Print edition : July 11, 2014

Mechanised fishing boats anchored at Rameswaram. There are as many as 850, 125 and 600 mechanised trawlers respectively at Rameswaram, Pamban and Mantapam, fishing bases in Ramanathapuram district. These boats now form the bone of contention between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen because of the way they deplete the ocean floor. Photo: L. Balachandar

Fishermen released by the Sri Lankan government arriving in Rameswaram on June 12. Photo: PTI

Fishermen in Rameswaram at a rally demanding fishing rights in the Palk Bay and protection against harassment by the Sri Lanka Navy. Photo: L. Balachandar

February 2011: Sushma Swaraj, then Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, with the family of Jayakumar, a fisherman who was killed by a Sri Lankan naval rating, at Pushpavanam village in Nagapattinam district. Photo: B_VELANKANNI RAJ

ON January 22, 2011, Jayakumar, 29, of Pushpavanam, a coastal village near Vedaranyam in Tamil Nadu’s Nagapattinam district, his brother Senthil, 25, and another fisherman, Rajendran, 42, were fishing off the coast of Kodiakarai when Sri Lankan naval personnel rounded them up and ordered them to jump into the sea. When Jayakumar hesitated, a naval rating came on board the fishing boat, tied a rope around Jayakumar’s neck and dragged him into the sea. He was strangled to death.

Ten days earlier, on January 12, when Veerapandian and others of Jegathapattinam village in Pudukottai district were fishing in Sri Lanka’s waters, a naval vessel of the country intercepted their boat and its crew shot at them. Veerapandian, 19, died in the firing. However, the then Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India, Prasad Kariyawasam, claimed that “it appears that a third element is involved” in the killings of Jayakumar and Veerapandian and that the Sri Lanka Navy was not responsible for the deaths. Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao flew to Colombo, where she gave Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa the autopsy report on the killing of Veerapandian and the results of the ballistic tests done on Veerapandian’s boat. The report said the bullets were the ones used by Sri Lankan naval personnel ( Frontline, March 25, 2011).

It was election time in Tamil Nadu then, with the Assembly elections just three months away. Leaders of political parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) seized on the tragedy with alacrity. Sushma Swaraj, then Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, visited Jayakumar’s residence and commiserated with his widow.

Sushma Swaraj promised the fishermen at Pushpavanam: “I will take up the issue as attacks on Indian fishermen and not Tamil fishermen. Since there is no BJP MP from the State in the Lok Sabha, I will represent you.” She blamed the “casual attitude of the [Central] government” for the deaths of the two young fishermen. “Had the Government of India taken a stern view of the earlier incidents, these two incidents could have been avoided,” she said. When a reporter asked her about the persistent demand in Tamil Nadu that the Central government should retrieve Katchativu to put an end to the killing of Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lanka Navy, she replied that all the documents in her possession on the issue of India ceding Katchativu to Sri Lanka in 1974 would be placed at the BJP’s core group meeting and a “cogent view” forged.

AIADMK general secretary Jayalalithaa, too, visited Jayakumar’s family on January 26. She blamed the “audacious” attacks on the “weak”, Congress-led Manmohan Singh government at the Centre and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government in the State. She said that the “gifting away” of Katchativu in 1974 was the root cause of the problem.

On January 31, 2014, at the BJP conference called “Kadal Thamarai” (Sea Lotus) held at Rameswaram, Sushma Swaraj promised the fishermen of Thangachi Madam village that a separate Ministry for Fisheries would be formed at the Centre if the BJP was voted to power.

The Sri Lanka Navy struck again on June 1 when fishermen from Rameswaram took to the sea after a 45-day fishing ban along the Tamil Nadu coast ended on May 31. (The ban was meant to replenish the fish stock in the Bay of Bengal.) It detained 33 fishermen and confiscated the seven mechanised trawlers in which they had sailed from their fishing base of Rameswaram in Ramanathapuram district. Rameswaram fishermen, shocked by the seizure of their trawlers, without which they cannot fish at all, see this “new strategy” as an assault on their livelihood. Whereas earlier the fishermen were arrested for “poaching” in Sri Lankan waters, this time they were held for “plundering” the island’s “water wealth”, an offence that reportedly attracts more severe penal provisions.

The Sri Lanka Navy cracked down again on June 7, and 50 fishermen from Rameswaram, sailing in 10 mechanised trawlers in the Palk Bay, were arrested. Then 26 fishermen, from Jegathapattinam in Pudukottai district, fishing in eight mechanised trawlers, were detained. In the third incident, it detained six fishermen from Rameswaram sailing in a trawler. A total of 18 trawlers, except this lone trawler, which had developed a mechanical snag, were confiscated. This was a clear signal that the Sri Lanka Navy was serious about seizing Tamil Nadu fishermen’s boats to prevent them permanently from fishing in the island’s territorial waters. A Sri Lanka Navy vessel rammed a boat belonging to fishermen from Jegathapattinam, damaging it badly. Also, it sank one of the trawlers belonging to fishermen from Rameswaram.

