By V. Suryanarayan
Two recent incidents, allegedly committed by the Sri Lankan Navy, have sent shock waves throughout Tamil Nadu. In the first incident, on January 12, Veerapandian and three other fishermen left Jagathapattinam, presumably entered the Sri Lankan waters, when the Sri Lankan Navy opened fire, killing Veerapandian. In the second incident, which occurred on January 22, three fishermen, Jeyakumar, Senthil and Rajendran, set sail from Pushpavanam village and they were apprehended by the Sri Lankan Navy around 11 pm. The Naval Officers asked the fishermen to jump into the sea, Rajendran and Senthil obeyed, but Jeyakumar hesitated as he had lost two fingers during Tsunami, making it difficult for him to swim. Even as he was pleading, the security forces tied a rope around his neck, dragged him, pushed him into the sea and left the scene. By the time Rajendran and Senthil lifted Jeyakumar, he was found dead. As the news spread, political parties entered the fray making it an emotive issue.
Fishermen through out the world are no respecters of maritime boundaries and poaching into each other’s waters is a common occurrence. Sri Lankan fishermen enter Indian and Maldivian waters, Indian fishermen enter Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Bangladeshis enter Myanmar and Japanese and the Taiwanese roam around the Asian waters. Taking this reality into consideration Articles 73 and 145 of the UN Law of the Sea characterize poaching as a civilian offence. When fishermen from Sri Lanka and Pakistan are caught poaching, the Indian Coast Guard ensure that they are tried according to the law of the land, The Coast Guard has never resorted to firing. But the behaviour of the Sri Lankan Navy has not conformed to universal practices. Since the escalation of the ethnic conflict, more than 100 Indian fishermen have been killed, 330 fishermen have been seriously injured, 50 fishing boats have been destroyed and fish worth crores of rupees have been dumped into the sea.
Colombo has emphatically maintained that the Sri Lankan naval personnel were not in the scene, implying that forces interested in spoiling bilateral relations, have committed the crime. Obviously they imply pro-LTTE elements, but the LTTE has been completely decimated. The only way by which truth can be ascertained is to appoint Joint Investigation Teams, check the log books of the Sri Lankan Navy to find out their exact location when the incident occurred. Colombo is unlikely to accept this suggestion, making fact finding exercise a difficult proposition.
What perhaps is not appreciated in Tamil Nadu are the strong feelings of Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen who have resumed fishing now after years of ethnic strife. I visited the University of Jaffna recently to participate in a workshop on small fishers. The organizers took the delegates to the fishing villages of Gurunagar, Karainagar, Vadamarachi and Point Pedro where we had an opportunity to freely interact with Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen. In order to put their point of view in proper perspective, it is necessary to highlight certain realities.
Fishing is one of the major vocations of the Tamil areas. 38 per cent of the island’s fish production used to be the share of the northern districts of Jaffna, Mullaitivu and Mannar. According to government statistics Jaffna produced 48,776 metric tons of fish in 1983, it declined to 2211 metric tons in 2000, the corresponding figure for Mannar was 11,796 metric tons in 1983, this went down to 3614 metric tons in 2002.
The Tamil fishermen were the worst victims of the protracted civil war. The conflict affected the fishermen in several ways. First, for security reasons, Colombo prohibited fishing. Even today many fishing villages come under High Security Zones. What is more, the coastal villages were targeted in savage bombing, compelling the fishermen to come to Tamil Nadu as refugees. According to the Needs Assessment Survey 90 per cent of the boats, engines and gear were rendered unusable.
After the return of peace, the Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen have resumed fishing. There are three obstacles confronting them. Mention has already been made of the High Security Zones, which dot the coastline. Second, the last thirty years have seen the southern part of Sri Lanka making rapid progress in fishing techniques leaving the northern and eastern areas behind. The fishing boats from Negombo regularly come to the northern coast for fishing. Third and perhaps the most important is the unscrupulous poaching by Indian trawlers. They penetrate deep and fish near Delft Island, Karai Nagar, Point Pedro and Pesalai and in so doing pose a grave challenge to the livelihood of Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen. The fishermen complained that the Indian trawlers destroyed their nets and took away their catch. Trawling is banned in Sri Lanka, but this rule naturally does not apply to Indian trawlers. In the Indian side of the Palk Bay fishing is permitted for only three days, but the Sri Lankan fishermen complain that the trawlers can be seen on all the days of the week. According to informed sources, trawlers from Nagapattinam and Karaikal are also poachng into Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan fishermen wanted to hold demonstrations before the Indian Consulate in Jaffna, but they were dissuaded from doing so by the Sri Lankan Minister Douglas Devananda.
It is inhuman to deprive the Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen of their livelihood. The Government of Tamil Nadu should not continue to turn a Nelson’s eye to this gross violation of human right. Prof. Soosai of the Jaffna University told the author that the Tamils are not opposed to Indian fishing in Sri Lankan waters, what they are opposed is trawling which is bringing about havoc to the marine ecology. A fisherman added that if the trawling continues in this scale, like the Indian side of the Palk Bay, the Sri Lankan side also will be devoid of fish.
Mention should be made of three futile attempts to resolve the issue amicably. In July 2003, the Sri Lankan Government agreed to consider proposals for licensed fishing in Sri Lankan waters, seven years have elapsed but the Government of India has not yet submitted any proposals. In October 2008, during the height of the Fourth Eelam War, MK Narayanan and Shiva Shankar Menon discussed the problem with Gotabaya Rajapakse and it was agreed that the Indian fishermen could fish in Sri Lankan waters, Colombo would not resort to firing on them, but the fishermen should not enter the high security zones. No formal agreement was signed between the two countries. The war is over and a different scenario has emerged. Colombo is unlikely to formalise this understanding into an agreement.
More noteworthy was the agreement which was signed by the fishermen of the two countries in August 2010. For the first time, Indian fishermen agreed to phase out the trawlers within one year. The Sri Lankan side agreed that Indian fishermen could fish in Sri Lankan waters up to three nautical miles. The fishing days were reduced to seventy days in a year. This agreement was to have come into effect on November 1 after getting the formal approval of the two governments. Colombo and New Delhi unfortunately were very lukewarm in their approach; more tragic sections of Indian fishermen did not evince any interest to abide by the provisions of this understanding.
Dark clouds are gathering over the Palk Bay. Unless the situation is diffused immediately, it may lead to strains in the relations between two sections of Tamils, living on both sides of the Palk Bay. A great responsibility devolves on Tamil Nadu, we should immediately take steps so that Sri Lankan Tamil livelihood is not endangered by wanton poaching by our trawlers.
Prof. V. Suryanarayan is Senior Research Fellow, Center for Asia Studies, Chennai.