Northern fishermen netted in poaching tangle with India
Tuesday, 17 June 2014 00:00
By Uditha Jayasinghe in Jaffna
Fishing boats bob along the narrow strip of sea off the northern point of Sri Lanka, the smooth aquamarine waters belie a tense standoff between two countries linked by complicated politics affecting the lives of thousands.
K. Suriyakumaran is a gnarled old guard of the northern fishing community. A resident of northern Vadamarachchi, a small town off the northern tip of Sri Lanka, he saw some of the worst fighting between the Sri Lankan Government Army and the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) during the country’s three-decade war.
As the fighting worsened in the 1990s Suriyakumaran together with his family fled to the former LTTE stronghold of Kilinochchi. The region was later taken over by the Army after heavy fighting in 2008 and early 2009.
The conflict eventually ended in May 2009 but not before it claimed Suriyakumaran’s son who has been missing since 2008. He was 24 years old.
"Sri Lankan studies estimate that an average of 1,056 Indian boats cross into Sri Lankan waters illegally, which means $ 19.72 million is lost from their shrimp catch alone. In total Indian fishermen poach at least 65 million kilograms of fish each year. Satellite images suggest that the poaching is done in a highly-organised manner as the bulk of the boats operate in the night and scramble across the international maritime boundary line by four in the morning"
It was a fate that befell thousands of people, including children, who have been recorded as missing and is part of an investigation process currently undertaken by a Presidential Commission after much international attention.
When the fighting ended Suriyakumaran returned to his home after more than a decade and found it had been bombed into a shell. Singlehandedly he rebuilt his home, purchased a boat and with the lifting of war-time restrictions on fishing, expected to return to his traditional livelihood. The hope was short lived.
“There were hundreds of south Indian fishermen. They have massive steel boats and would ram our smaller fibreglass ones. Indian fishermen cut our nets and it was impossible to bring in a good catch,” he alleged to the Daily FT, gesturing at a large green net that lay in a neglected pile outside his home.
The net had been bought with a loan of Rs. 100,000 ($ 775 dollars), a significant sum for Suriyakumaran, but after repeated sabotage he ran out of money to repair it and simply abandoned it to a green tangle.
Complicated geo-political issues
As the President of the Northern Fishing Alliance Suriyakumaran sought assistance repeatedly from the authorities but complicated geo-political issues have hampered space for a quick solution.
Northern Sri Lanka is home to an estimated 28,000 fishermen who have been affected by illegal poaching of Indian fishermen. Indirectly as many as 100,000 people survive on the sector in this part of the country. Fishing and agriculture form the backbone of the region’s economy.
Yet with little political representation the community remains largely marginalised with the poaching issue provoking many to leave their traditional way of earning.
“Most people make only 200 rupees or 300 rupees (about $ 2 or 3) a day. This is not enough for their daily needs but they are also not trained in any other trade so most of them do odd jobs at construction sites to make ends meet,” he said.
India’s Tamil Nadu and the Sri Lankan Government have traditionally had strained relations as the Indian State home to the largest number of Tamils have for decades empathised with their Sri Lankan counterparts and their struggle for equal political rights in Sri Lanka.
As poaching increased both sides began arresting fishermen with numbers running into hundreds. This already tenuous relationship has been further strained with Tamil Nadu politicians accusing the Sri Lankan Government of turning the narrow strip of sea dividing the two countries into “an open air prison”.
Indian fishermen have also alleged that the Sri Lankan Navy has attacked them, an accusation that is vehemently denied by the Navy.
Counter allegations also implicate the Indian Coast Guard that refuse to accept licenses issued to Sri Lankan fishermen under United Nations guidelines who travel through Indian waters to reach international waters but are arrested anyway.
Impact of poaching
According to Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, the industry loses an estimated $ 730 million worth of fish from illegal poaching from South India. The Government had targeted $ 500 million in revenue for 2013, but has had to keep its expectation low due to the significant losses from poaching.
Fish production in the Districts in North and East, which was increased by 37% to 99,190 metric tons in 2011, continued to increase to 154,974 metric tons in 2013.
Sri Lankan studies estimate that an average of 1,056 Indian boats cross into Sri Lankan waters illegally, which means $ 19.72 million is lost from their shrimp catch alone.
In total Indian fishermen poach at least 65 million kilograms of fish each year. Satellite images suggest that the poaching is done in a highly-organised manner as the bulk of the boats operate in the night and scramble across the international maritime boundary line by four in the morning.
Soft-peddling by Colombo
Colombo has previously defended its soft-peddling of the issue by pointing out that if reports are made to international bodies, most of South India’s fishing industry will be shut down and this could not be allowed because of the close relationship enjoyed by the two countries.
As many as 400 fish processing plants subsist on this catch and hints have been made by the Minister that strong political backing is given by the Tamil Nadu Government.
Several rounds of talks, the latest one last week, ended in a stalemate as the Indian side requested entry into Sri Lankan waters, a request that was rejected.
As a precursor to the talks both sides released over 400 fishermen in January and President Mahinda Rajapaksa ordered the release of dozens more ahead of new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony.
Sri Lanka has repeatedly called on Indian fishermen to end an internationally-banned practice known as “bottom trawling” where weighted nets destroy the seabed including coral reefs that form the breeding grounds for fish.
India yet to respond
Colombo has named a three-member delegation for talks on fisheries issues with the Indian Government, but New Delhi has not yet responded to the invitation for talks, Fisheries Ministry Secretary D.M.R.B. Dissanayaka told local media.
The Ministry is awaiting a reply from India to finalise the dates for the talks.
“We sent the official invitation to India last month. We are waiting for a reply. Since the Narendra Modi Government came to office only recently, the response may be delayed. But we are willing to work with India,” Fisheries Ministry Spokesman Narendra Rajapaksa said.
Top officials of the Indian Government have also indicated they are keen to work out a long-term solution.
“We are constructively working for a long-term solution to the issue,” Commerce and Industry Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told reporters in Chennai this week. Modi had also made similar commitments during a meeting earlier this month with President Rajapaksa.
Intentions from both Governments appear genuine but such statements have been made before. For Suriyakumaran and his fellow fishermen, each day that passes without a solution is one day too many.