Rameswaram fishermen struck work from June 9 and vowed that they would be on strike until Colombo returned their boats. They took out a procession in the town, with pieces of black cloth tied around their mouths, demanding that the Central and State governments take speedy action to retrieve their trawlers. At Jegathapattinam , too, fishermen struck work. Black flags flew atop their houses. The strike was called off on June 9 after Colombo released all the arrested fishermen. But it did not return their boats.

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 1, pressing for the release of the detained fishermen and asserting that “this resumption of abductions and detentions has sent shock waves throughout the fishermen community in Tamil Nadu”. She added that “there was an expectation that with the change of government at the Centre, there would be a reset in the relations with Sri Lanka, and such attacks and apprehensions would cease.” She asserted that the Tamil Nadu fishermen had a “historic claim” to fish “in their traditional waters of the Palk Bay” and she accused Colombo of “effectively abrogating” that historic right. She blamed the “ill-advised agreement” ceding Katchativu to Colombo as the cause of the fishermen’s misery and told Modi that Katchativu was “historically part of India’s territory and indisputably an integral part of India”.

Jayalalithaa wrote to Modi again on June 8, the day after the Sri Lanka Navy once again arrested Indian fishermen and seized their vessels. In the last three years, she said, the Sri Lanka Navy had detained Tamil Nadu fishermen 76 times and attacked them 67 times. She wrote: “In order to put an end to the unabated, brutal, unprovoked attacks on and abduction of our fishermen by the marauding Sri Lanka Navy, the time has now come to lay down a time-bound action plan to achieve a long-term permanent solution to the problem and also to put in place a strong and robust diplomatic response. I am confident that with the Government of India and the Government of Tamil Nadu acting in concert, it would be possible to achieve a permanent solution to this vexatious issue.” She wanted the Prime Minister to take up with Colombo the return of the boats confiscated on June 1 and 8.

On June 18, the Sri Lanka Navy arrested 46 Indian fishermen and confiscated their 11 mechanised trawlers in two separate incidents. While 24 fishermen, who sailed in six trawlers, belonged to Kottaipattinam in Pudukottai district, the remaining 22 fishermen, sailing in five boats, were from Rameswaram. The Sri Lanka Navy damaged one of the boats, which sank.

This prompted Jayalalithaa to write to Modi again on June 19 that the Sri Lanka Navy’s “latest belligerent act” of preventing Indian fishermen “from venturing into their traditional fishing waters in the Palk Bay and in the vicinity of Katchativu” had added to “the immense frustration that has built up among the fishermen community of Tamil Nadu”. She emphasised that it was essential to secure the early release of the boats and fishing gear, for “long periods of disuse would condemn the boats and equipment to ruin, and the poor fishermen, who are currently suffering a temporary loss of livelihood, would be subjected to a huge permanent loss”.

If there were high expectations among the fishermen in Tamil Nadu that the newly elected Narendra Modi government at the Centre, with Sushma Swaraj as the External Affairs Minister, would forcefully take up the issue of the Sri Lanka Navy endlessly arresting fishermen from Tamil Nadu, they are a deeply disappointed lot today.

P. Sesu Raja, secretary, Coastal Mechanised Boats’ Fishermen’s Association, is a vexed man. “Although there is a change in the government at the Centre, the situation has not changed. Our hardship and misery continue,” he said. “We expected a lot from Sushma Swaraj when she became the External Affairs Minister. But she has made no statement on the issue so far. She has not even appealed to Colombo to ask its Navy to stop attacking us and seizing our boats. Our issue is being played as a game of politics. They [politicians] do not look at it as a livelihood issue, as an issue of life and death for us.” He was particularly upset that the fishing trawlers had not been returned. They would, he said, sink if they were anchored in the sea for a week without maintenance. Loss of the boats would cost the fishermen dear as replacing them would cost them several lakh rupees.

A delegation of fishermen from Rameswaram and Jegathapattinam, including Sesu Raja, met Pon. Radhakrishnan, Union Minister of State for Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises and State BJP president, in Chennai on June 14. They urged him to pressure Colombo to restrain its Navy from arresting the Tamil Nadu fishermen and appropriating their boats. “I told Pon. Radhakrishnan that we should be allowed to fish in our traditional waters on the basis of an agreement [to be forged] and that our boats should be retrieved. Besides, I said, India should set free the Sri Lankan fishermen [arrested by the Coast Guard] and release their boats,” Sesu Raja said. He quoted the Minister as saying that he would inform Modi and Sushma Swaraj about their demands. But the Minister gave the delegation no assurance.

Sesu Raja explained why fishermen from Ramanathapuram, Pudukottai, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam districts were forced to cross the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) and fish in Sri Lankan waters. “The Palk Bay [which separates India from Sri Lanka] is a narrow stretch of sea,” he said. “The Indian territorial waters extend up to 12 nautical miles from Rameswaram. Katchativu, an islet of about 2,85 acres, which India ceded to Sri Lanka, lies 14 nautical miles from the Rameswaram shore. A distance of three nautical miles from the Rameswaram coast is reserved for fishing by country boats and catamarans. Mechanised trawlers cannot fish in these reserved waters. The next six nautical miles are shallow and dotted with undersea rocks. “Mechanised boats cannot spread their nets there. The terrible situation, therefore, we are in is that we have to do all our fishing in the narrow strip of the next five nautical miles.”

