Fishermen's protest

Print edition : September 09, 2005

Coral reefs in the Gulf of Mannar. -

Fishermen in the coastal districts step up their agitation against the SSCP, which they allege will harm their interests.

EVEN as the dredging of the sea-bed for the Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project (SSCP) is proceeding smoothly 10 kilometres from the coastline at Point Calimere in Tamil Nadu's Nagapattinam district, fishermen have stepped up their agitation against the project.

On August 12, about 1,500 fishermen and activists from all over the State gathered at the fishing hamlet of Arcottuthurai, near Point Calimere, and tried to block the dredging vessel with fishing boats. The situation turned tense with several hundred policemen forming a human wall on the shore to prevent the fishermen from getting onto the boats. Coast Guard vessels were also pressed into service.

Three days later fishermen held demonstrations at Tuticorin, Athur, and Tiruchendur (all in Tuticorin district), denouncing the SSCP. Stressing their right to the sea and the coast, they demanded that the Centre scrap the project. They asked the Tamil Nadu government to give up plans to evict fishermen living within 200 metres of the high tide line in the name of protecting them from future tsunamis, and stop the garnet sand mining in the coastal areas and the illegal coral mining in the Gulf of Mannar.

The people of Thracepuram, a large habitation of fishermen in the heart of Tuticorin town, organised a protest on July 2, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had laid the foundation stone for the SSCP in Madurai. "A black flag flew over the top of every fishermen's home here on July 1 and 2," said R. Raj, president of the Country Boats Fishermen's Panchayat. "All over Tuticorin district, we held rallies on July 1 and 2. We abstained from fishing. Black flags were raised in all the coastal areas in the district," he added.

Thracepuram has become the nerve centre of fishermen's activity not only against the SSCP but also against the Tuticorin New Harbour Project.

Fisherfolk staging a demonstration against the SSCP at the Arcottuthurai coast in Vedaranyam on August 12.-S.S. KUMAR

M. Pushparayan and P.M. Tamizhmaanthan, spokesman and convener of the Anti-Sethu Canal Movement, and Raj do not want political parties to be involved in their agitation. They want to keep it purely as a movement against the SSCP, the Tuticorin New Harbour Project and other issues related to fishermen's welfare.

On June 28, the fishermen of Tuticorin district did not allow a public hearing on the Tuticorin Inner Harbour project, alleging that the hearings had become a farce. Despite their protests and several hearings on the SSCP, the Centre had given its nod for the project although the State government had not given a "no objection certificate".

At a press conference in Madurai on July 1, T.R. Baalu, Union Minister for Shipping, Road Transport and Highways, however, alleged that the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government in the State was behind the failure of the public hearings.

Fishermen belonging to Serudur, Kameswaram, Pushpavanam and Jegadapattinam alleged that about 50 fishing nets, valued at several lakhs of rupees, were damaged during the dredging operations. "Fishermen throw these nets, called `vaval' or `piece nets', into the sea and they float over a distance of a few kilometres. Fish, which jump into the air, fall into these nets," a member of the Democratic Fish and Fishery Workers' Association, Tuticorin, explained.

The fishermen of Rameswaram, Pamban, Tuticorin, Vizhundhamavadi, Arcottuthurai and Jegadapattinam are equally agitated over a variety of issues. They see the SSCP as an anti-fishermen project and suspect that it is being implemented to enforce the international boundary line in the waters between India and Sri Lanka, and prevent fishermen of Rameswaram from fishing in the Sri Lankan waters in and around Katchativu.

An official of Sethusamudram Corporation Limited, which has been entrusted with the task of dredging the channel, had said that it would not be possible for fishermen to cast their nets in the navigable area, that is, in the entire spread of the channel. "To that extent, for about 167 km, starting from Adam's Bridge to the Bay of Bengal, for a width of 0.3 km, about 51 sq km of the total area will not be available for casting nets," he had said. The official's observation that the affected fishermen should be able to find alternative means of livelihood has angered the fisher community.

Fishermen in the coastal districts of Kanyakumari, Ramanathapuram, Tuticorin, Tirunelveli, Nagapattinam and Pudukottai are drawing up big plans to assert their "rights to the sea and the coast". Their foremost demand is that the Centre abandon the SSCP. They allege that the canal will pave the way for the entry of trawlers from abroad to fish in the Gulf of Mannar, the Palk Bay and the Bay of Bengal.

According to Pushparayan, four coastal areas in Tuticorin district - Punnaikayal, Kayalpattinam, Roche Park and adjacent areas in Tuticorin town, and Kulasekarapattinam-Manappadu - had been identified as tourist spots. "The [State] government is under pressure from multinational companies and the World Bank to promote tourism in coastal areas, which is why it is evicting fishermen from these areas," Tamizhmaanthan said.

Environmentalists are worried that the SSCP will cause incalculable damage to the marine ecology of the region. They say the dredging will destroy the coral reefs, and, in the process, numerous species of marine animals, sea grass meadows and seaweeds.

The fishermen plan to blockade the Tuticorin harbour with their boats once the global tenders for the execution of the SSCP are opened. They also plan to gherao ships to protest against the Tuticorin Inner Harbour Project.

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