechanised boats; and 1000’s of poor fishermen who’ve solely their labour to promote to be able to survive. Relying on who you ask, a special facet of the issue involves gentle.

Like Sesu Raja, most house owners of the 5,000-plus registered trawlers say that the Sri Lankan Navy “attacked our fishermen”, arrested them, or seized their vessels.

Day by day wage fishermen communicate of the large strain on them to danger their lives and go so far as it takes to get a good catch that may guarantee a day’s earnings in full.

Arockia Sesu, 47, from Thangachimadam, who has been fishing for 29 years, says he makes about ₹700 on an excellent day. With a household of 5, together with his aged mom and two kids, making each ends meet is not any simple activity. “Earlier, it was simply poverty which we needed to battle. However lately, we additionally need to safeguard ourselves from the Sri Lankan Navy’s aggression,” he says.

Straying in worldwide waters

Regardless of the GPS models connected to their boats, the fishermen usually stray into Sri Lanka’s territorial waters, throughout the Worldwide Maritime Boundary Line, mutually agreed upon by the neighbouring international locations within the mid-1970s.

India embraced mechanised fishing utilizing backside trawlers, after its fishing fleet was “modernised” between the 1950s and the early 1970s, with hundreds of thousands of {dollars} from the Norwegian authorities.

Within the fishing technique of backside trawling, fishermen drag giant nets from the vessels by means of the ocean, just about scooping out younger fishes, shrimps and different organisms from the seabed indiscriminately. Some use thangoosi valai or monofilament nets, extensively thought of dangerous for marine species.

The catch, utilizing these strategies, has proved considerably increased, boosting the State’s exports. Information from the Fisheries Division present that Tamil Nadu exports about 1.28 lakh tonnes of sea meals, amounting to ₹5,591 crore.

For the export-oriented governments on the Centre and State, and profit-driven house owners of trawlers, the follow progressively grew to become an habit regardless of the intense environmental implications alongside the Tamil Nadu coast, periodically highlighted by scientists.

Small-scale fishermen, too, bear the brunt. In Pudukkottai district, additional up the coast, small-scale fishermen spoke of how the trawlers have struck an enormous blow to their livelihoods. “They [trawlers] return with large catches thus depleting the marine assets and depriving the smaller mechanised boat fishermen of Pudukkottai district of fine catch,” stated B. Balamurugan, president of the Mechanised Boats Affiliation in Jagadapattinam, from the place over 200 mechanised boats utilizing conventional fishing practices function.

The trawlers are usually not simply on the centre of a world battle however have additionally bred native conflicts, factors out Chinna Adaikkalam, President of the Kottaipattinam Mechanised Boat House owners Affiliation. “The longer-sized and better capability Karaikal trawlers have resorted to lengthy durations of fishing, for nearly 15 days, leaving hardly something for us in our seas,” he says.

Intuitively chasing fish, Tamil Nadu fishermen employed within the bigger, mechanised trawlers often veer into Sri Lankan waters. The ecological harm is relatively much less on the Sri Lankan facet as a result of most Sri Lankan fishermen don’t interact in backside trawling. It’s the prospect of an even bigger catch that pushes Tamil Nadu fishermen to danger encountering arrest by the Sri Lankan Navy or worse, loss of life.

Strained livelihoods and ties

Over time, Sri Lankan fishermen grew extra vocal concerning the adversarial results of backside trawling alongside their shoreline. Their catches fell, and livelihoods had been threatened.

Fishermen on each side communicate of a time after they shared cordial ties. “We might name one another machaan and maapilai [brother-in-law and son-in-law]. We might share our porridge, karuvaadu [dried fish] and beedis. They’d give us cigarettes and biscuits,” Sesu Raja recollects. Sri Lankan fishermen too reminisce a couple of time after they took an in a single day boat journey to catch the most recent M.G. Ramachandran movie in Rameswaram and return the next day.

However the Sri Lankan civil conflict and the rising use of mechanised backside trawlers in India have strained their ties. For an excellent a part of the practically three-decade civil conflict, fishermen within the northern Jaffna peninsula and the Vanni had been barred entry to the ocean, because the Sri Lankan Navy, together with the armed forces, was taking up the LTTE.