That there are as many as 850, 125 and 600 mechanised trawlers, respectively, in Rameswaram, Pamban and Mantapam, all fishing bases in Ramanathapuram district, aggravates the situation. “Since all of us cannot fish within this narrow stretch of five nautical miles, we are forced to fish beyond that.” In addition to about 1,600 mechanised trawlers from Ramanathapuram engaged in fishing in the Palk Bay, another 3,000 mechanised trawlers from Pudukottai, Nagapattinam, Vedaranyam and Karaikaal coast compete with them for fishing there. What attracts them there is the fact that the Sri Lankan waters beyond Katchativu teem with tiger prawns, lobsters and baby sharks. The problem arises when the Tamil Nadu fishermen cross the IMBL, which lies 14 nautical miles from the Rameswaram shore, and enter the Sri Lankan waters. But the fishermen assert that these are their “traditional waters” where they have been fishing for several centuries. “Just as fish swim from sea to sea, we fishermen also do not have territorial waters,” Sesu Raja argued.

In letter after letter to Manmohan Singh, when he was the Prime Minister, Jayalalithaa had underscored Tamil Nadu’s fishermen’s right “to fish in their traditional waters of the Palk Bay, to which they have a historic claim”. The solution that she suggested in her letters to Manmohan Singh, and later to Narendra Modi, is that Katchativu should be taken back from Sri Lanka.

U. Arulanandam, State representative, Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fishermen, estimated that the Sri Lanka Navy had killed 288 Tamil Nadu fishermen from 1983 to 2011. The estimate includes men whose bodies were never found. The naval personnel had destroyed about 250 trawlers.

If there were hopes after the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009 that Tamil Nadu fishermen would be able to fish in the Palk Bay without hindrance from the Sri Lanka Navy, the latter’s actions have singed them. Jayalalithaa wrote to Modi on June 8, “… the protection of the traditional fishing rights of Indian fishermen in the Palk Bay and ensuring their safety and security remains a serious issue because of the aggressive posture taken by the Sri Lankan side”.

In the two rounds of talks between Tamil Nadu fishermen and their Sri Lankan counterparts held on January 27 and May 12 in Chennai and Colombo respectively, there was the realisation that there was no alternative to their sharing the Palk Bay for fishing. On January 27, the Sri Lankan fishermen told the Tamil Nadu fishermen that while the latter could fish in Sri Lankan waters, they should give up using mechanised trawlers; stop bottom-trawling which dredged up even small fry into the nets; and stop doing pair trawling in which two boats dragged a single net weighted with iron blocks, which destroyed coral reefs.

In the second round of talks, the Tamil Nadu fishermen said that they could not give up using mechanised trawlers overnight and sought time to phase them out. Indeed, a section of them was even prepared to take up deep-sea tuna fishing, they said.

According to Arulanandam, the Sri Lankan fishermen said the Tamil Nadu fishermen could cross the IMBL and fish in Sri Lankan waters but should not come close to the island’s northern shore and damage the nets laid there. “The Sri Lankan fishermen did not tell us, ‘Do not come here',” said Arulanandam.

(In fact, when on June 16 trawlers from Rameswaram and Pudukottai fished in the Sri Lankan waters but not close to the island’s northern coast in deference to the wishes of the island’s fishermen, there was no problem.)

Informed sources said an “unwritten agreement” was about to be reached between the two sides in the second round of talks when Colombo’s External Affairs Ministry officials threw a spanner in the works. They insisted that Tamil Nadu fishermen should not cross the IMBL at all and the talks were deadlocked.

In a memorandum presented to Modi on June 3, Jayalalithaa blamed “the obduracy of the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry officials” for the failure of the second round of negotiations. She said she had written 41 times in the last three years to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the 76 (77, including the incident on June 8) incidents of detention and 67 incidents of attacks on Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lanka Navy. “But the previous government did not take up the matter forcefully,” she said. She, therefore, requested Modi to take “all efforts to protect the traditional fishing rights of Indian (Tamil Nadu) fishermen in the Palk Bay area and to ensure their safety and security”. She wanted the Centre to “abrogate the 1974 and 1976 agreements and retrieve Katchativu and restore the traditional fishing rights of the fishermen of Tamil Nadu”.

Although in this memorandum the Chief Minister spoke about diversifying bottom trawlers into deep-sea tuna long liners which would reduce the pressure in the Palk Bay and mentioned a special package relating to it, which would cost Rs.975 crore over three years, fishermen said proper infrastructure should be in place before a section of them could take to tuna fishing in the deep sea. First, they should be trained in tuna fishing. The vessels should have cold storage facilities. The fishermen should be taught how to cut tuna and preserve it in cold storage. “It will be a long haul before a section of us take to tuna fishing in a big way,” one of the fishermen said.