Complex crisis

Print edition : November 28, 2014

IN the whole debate around the conflict over fishing in the Palk Strait, different stakeholders have pointed fingers in different directions—northern Sri Lankan fishermen at Indian trawlers, Tamil Nadu fishermen at the Sri Lanka Navy, Tamil Nadu politicians at New Delhi and Colombo, and Colombo at New Delhi.

However, after the Colombo High Court sentenced five Indian fishermen to death for drug trafficking, the crisis has assumed another complex dimension. New Delhi said the fishermen were innocent and that it would make all efforts to secure their early release. Discussions were on at the highest levels. India is exploring all possible legal channels.

While there are reasons to remain hopeful that Sri Lanka will not carry out the sentence, the outrageous death penalty for the five Indians—three Sri Lankan fishermen were also awarded the punishment—was a shocker. The fact that the last judicial execution in Sri Lanka took place as far back as 1976 suggests that the recent sentence could be politically motivated, especially against the backdrop of the fishermen row.

The crisis has been politicised on multiple levels. Fishermen in northern Sri Lanka continue to be victimised. Their livelihoods are badly hit by poaching and excessive bottom trawling by Indian fishermen.

While Colombo uses the cases of erring Indian fishermen as a trump card in diplomatic and strategic negotiations, it offers little support to its own fisherfolk from northern Sri Lanka. The Tamil political leadership or the Northern Provincial Council does not take up the issue for fear of losing Tamil Nadu’s political support. On the Indian side, Tamil Nadu is quick to make shrill noises around the arrest of Indian fishermen by the Sri Lanka Navy. But the governments in New Delhi and Chennai are yet to take meaningful measures to curb the practice of bottom trawling or to find alternatives.

Tamil Nadu extends solidarity to the Tamils of Sri Lanka, often using Tamil-nationalistic rhetoric, but does not see the adverse impact Tamil Nadu fishermen have on their Tamil-speaking counterparts in northern Sri Lanka.

Every time Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa announces the release of arrested Indian fishermen, again a political response, Tamil Nadu fishermen’s leaders celebrate by bursting crackers and distributing sweets. Every time there is a fresh arrest, they condemn it strongly. Other than impulsively reacting to the announcements, the fishermen’s leaders have no convincing ways of engagement.

It is, in fact, the trawler owners who continue to make the daily-wage fishermen of Tamil Nadu increasingly vulnerable by demanding varieties available outside Indian waters and insisting on a certain amount of catch.

India and Sri Lanka are not the only players in this game. The European Union recently announced a ban on seafood exports from Sri Lanka, evoking serious concern among exporters and fishermen.

Irrespective of who stands to win and how countries use the issue for diplomatic gains, it is the powerless fisherfolk who get entangled in this web of problems. And the most vulnerable fisherman continues to pay the heaviest price.

Meera Srinivasan

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