It’s when the conflict led to 2009 that the fisherfolk, most of them displaced within the years of strife, returned to their properties, and progressively started to rebuild their misplaced livelihoods. Nevertheless, their return to sea was removed from clean: they discovered their catch dwindling after Indian trawlers ravaged their seas at the least thrice per week, and their nets, usually purchased with large loans, getting caught and broken below the trawlers.

Fishermen hoist black flags on their boats as a mark of protest following the death of four fishermen in Palk Strait.

Fishermen hoist black flags on their boats as a mark of protest following the loss of life of 4 fishermen in Palk Strait.  
| Photograph Credit score: L. Balachandar


The Sri Lankan Navy stepped up surveillance, arresting fishermen and seizing trawlers “trespassing” into Sri Lankan waters. Since 2010, greater than 3,000 Indian fishermen, all from Tamil Nadu, have been arrested by the Navy. As of immediately, 12 fishermen and greater than 60 trawlers are in Sri Lankan custody. The difficulty has remained a delicate bilateral difficulty, however the Central, State and provincial governments in India and Sri Lanka have achieved little success, in addition to “paying lip service”, fishermen word with mistrust.

Sri Lanka banned backside trawling in 2017, and in 2018, imposed giant fines on international vessels fishing illegally in its waters. Whereas arrested fishermen have been launched periodically, at occasions after a substantial diplomatic push by New Delhi, the 60-odd trawlers seized since stay in custody. Their house owners in India are but to return to Sri Lanka, to seem in courtroom and pay the tremendous, earlier than reclaiming the vessels, say officers in Sri Lanka’s Fisheries Division.

Choices tried and examined

Talks on the governmental stage, in addition to amongst fishermen, haven’t resulted in a sturdy answer. With heightened surveillance and elevated arrests making information in late 2020, India and Sri Lanka resumed bilateral talks, after a three-year hole, in December 2020, by means of a Joint Working Group with senior officers from each side.

Other than government-level talks, fishermen leaders from each international locations have held discussions a number of occasions since 2004. They met at the least six occasions between 2010 and 2015 – in each India and Sri Lanka – when the Palk Bay battle intensified. Tamil Nadu fishermen couldn’t preserve their promise of “phasing out” trawlers, and likewise refused to comply with Sri Lankan fishermen’s demand that backside trawling be totally stopped as a goodwill gesture. Talks stay deadlocked since.

“It’s not doable to discover a answer to the five-decades-old vexatious difficulty in two or three sittings. No follow-up motion has been taken to renew talks for therefore lengthy. Governments are receptive and react solely when fishermen are killed or arrested in Sri Lankan waters,” says U. Arulanandam, Tamil Nadu’s consultant of the Alliance for the Launch of Harmless Fishermen, a long-time activist based mostly in Pamban, Ramanathapuram.

Whereas a piece of fishermen in Pudukkottai and Ramanathapuram districts is for restarting talks, fisher leaders in Sri Lanka stay sceptical. “We’re actually pained by the latest loss of life of Indian fishermen. We’re all fishermen first, solely then Indian or Sri Lankan. We totally perceive their struggling, we’re in solidarity with them and need to put an finish to this,” says Ok. Rajachandran, who leads a fisher cooperative in Karainagar, a small island off the Jaffna peninsula.

On the similar time, he requires extra sincerity in making an attempt to provide you with an answer. “I’ve been for a number of rounds of those talks. Regardless of many assurances to section out trawlers, they continued coming in trawlers very near our shore. If they comply with use small boats and conventional fishing strategies, we’re greater than prepared to return to the desk to work out an association to share our assets responsibly. That’s the solely means our future generations can dwell,” he says, insisting that stopping using trawlers be a pre-condition for future talks.

Not like the state, fisher leaders don’t speak when it comes to invisible boundary traces within the sea, or the legislation that deems their fishing “unlawful, unreported and unregulated”. They seem extra inclined in direction of a humane and sensible association that may tackle their short-term issues of securing their livelihoods, in addition to the long-term curiosity of preserving the marine organisms within the Palk Bay.

