The Sri Lankan waters off the northern coast of the island – between India and this country – may well be the most poached fishing grounds in the world to judge by the numbers of Tamil Nadu and other South Indian fishing craft who enter this area each day.
Naval observation at sea and satellite images indicate that anything from 500 to even more than 1,000 fishing craft from South India enter these water each day. They cross the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) with impunity and fish in these waters, often using trawl nets that go deep down and scour the bottom of the ocean, endangering the habitat of the fish and threatening the fish stocks in these waters.
While all this takes place with continued regularity, the South Indian media have frequent reports of complaints made by the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram to the Indian Prime Minister urging that firm action be taken against the Sri Lankan Navy for arresting Tamil Nadu fishermen who fish in these waters. They also allege that some of those fishermen have been killed by the Navy. Tamil Nadu’s AIADMK leader Jayalalithaa who has her own political rivalries with former Chief Minister DMK’s Karunanidhi, are having a battle of their own on the question of the Sri Lankan Navy protecting this island’s own territorial waters from TN’s encroaching and poaching.
Strangely, both these politicians of TN are the loudest supporters of the Tamils of Sri Lanka, who they claim are being harassed and deprived of their rights by the Sri Lankan government.
What is clearly lost to both these leaders is the grave hardship that poaching by the TN fishermen in Sri Lankan waters cause to the Tamil fishermen in Sri Lanka’s north, whose rights they claim to defend. The obviously lack any interest in the livelihoods of these Tamil fishermen, whose fishing grounds the country’s navy is trying its best to protect from the huge flotillas of fishing craft, and large numbers of fishermen from TN that take away the catch that must be in the nets of this country’s fishermen, and also cause a major threat to the fish stocks in these waters by gross exploitation through over fishing in a rich fishing region.
There have been several occasions when in response to loud protests and threats made by Jayalalithaa about the arrest of TN fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy, some sections of the Indian media have taken a more objective view of the situation, and quoted fisheries experts on the matter. They have clearly stated the absence of any necessity for TN fishermen come in such large numbers to waters that are not India’s, but have very large areas of sea in other parts off the Indian coast where they could find a better catch. But such objectivity is not the stuff of Tamil Nadu politics today, especially with elections to the Lok Sabha drawing closer, and the so-called cause of TN fishermen a big vote catcher for either party.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa has throughout taken the most realistic and conciliatory position in this issue of fishing disputes that are being blown out of size by the TN political leaders, and the those who support the extremist Tamil ambitions of the now defeated LTTE. President Rajapaksa has often stated that one has to understand the need for fishermen go where there is fish, and the entire issue should be looked at from this realistic and humanitarian view. He has stated this from the time he was Minister of Fisheries, many years ago. He sees this as a matter that is best resolved by dialogue between the Sri Lankan and Tamil Nadu fishermen, who having to share the same livelihood could be expected to come to the most reasonable solution, that cannot be the goal of politicians. India and Sri Lanka do have a joint consultative mechanism for this process, but such reasonable action is clearly not favoured by the TN politicians who are fishing for power through this support for poaching and encroaching in Sri Lankan waters and heaping blame on the Sri Lankan Navy for carrying out its duty.
We are now in a situation where fishing in these troubled waters is bringing more work to the courts of both countries. The Sri Lankan Navy and the Indian Coast Guard are busy doing their work, and in keeping with the laws in each country, which is hardly to the satisfaction of the Tamil Nadu politicians who seek to gain maximum political capital from this matter.
Here are some recent examples. Sri Lanka’s court in Mannar Wednesday (8) ordered release of 30 fishermen from Rameswaram, arrested last month by the Navy on charges of poaching. The Magistrate had also ordered the return of their seized boats. They had been arrested on April 6 while fishing near the Sri Lankan island of Kachchateevu.
Another report states that 15 fishermen, who put to sea from Tamil Nadu were on Monday (6) allegedly attacked by Sri Lankan Navy when they were fishing near Dhanuskodi. Indian officials have said they were fishing in Indian waters, when the SL Navy came in two boats and allegedly beat them up with sticks. The Navy personnel had said they were fishing in Sri Lankan waters.
There are frequent reports of this nature, which show the uncertainty that prevails in the area, and where there seems to be little respect by the TN fisherman to observing the IMBL, that divides the water between Sri Lanka and India.
Another recent report from Andhra Pradesh, said that 11 Sri Lankan fishermen, who were arrested four days ago by the Indian Coast Guard for illegally entering Indian waters, were attacked by locals following rumours of their alleged involvement in attacking villagers.
Three of these fishermen were seriously injured after the incident occurred at Dummulapeta area of East Godavari district, the police said.
Zee News reported the three fishermen had to be rushed to the Kakinada government hospital, while the other eight received minor injuries in the attack, the police said.
The eleven Lankan fishermen were arrested by the Indian Coast Guard and handed over them to Kakinada Marine Police. The arrested fishermen were kept in a house in Dummulapeta area with two constables on guard, the police said.
Due to a power failure late at night, the fishermen came out of the house for fresh air when some local people attacked them, resulting in serious injuries to three fishermen and minor injuries to eight.
