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The Palk Strait — A Free-For-All

Feb 26, 2011 2:11:33 PM - thesundayleader.lk
  • There is a new conflict in the North and it is currently churning up the waters of the Palk Strait

By Abdul H. Azeez

For several years now Indian fishermen have been breaching Indo-Sri Lanka maritime border in search of fish. Before the end of the war, they really didn’t have any competition from local fishermen, but at the same time the dangers of venturing into a war zone kept them from venturing too far into Sri Lankan waters.
With the end of the war however, Indian fishermen have begun to venture south with increasing frequency. But the end of the war has also increased the number of local fishermen venturing into these seas. Subsequently the two groups found themselves competing for the same resources. This has led to conflict between the two groups of fishermen, with the Sri Lankans being unwilling to let Indians into their waters and Indians being unwilling to let go of what they see as their rightful hunting grounds.
Even though regulatory bodies and agreements pertaining to fishing in these areas exist, they have not been implemented with any degree of effectiveness. This has resulted in a non-policed free-for-all taking place between fishermen that culminated in over 130 Indian fishermen being captured by their Sri Lankan counterparts last week.
They were brought ashore and handed to the police, and were soon released. This triggered a major outcry in India with the Indian PM, Manmohan Singh, expressing grave concern at the ‘inappropriate handling’ of the situation and the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka expressing concern at the fishermen ‘talking the law into their own hands’.
But whatever the results of their actions, the fishermen of the North seem to finally have gotten everyone’s attention. And this issue, which has been a headache to fisher-folk from both sides of the border, may finally have a shot at being addressed.

Not an easy catch

The issue is complicated; the Indian fishermen have over harvested the fish in their part of the sea with unsustainable fishing practices like trawling. This forces them to venture into Sri Lankan waters to catch more fish. While breaching an international border is a serious offence for a country, an individual fisherman, struggling to feed his family, will only see it as doing whatever it takes to make a living.
South Indian fishermen were encouraged to use trawlers in a bid to increase fisheries exports in the 1960s. The use of trawlers have since boomed, resulting in the near complete extinction of fish in the Indian part of the sea. The increased wealth of trawler owners has resulted in them having a lot of political clout and money for bribing officials, a serious setback to a reversal of the situation.
“Trawling is really disruptive and harmful to waters, coral reefs and sea bottom. They have already destroyed the waters in the Indian side of the ocean. This is the reason that Indian fishermen come to our waters. They use 400 horsepower engines which are really dangerous and harmful” says Herman Kumara, National Convener for the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO), which has been working closely with fishermen from both sides of the border in recent months.
He added that sometimes even head on collisions occur between Sri Lankan and Indian fishing boats as trawlers can only progress in a straight line. “Sometimes our fishermen even collide with them on purpose,” he says.

Repairs ineffective

The governments of the two countries have so far shown little interest in actually mending the conflict. Several memoranda of understanding in recent years and even a Joint Working Group Agreement struck up in 2008 have failed to materialise in any concrete action.
Speaking on the issue, Dr.Oscar Amarasinghe, a leading authority on the problem said “an agreement based on a joint working group was initiated in 2005 and finalised in 2008 but it never became operative”. He added that in mid 2010 the Sri Lankan President, on a visit to India had agreed with Manmohan Singh to implement the joint working group’s proposals but by then it was too late since the programme had all but collapsed.
He said that any agreement on the issue should also include the fishermen’s organisations as well as both governments. “Since the actual conflict is between the fishermen, if the governments decide on a solution alone I fear it will not work on the ground level”.
Frustrated with such goings on, NAFSO decided to gun for a solution of its own last year, Kumara says that the organisation together with the Alliance for Release of Innocent Fishermen (ARIF), an India based organisation long involved in solving cross border fishing issues, convened fisher folk from both countries in October last year.
According to Kumara, after discussions, both parties agreed on three basic proposals. These included the Sri Lankan fishermen agreeing to let Indian fishermen into their borders for a total of 70 days in the next year, provided that the Indians phase out the practice of trawling during that time.
However, the government representative at the meeting, a director general of the Fisheries Department, refused to endorse the proposals saying that Sri Lanka could not allow Indian fishermen into Sri Lankan maritime borders at all. The Sunday Leader contacted several fisheries officials with regard to the issue including the Ministry Secretary Narendra Rajapakse and Assistant Director, Fisheries Department Lal Silva, but they all professed ignorance about the situation, insisting that we contact the minister himself to find out exactly what was happening. However, despite repeated attempts, The Sunday Leader could not reach Fisheries Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne.
The Sunday Leader also contacted the head of the Fishermen’s Cooperative of Jaffna, S.Thavaratnam, who denied that they had agreed to the proposals detailed above, but more on that soon.

Wiped off the map

The conflict raging in the Palk Strait has provided useful fodder for Tamil Nadu politicians on the election campaign trail. Many of them, who have been outspoken against what they see as Sri Lankan harassment of their fishermen, have taken part in protests and even courted arrest.
One Tamil actor, Ilayathalapathy Vijay, went as far as to say that “Sri Lanka will be wiped off the map” if it continues to harass Indian fishermen. His comments were made on Tuesday evening while attending a protest held in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu. The actor was referring to allegations made from the Indian side that Sri Lanka Navy was involved in several shooting incidents that left many Indian fishermen dead.
Tehelka magazine, a reputed Indian periodical, carried a report in its February issue holding that as many as 70 Tamil Nadu fishermen had been shot by Sri Lanka’s Navy during border crossings. It also detailed gruesome accounts of harassment and torture. The Navy categorically denied the allegations. Investigations into the shootings of two fishermen have been launched jointly by both governments and are still underway.

‘Venture south at your own risk’

Speaking to The Sunday Leader the head of the Fishermen’s cooperative in Jaffna said that “representatives from his organisation agree to their proposals”. Thavaratnam himself could not attend because he was denied a visa.
He is angry about the breaching of maritime borders; “they have already destroyed their waters by the use of dangerous fishing techniques, now they are trying to destroy our resources as well, we will not let this happen.”
“They say that they are coming by accident.  But it is easy to find a map that details these borders; about 1.5 km from Kachchathivu. (Now) they have mostly damaged our side also. We are asking them to not come to our waters with these types of fishing methods,” he continues.
When asked about the rumours surrounding the Navy attacks, Thavaratnam says that if anything the authorities have been lazy in providing sufficient protection, a sentiment echoed by Herman Kumara of NAFSO as well.
“In this matter there is no involvement by Navy or other personnel. The fishermen are the ones who intervened,” says Thavaratnam adding that the Indian fishermen were captured after their Sri Lankan counterparts caught them trawling south of the sea border. “We are asking our Navy to help the people.
The government has a duty to protect our resources,” says Thavaratnam adding that the fishermen’s cooperative was expecting to meet with the Fisheries Minister in the near future.
The northern fishermen are struggling to eke out a living using traditional fishing methods and cannot tolerate border invasions especially with such destructive fishing methods. “If they continue to come into our waters, then we cannot be blamed if something happens to them,” he ends, on an ominous note.