Concerns in Mannar

Published : Apr 11, 2003 00:00 IST

in Mannar

"FOR several years we have been fishing here. These fishermen are also our friends, but we do not know what happened this time," lamented Murugan, one of the boat masters from Tamil Nadu who were apprehended by Sri Lankan fishermen in early March. "We crossed beyond Kachativu, well into their waters, but that is what we have been doing for a very long time," he said.

It was just another voyage for Murugan when he set out from Mandapam and entered the Sri Lankan waters, "well beyond Kachativu". Although on alien seas, he was on familiar waters. "We know the place very well," he said. Around 3-30 a.m. on March 3, they had another familiar experience groups of Sri Lankan fishermen waving out to them. "They normally do that. They come over, we share gruel (kanji)," Murugan recalled. That, however, was the last familiar gesture for Murugan and the other fishermen from Tamil Nadu.

Hours later, they were in the Mannar hospital, bandaged. "We saw the Sri Lankan fishermen coming towards us. We have had excellent relations in the past and I thought they were approaching us for food. But they came on board, assaulted us and damaged the equipment," Murugan said.

"We begged them not to hit us, but they would not relent," chipped in Sakthivel, another fisherman from Tamil Nadu.

Quick to admit that it was their mistake, the Indian fishermen said that they encroached into Sri Lankan waters because of "depleting stock in Indian waters".

"They came in 24 boats and surrounded us. There were seven or eight persons per boat. After they seized control of our vessel, they used it to encircle the other trawlers. We have made a mistake, but why should they beat us up? They could have just handed us over to the authorities," lamented Sakthivel.

The Sri Lankan authorities have contemplated several measures to stop what they call the encroachment. One, according to a naval officer in Mannar, was that the Navy should seize the permits of the encroachers and hand them over to the Indian authorities, who would then cancel the permits. "However, we find that they carry only photocopies. Of what use is that?" asked the officer.

For a weekly wage of Rs.700, vessel masters dare to break international law. Fishermen in Mannar said encroachments were a daily occurrence. While the likes of Murugan and Sakthivel get caught poaching, such instances are few taking into account the number of daily encroachments, fishermen in Mannar said.

According to them, the encroachers are confident that they would be released as a matter of procedure. This time, however, things could be different. The detention of the vessel masters and their craft, and the release of the fishermen are aimed at sending a clear message to the trawler owners that such encroachments should end.

Sri Lankan government officials in Mannar are of the view that the restrictions in Sri Lanka provide opportunities for the island's fishermen. This, and lax patrolling, have meant that there was no deterrent on Indian fishermen entering Sri Lankan waters. Joint patrolling is seen as an ideal solution, but government officials in Mannar concede that constraints abound. On March 10, fishermen in Mannar took out a protest march against the Sri Lankan government's "inaction". Their slogans and banners urged the government to protect their marine wealth.

A memorandum submitted by the fishermen said: "We regret the unwanted clash that took place between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen and hope that no such incident will take place".

On the issue of Kachativu, the memorandum said, the Indian fishing area "is only beyond the border of Kachativu, but it is seen that they do the fishing only 200 metres away" from the Sri Lankan shores. Santhiogu Croos, the president of one of the fishermen societies in Pesalai, the largest fishing village in Mannar, was an angry man. "Our fear is that if this goes unchecked, the fishermen from southern Tamil Nadu will one day come over and take control over all our resources. We will just have to run away," he said.

"We feel that Indian fishermen are pushed by the fact that they are a big nation. `What can these fellows do to us' is the feeling they have," Santhiogu said.

"They come here, pluck our coconuts," said one of the protestors, dismissing the possibility that Indian fishermen might have strayed into their territory. "If any fisherman says he lost his way, he is unfit to set out to sea," said another.

They complain that the easy release of Indian fishermen caught encroaching into Sri Lankan waters is in grim contrast to the fate of Sri Lankan fishermen who are caught intruding into Indian waters.

They also blame the island's Navy for turning a blind eye to the problem.

Political analysts see the Navy's inaction "as a measure to reduce the sympathy for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause". According to Navy officers, the already stretched resources make it difficult to maintain a vigil on Indian fishermen entering Sri Lankan waters.

THERE are also charges that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is behind the recent attacks. Although there is no direct evidence to back the claims, such a possibility is not being ruled out. On an earlier occasion, when Indian fishermen were caught by Sri Lankan fishermen, the LTTE had reportedly said that it would take up the matter. Political analysts also recall that during earlier peace talks, the LTTE had raised this issue, but had not followed it up. The show of "spontaneous action" is also a familiar strategy with regard to several issues that are of concern to the LTTE. "Even if they are not directly involved, this cannot take place without the LTTE's backing," a political leader said, emphasising that linking this issue to Kachativu could strain relations between Colombo and New Delhi.

According to local political leaders, much more needs to be done in Tamil Nadu if these encroachments are to end. They see the political influence of the trawler owners as a factor responsible for continued encroachments. In the past, they point out, the only interest of the trawler owners was to recover the seized trawlers.

The Sri Lankan Navy also faces constraints. With most of its resources spent on guarding the waters against rebel attacks, it does not have enough vessels and personnel to keep an eye on the encroachers. "Even if we arrest them and seize their craft, we do not have enough space to keep them," a Navy officer said.

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