This shows the tense nature of the situation both for Sri Lankan and South Indian fishermen, in an area where there is a pressing need for modern technology to clearly identify the IMBL, as well as better awareness building among fishermen against poaching in or straying into the waters of other lands. It is a fact that unlike the large number of boats that come daily into Sri Lankan waters from Tamil Nadu, only a few of which are intercepted by the SL Navy, most Sri Lankan fishermen taken into custody by the Indian Coast guard are those who have accidentally strayed into Indian waters. Whatever the situation, the matter needs action by the Police and the Courts in each country once and arrests have been made. This is the due process of law, and should not give cause for any politician to allege threats or harassment by the Sri Lanka Navy, when there is no such charge made by Sri Lanka against the Indian Coast Guard.
It is necessary to emphasize here, although it will not be understood by Jayalalithaa and her ilk, that the Sri Lankan Navy, just as the Indian Coast Guard is engaged in carrying out its duty of protecting the territorial waters of one’s country, when it takes TN fishermen who are found in Sri Lankan waters into custody, seize their craft and equipment and hand them over to the police, as required under the law. What is of greater interest is that the numbers of fishermen so arrested do not in any way reflect the enormity of the encroachment and poaching that is taking place daily in Sri Lankan waters, and only amounts to establishing the territorial waters of Sri Lanka, which it is the duty of the Navy to protect and defend.
It should also be understood that is a measure being taken to ensure that the Tamil fishermen in the North of Sri Lanka are not deprived of their right to fish in their own waters, without being virtually overrun by the encroaching flotillas and fishermen from Tamil Nadu. They may speak the same language, and their targets are the same fish, but one has to arrive at some means of bringing reason to prevail in this situation, in place of the political rhetoric of those seeking to use the fishermen of Tamil Nadu as a vote reserve for the coming elections, and even after.
There is also the necessity to recall that for nearly ten years or even more, the TN fishermen came into Sri Lankan waters when the LTTE was operating in these areas. There is plenty of evidence, among Indian intelligence too, that the LTTE used a large number of these boats , both by coercion and consent to carry arms for its military operations, and also to assist it in the attacks it carried out on the Sri Lankan Navy and on the coast of Sri Lanka. That situation of conflict is now over, and the “freedom” that TN fishermen had under the LTTE to fish or carry out other operations in these waters cannot be allowed any more. Those who cry out so often about the Sri Lanka Navy harassing, threatening or striking TN fishermen (with sticks) must realize that the days when terror prevailed in these waters are over, and one now has to act under conditions of peace and respect for the territorial rights of Sri Lanka.
Despite repeated claims by Jayalalithaa that Tamil Nadu fishermen have been killed in Sri Lankan waters, the facts show that there has been no such situation in recent times. She is still trying to recall what took place when the Navy was trying to prevent the LTTE activity in the northern waters, using the TN fishermen for its military purposes. That was a time when the Sri Lankan fishermen either could not go out to fish in these waters or were restricted to a very small area close to the coast due to the LTTE’s threats and tactical activities using TN fishermen and craft.
The different reality
The facts are very much contradictory to what Jayalalithaa often alleges, and the proof has come from none other than the India’s Defence Minister A. K. Antony, who told the Lok Sabha recently that there is no official record of Indian fishermen killed in Sri Lankan territorial waters during last year.
In a written statement to the Indian Parliament in mid-March this year, the Indian Defence Minister said Sri Lankan Navy during the last one year had apprehended 23 boats and 131 Indian fishermen.
The apprehended fishermen have been repatriated, following the action taken by the Indian government through diplomatic channels with the Sri Lankan authorities.
The Indian Defence Minister said that the Indian government has been consistently taking up the issue of alleged attacks on Indian fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy with the Sri Lankan government to ensure that the Sri Lankan Navy acts with restraint and the Indian fishermen found near International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) are treated in a humane manner.
According to the Indian Minister, in order to avoid recurring incidents, the two governments have reached an understanding in October, 2008 to put in place practical arrangements to deal with bona fide Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen crossing the IMBL.
As part of these arrangements, it has been agreed that there would be no firing on Indian fishing vessels and that Indian fishing vessels would not enter the sensitive areas designated by the Sri Lankan government along its coastline.
The Indian Defence Minister told the Lok Sabha in his statement that the Indian Coast Guard conducts Community Interaction Programmes to educate fishermen on the perils of cross border fishing and Indian Navy and Coast Guard ships are deployed continuously (24x7) in Palk Bay area to prevent any illegal activities and also to protect the Indian fishermen from any attacks, while they are fishing in Indian waters.
During the 8th India-Sri Lanka Joint Commission meeting held on January 22, 2013 in New Delhi, both sides reiterated the highest priority accorded by respective governments to the well being, safety and security of fishermen of the two countries, he noted.
These are the facts that stand out against the repeated shouting against Sri Lankan Navy threats to Tamil Nadu fishermen. It is best is for Tamil Nadu authorities and politicians give the necessary support to the efforts to put in practical arrangements to deal with bone fide Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen crossing the IMBL, as stated by Defence Minister Antony. Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan Navy will of necessity have to take action whenever necessary to protect the waters in the north of Sri Lanka from the flotillas of encroaching fishermen and seek to ensure a good catch to Sri Lankan fishermen in their own waters.