“Using backside trawlers must be stopped totally. Northern fishermen right here, whose livelihoods had been devastated by a long-drawn civil conflict, are annoyed that regardless of their wrestle over a few years, the issue of backside trawling by Tamil Nadu has not ended,” says Ahilan Kadirgamar, senior lecturer on the College of Jaffna, who researches fisherfolk’s livelihoods in Sri Lanka’s war-affected area. “There could possibly be extra rounds of talks and a promise of a everlasting answer, however how are you going to actually resolve this disaster with out addressing the basic drawback that’s backside trawling,” he asks.

Additional, the Indian trawlers have spawned a fleet of comparatively smaller, however nonetheless damaging trawlers in Jaffna, Rajachandran notes with concern. “We don’t oppose trawlers as a result of they’re from India. We oppose trawlers from Jaffna [there are some 500] as nicely. It’s the damaging follow we’re towards, not the fishermen partaking in it.”

Some others like Annalingam Annarasa, chief of the federation of fisher cooperative societies in Jaffna, need to give talks one other likelihood. “Actually, this isn’t a difficulty between two international locations, or one between the Tamil Nadu fishermen and the Sri Lankan Navy. It’s basically a difficulty threatening the livelihoods of Tamil fishermen in each India and Sri Lanka. We have to work along with mutual understanding and solidarity,” says Annarasa. “We have to type an alliance with small-scale fishermen in Tamil Nadu and collectively elevate consciousness concerning the dire penalties of backside trawling. That could possibly be a place to begin for talks.”

Resolution in sight?

In the meantime, a challenge of the Indian authorities, geared toward weaning Tamil Nadu fishermen off trawlers and diverting them to deep-sea fishing strategies, took off in 2017, however has hardly progressed as deliberate. Each New Delhi and Tamil Nadu, implementing the ₹1,600 crore initiative, hoped to interchange at the least 2,000 trawlers with deep sea fishing boats with lengthy traces and gill nets. Nevertheless, lower than a tenth of that focus on has been achieved, The Hindu reported in December.

In line with Johny Tom Varghese, Venture Director Palk Bay and Further Director (Fisheries) in Tamil Nadu, deep sea fishing will ultimately be profitable, although it’s capital-intensive. “A fisherman who invests his cash in a deep sea fishing boat can break even in about 18 months. We’re coaching them. Now we have signed 103 agreements with people below the scheme,” he says.

These grappling with the shift from trawlers to deep sea vessels are additionally confronted with rising prices. In Sesu Raja’s view, the 70% subsidy, collectively from the Centre and State, for the deep sea fishing boats, is inadequate. “The governments had labored out the price at ₹80 lakh per boat, whereas it’s virtually ₹1.20 crore immediately,” he observes.

Pointing to the scheme’s “very gradual progress,” Arulanandam says, “Whether it is applied inside a 12 months or two, I hope it could actually supply a doable answer. However the governments ought to be certain that of shopping for again all present trawlers.”

The fishermen in Kottaipattinam and Jagadapattinam villages in Pudukkottai too complain that whereas the federal government is taking steps to introduce deep sea fishing, the outdated boats are but to be weeded out. The proposal to shift fishermen of Kottaipattinam, Jagadapattinam and Rameswaram in direction of deep sea fishing has not picked up, fishermen say.

There haven’t been many takers for fish farming within the Gulf of Mannar, both. The hype following the profitable demonstration of fish farming by the Central Marine Fisheries Analysis Institute in Mandapam was short-lived. The Fisheries Division seized mechanised boats used for pair trawling on a number of events, however the punitive actions couldn’t eradicate the follow totally. The deep divisions amongst varied fishing teams and frequent agitations have put the brakes on implementing strict laws, in response to fishermen.

Because the marketing campaign in election-bound Tamil Nadu picks up, the problems of fishermen, who represent a sizeable voters in coastal districts, will take centre stage once more. “The true problem for fishermen on each side is to maintain this difficulty in focus even after the polls,” says Annarasa, reflecting an analogous sentiment heard in Tamil Nadu about “not permitting politicians to take advantage of our state of affairs.”

At one stage, the issue at hand is historic, complicated and layered. At one other, it’s about sustaining and sharing finite marine assets within the Palk Strait, a slim strip of water, simply over 100 km at its widest, separating south India and northern Sri Lanka. As fishermen repeatedly level out, on the coronary heart of this persisting battle is their insecurity about their livelihoods and futures. Elections come and go, however that’s but to be decisively addressed.

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