Updated: January 24, 2021 10:50:25 am
The recovery of bodies washed ashore in Sri Lanka has triggered protests in Tamil Nadu as they are believed to be of the four fishermen reported missing from the state. Over 200 fishermen staged a road roko in Pudukkottai. The latest incident has once again brought to fore the long-standing conflict between Indian fishermen and the Sri Lankan navy. The reasons behind the conflict are mainly proliferation of trawlers in Tamil Nadu coast and plummeting resources in Gulf of Mannar in the Indian ocean.
What happened now?
Four fishermen from Ramanathapuram district had set sail on board a mechanised boat from Kottaipattinam coast in Pudukottai on January 18. They were part of over 200 mechanised trawlers. They did not return to the coast the next day. Tamil Nadu fishermen along the coast believe that bodies recovered in Sri Lanka were that of these missing fishermen. Demanding to hand over bodies back to India, they allege that the Sri Lankan Navy had beaten them to death. They also demand jobs for family members of the dead, Rs 15 lakh compensation and murder charges against the Sri Lankan navy.
What is the conflict between Lankan navy and Indian fishermen?
As in the past, fishermen from Rameswaram and nearby coasts continue to sail towards Talaimannar and Katchatheevu coasts, a region famous for rich maritime resources in Sri Lanka. Plenty of catch in this oceanic region had triggered a proliferation of fishing trawlers in Tamil Nadu coast in the past three decades. There were many favourable reasons too for Indian fishermen as their access to Sri Lankan waters was easier at the time of Sri Lankan civil war.
Sri Lanka remained preoccupied with its war against the LTTE. When its northern province and maritime boundaries nearby were never tightly guarded as a result, Indian trawlers continued to routinely enter Lankan waters for fishing. There were very few incidents of arrests of Indian fishermen in the nearly 30 years of war. Absence of poor Tamil fishermen of Sri Lanka due to the war also favoured fishing by Indian trawlers. Veteran fishermen of Ramasewaram would recall how the Sri Lankan navy and LTTE used to be friendly with Indian fishermen and used them as spies to trade information about enemy movements in the deeper seas.
But that changed in 2009 with the end of civil war. Arrests and attacks increased on Indian fishermen as they continued entering Lankan waters because of depletion of marine resources on the Indian side.
While the unpopular truth in the entire conflict is accusations about Tamil fishermen entering Sri Lankan waters, ownership of Katchatheevu island, where Tamil fishermen had traditional fishing rights for centuries, also remains an unresolved issue.
In 1974, the island was ceded to Sri Lanka after an agreement was signed by Indira Gandhi between the two countries without consulting the Tamil Nadu government. The agreement allows Indian fishermen “access to Katchatheevu for rest, for drying of nests and for the annual St Anthony’s festival” but it did not ensure the traditional fishing rights.
Proliferation of trawlers in Indian coast
Trawlers are mechanised boats with highly exploitative fishing nets unlike most of the poor fishermen in Sri Lankan coast who use traditional fishing methods.
Each trawler travels up to 18kms towards Talaimannar and Katchatheevu in search of better catch. And in recent years, they often return with huge losses due to plummeting resources and restrictions on Sri Lankan waters. While each trip costs about Rs 40,000 per boat, profit varies from Rs 5,000 to 30,000 depending on the catch. Hoping for a better profit, too many people started buying trawlers in Rameswaram and nearby Tamil Nadu coasts. But the post war scenario in the Indian ocean derailed businesses and livelihoods in Tamil Nadu coast. In fact, there were studies that proposed the government to buy back trawlers from fishermen to rehabilitate or facilitate them alternative livelihood options.
Smaller coastal stretches like Rameswaram, Mandapam, Pamban areas alone have about 2,500 trawlers; which means at least two dozen families depending on each trawler through various means such as about six people who work on board, fish, prawn, dry fish merchants, other supporting staff for loading, repair and related industries.
Kottaipattinam in Pudukottai has about 400 trawlers. While the maritime resources too have disappeared hugely over the years due to highly exploitative fishing methods of trawlers, continuous arrests and attacks on Indian fishermen too has not left the entire coastal region in despair, thanks to unregulated, unscientific systems and authorities in India that encouraged proliferation of trawlers at one point.
Fishermen issue in Tamil politics
It has been often a sensitive political issue in Tamil Nadu in the past one decade. Tamil regional parties, especially the AIADMK, had been often fighting with the previous UPA as well as the current NDA governments for their indifference to the issue. While former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa was famous for her “bitter” statements against UPA government over the issue, her protest continued even after the Narendra Modi government was elected to power in Delhi.
In the first three months of the Modi regime, in 2014, Jayalalithaa had shot 25 letters to the Prime Minister and 12 of them were about fishermen issue. Her consistent attack targeting Sri Lanka did provoke them too. At the peak of her “letter war,” the Sri Lankan defence ministry website published an article titled “How meaningful are Jayalalitha’s love letters to Narendra Modi?.” The article stated that she will “learn sooner than later that Narendra Modi is not a puppet to dance to her tantrums or threats.” Jayalalithaa demanded Modi to make the Sri Lankan defence ministry apologise for their remarks.
While the DMK, a UPA ally, did hardly anything to resolve the crisis. And the approach of the Centre, irrespective of UPA or NDA, was almost the same.
NJ Bose, general secretary of Tamil Nadu State Mechanised Boat Fishermen’s Welfare Association, said not less than 170 trawlers owned by Tamil fishermen remain in Sri Lanka’s custody. “They are badly damaged, each costs Rs 10 lakh to 40 lakh. While the Indian government is doing a lot for deep sea fishermen, there was hardly anything they did for Tamil fishermen facing conflict in the international waters. Steady increase in the diesel price hike is making things really difficult now. While it is Rs 84.50 per litre now, it costs only (Indian Rupee) 30 in Sri Lanka. An average trawler requires 250-600 litres of diesel for one trip,” he said.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines