Tuna tales

Print edition : November 28, 2014

BOAT owner Gladwin’s house is a 400-square-foot reinforced cement concrete (RCC) structure divided into multiple rooms and caters to a joint family of 10 persons. He invited this correspondent to his house and then hurried a relative of his to get a few chairs. The drawing room has a colour television in one corner and no furniture.

November 28, 2011, was like any other day in his life. His brother Emerson, 40, volunteered to be part of the crew that day. He took the mandatory token from the local office of the Fisheries Department at 6 a.m. and then got involved in the preliminary work to get the boat ready. In about half an hour, the rest of the crew assembled and by 7-30 a.m. the mechanised boat set sail with five men. Said Gladwin: “You need one person to steer the boat and four others to work. The catch has to be put in ice boxes as soon as the net is brought on board. Boats that set sail on a particular day come back the next morning.” Besides, in the event of an engine failure, it is imperative to have five persons to handle the complications that arise out of it.

There is, of course, no doubt about where the boat is headed. It crosses the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) in about two hours and the nets are cast to catch fish in Sri Lankan waters. All the boats that leave Rameswaram fish in Sri Lankan waters. The bigger boats from Nagapattinam fish in waters close to Trincomallee. The number of Indian boats crossing into Sri Lankan waters is about 100 times higher than the number of Sri Lankan boats fishing in Indian waters. This correspondent has seen Indian boats on the Sri Lankan side, off Kankesanthurai and Thalaimannar. It appears as if an entire village is moving—that is the impression created by the large number of boats moving together at the same time.

Why do Indian fishermen fish in Sri Lankan waters, especially when the poor northern Sri Lankan fishermen struggle to earn a livelihood with their small boats and eco-friendly nets? “There’s no fish on our side,” said Gladwin. “My greatgrandfather fished there. My grandfather fished there. I fish there. My son will also fish there. It’s common [fishing ground] for us and the Sri Lankans,” asserted Rayappan, Gladwin’s uncle who stopped fishing about a decade ago. His assertion is the refrain across Rameswaram island’s fishing communities using mechanised boats.

Most of the fishermen claimed that they had no idea of the schemes put forth by the government to prevent them from crossing the IMBL and fishing in Sri Lankan waters. “Yes, I have heard of tuna fishing. But no one has trained us,” said Gladwin. This runs counter to the government’s claim that it is training fishermen in tuna fishing. Also, tuna fishing requires boats capable of stocking up and undertaking multi-day journeys in the deep sea.

Rameswaram has three kinds of fishermen—traditional fishermen using non-mechanised boats (who form a minority), traditional fishermen who shifted to mechanised fishing, and the “outsiders”, that is, people from inland who have made Rameswaram their home and have taken to fishing with an eye on the profits that the fish trade brings. Security agencies are not concerned about the traditional fishermen. In their view, they are mostly in the sea for the right reasons. They are more worried about the outsiders, who have, time and again, been caught transporting materials other than fish.

Most of the mechanised vessels in Rameswaram are 20 feet (six metres) long or slightly bigger. These cannot inherently be used for multi-day fishing expeditions. “We are willing to take up tuna fishing if the government helps,” said Gladwin. He is willing to outfit his boat if the government provides a grant, even though he has a boat about six metres in length.

Going in for a bigger boat is out of the question for most of Rameswaram’s indebted fishermen. “We need to raise a matching amount for the money that the government is ready to give us,” said a fishermen’s association leader. “There is no way we can raise Rs.30 lakh or more as our contribution. If this continues to be the basis of the alternative proposal, it will not work,” he added.

But Gladwin’s immediate focus is to make sure that his brother Emerson and his co-workers come home safe. For that he, like all the families spread across Rameswaram, is willing to risk going hungry rather than carry on with his normal life on the basis of the promises made by politicians.

Indian fishermen’s act of deliberately crossing the boundary and fishing in Sri Lankan waters is prompted by their need to survive. While they realise that they end up eating into the livelihoods of their Sri Lankan counterparts, they say they have no choice because there is no catch on the Indian side.

With the promised tuna fishing project remaining largely on paper, the hundreds of Indian fishermen who are jailed in Sri Lanka are not the only ones to be blamed for their act of transgression. The state is seen to be as much at fault.

R.K. Radhakrishnan

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