Print edition : July 11, 2014

Fishermen in northern Sri Lanka, who are back at the sea after many years, complain that Indian trawlers reduce their catch and scoop out marine resources from the bottom of the sea. Photo: MEERA SRINIVASAN

The fishermen of northern Sri Lanka, who were barred from entering the sea during the long civil war, are now trying to piece their lives together. One reason for their objection to Indian trawlers is that these damage their nets. Photo: MEERA SRINIVASAN

Governments on either side of the Palk Bay must realise that many years of displacement, lengthy processes of relocation, and huge losses suffered in the period of the civil war have made northern Sri Lankan fisherfolk extremely vulnerable.

In the two minutes that Vijayakumar Thevarani managed to spare before rushing to work, this is the only update she shared: “Nothing has changed. Life continues to be difficult.”

This was a couple of months after I first met her on the shore of Karai Nagar, one of the bigger fishing hamlets off Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka. At that time, she spoke of the immense hardship she faced as a single mother raising four children in the war-torn region.

Thevarani does not go to the sea, but her livelihood is tied closely to it. She is involved in the fish trade on the shore, besides taking up several odd jobs to make ends meet. “If not the Indian trawlers, the smaller day boats come from India and ruin our catch,” she said, pointing to how life remained unchanged. The fact that there has been no improvement in the situation of northern Sri Lankan fisher folk, that too after two rounds of discussions among fishermen of both countries, is disturbing. Fishing community leaders from India and Sri Lanka met in Colombo on May 12, but the talks ended in a deadlock with Indian fishermen unwilling to stop bottom-trawling immediately. They sought three years’ time to phase out the practice.

Northern Sri Lankan fishermen are averse to trawlers for more than one reason. To start with, the trawlers damage the nets used by the small-time Sri Lankan fishermen and force them to borrow huge sums to repair them. Secondly, bottom-trawlers tend to virtually scoop out the marine resources from the bottom of the ocean, causing permanent damage. Jaffna fishermen are already worried about not finding certain varieties of fish that they usually spot this time of the year.

Then there is the broader question of territory. Different political and diplomatic motives may be cited as reasons for the countries arriving at a maritime boundary, but the fact remains that India and Sri Lanka in 1976 signed an agreement over the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL). The boundary line defining territorial waters bears particular significance to northern Sri Lankan fishermen, now more than ever before, for it earmarks where they can fish in a phase in which they are rebuilding their lives.

During the nearly three-decade-long civil war that tore the island’s Northern Province apart, fishermen were barred from entering the sea. In those years, Indian fishermen, who by then had become veterans in the practice of trawling, strayed into the Sri Lankan side of the IMBL, which is richer in certain aquatic resources, given that not much fishing was carried out on the Sri Lankan side. This meant good business for the trawler owners and an assured source of income for the ordinary fishermen employed by them. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which controlled much of the province, did not object.

However, post-May 2009, when the island nation’s war ended with the Sri Lankan armed forces defeating the LTTE, the northern Sri Lankan fishermen gradually began venturing out at sea. Having lost all their assets during the conflict, they were now looking to start all over again. The Indian trawlers, however, seemed oblivious to this and thus began what we know as the Palk Bay conflict.

In addition to depriving the fishermen of their livelihoods, the conflict has a larger impact on the province, according to Jaffna-based political economist and researcher Ahilan Kadirgamar. “In the 1970s and [in the period] leading up to the civil war, growth in the fisheries sector along with agricultural production were central to the social and economic uplift of Jaffna society. The devastation of northern fisher folks’ livelihoods by Indian trawlers during the post-war period is now one important factor undermining the recovery of the northern economy,” he said.

Also, the northern fishermen cannot be seen as one monolithic community. The fisher folk at the very bottom of the hierarchy in the community are worse off, Kadirgamar observed. “While the fishing community as a whole is suffering from falling incomes and rising indebtedness, the marginalised sections within the fishing community, including women workers and coolie fishermen going to the sea on others’ boats, are most affected and now complain of difficulties in even providing food for their families.”

If the Palk Bay conflict were a straightforward livelihood-territory issue, it may have been relatively easier to try and address it from either side. But, with the issue getting politicised in Tamil Nadu, a convincing solution seems farther away.

Even the northern fishermen have begun questioning Tamil Nadu’s stand on the issue. “How can they say they care for Sri Lankan Tamils and not do anything about their fishermen, so blatantly robbing us of our livelihoods?” asked N.M. Aalam, president of the Mannar Fisheries Cooperative Union.

The release of Indian fishermen has irked people like him. “They trespass and get caught for illegal fishing. And when we see the papers the next day, they have already been released. They will come back again, won’t they?” Aalam asked.

The Sri Lankan government, for unspoken diplomatic reasons, has decided to release the fishermen but retain the trawlers, said to be owned by wealthier Tamil Nadu fishermen with political backing. “We have decided to release the fishermen immediately,” Sri Lanka’s Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne said.

Though the fishermen consider the Minister to be a reasonable politician working in their interests —Senaratne has been consistently pro-devolution—little came from Colombo in terms of support, fishermen said. The market has not been favourable and there is virtually no attempt by the Sri Lankan government to set up infrastructure that might help the fishermen preserve their catch and export it for better rates.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which runs the Northern Provincial Council, is yet to take a strong position on the issue, for it fears that it would have to come at the cost of Tamil Nadu’s general solidarity with Sri Lankan Tamils. “Though New Delhi has been committed to our cause [of Tamils] we need [Tamil Nadu Chief Minister] Jayalalithaa to pressure New Delhi periodically. We know that the Tamil Nadu fishermen are at fault, but we cannot afford to antagonise Tamil Nadu, which has backed us for so long,” said a senior TNA politician.

The threats to the northern fishermen’s livelihoods come not just from Indian trawlers, but also from southern Sri Lankan fishermen. The convener of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO), Herman Kumara, said traditionally some southern fishermen migrated to the north and east and started fishing after negotiating with the northern fishermen. “The numbers have increased now and some of the southern fishermen are engaging in illegal fishing practices, too,” he said.

According to fishermen in Pesalai, the largest fishing village in Mannar, the Fisheries Department did not take any measure to check such activities by southern fishermen.

Fisheries Department officials, in turn, said they found it hard to curb local fishermen because they cited the presence of Indian trawlers as the reason for the problems.

In effect, the ordinary northern fisherman is trapped in a complex matrix of political motives. Still recovering from one of the most brutal wars in the region, he feels helpless and totally neglected.

For a problem so complex, there cannot be a single, simple solution. It has to most certainly start from the Indian side, which must ensure that trawlers do not trespass into Sri Lankan waters. “While the priority is an end to bottom trawling and a solution that addresses poaching in the Palk Bay, the Indian government could in parallel support the building of fisheries infrastructure including harbours and small industries related to fisheries, creating employment,” said Kadirgamar.

The governments in Tamil Nadu and New Delhi, which began promoting trawlers decades ago, will have to think of strategies to support Tamil Nadu fishermen in order to ensure that their livelihoods are not adversely hit when they change course.

Governments on either side of the Palk Bay must realise the fact that we cannot speak of livelihoods of the northern Sri Lankan fishermen and Tamil Nadu fishermen in the same way. While they both tend to instinctively follow fish for their next meal, the post-war context, many years of displacement, life in camps, lengthy processes of relocation and huge losses suffered in the period have made the northern Sri Lankan fisher folk extremely vulnerable. They should be allowed to fish in their sea without any trouble.