(Published in The New Indian Express, School Edition, on 18 November 2011, retrieved from http://expressbuzz.com/school/fishing-in-troubled-waters/334327.html)
NOTE: This is not opinion. It's a factual summary of the fishermen issue.
NOTE: This is not opinion. It's a factual summary of the fishermen issue.
For years now, Tamil fishermen who have been venturing out on the Palk Bay area between India and Sri Lanka say they are being fired at, arrested, beaten up, and tortured by the Sri Lankan Navy. However, Sri Lanka continues to deny that its navy is involved, despite the fishermen vouching that it was indeed members of the armed forces who had detained them.
In the latest incident, which occurred on November 15 this year, stones were pelted on three fishing boats; one fisherman was seriously injured, and the boats suffered damage. According to Indian fisheries officials, the stones were thrown by Sri Lankan naval personnel.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, urging him to ask Sri Lanka to control “rogue elements” in its navy. She said there have been at least 16 incidents of attacks, harassment and apprehension of Tamil fishermen by the Sri Lankan authorities since the AIADMK government came to power. She said either the Lankan Navy or miscreants from the island could be behind the attacks.
In earlier letters, Jayalalithaa said the issue should not be viewed as a problem the state of Tamil Nadu is facing, but as a national one, as fishermen living in Ramanathapuram and Nagapattinam must fear for their safety every time they set out to fish.
What is the Issue?
As maritime boundaries cannot be marked clearly, it often happens that fishermen from one country may stray into international waters.
The Fisheries Department says Indian fishermen may “inadvertently cross the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL)” as it is very close to the coast, or due to other reasons like “engine failure and natural vagaries of the sea.”
Usually, in these cases, the norm is that the fishermen are questioned, and then returned to their own countries, along with their boats, with a warning. However, Indian fishermen have often been detained in both Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
According to some estimates, more than 500 fishermen from India have been wounded or killed in the Palk Bay in the last 30 years.
A Joint Working Group (JWG) was constituted to deal with the issue of fishermen from India and Sri Lanka entering into each other’s waters, and modalities for the release of confiscated boats as well as prevention of use of force against the fishermen during questioning. This group has not met since 2006.
Complicating the issue is the question of retrieval of Katchathivu Island, which was ceded by the Government of India to Sri Lanka under the 1974 and 1976 agreements between India and Sri Lanka. Proposals for obtaining the island on “lease in perpetuity” and permitting licensed fishing in and around the island are pending with the Centre. Jayalalithaa has made the retrieval of the island part of her agenda during her tenure.
Why has the Issue Escalated this Year?
On January 11 this year, a group of fishermen who had left the Indian coast at 7:00 am, were fired at, allegedly by the Sri Lankan Navy, at between 4:00 and 5:00 pm. One man was killed and another was critically wounded, in the shooting which occurred off Jagadhapattinam coast in Pudukottai district. It was not clear whether the fishermen were within India’s territorial waters or not.
One of the survivors of the attack said their boat had been attacked from behind, and vouched that it was the Sri Lankan Navy that had opened fire. Though Sri Lanka officially denied the incident, India registered a complaint against the Lankan Navy, and External Affairs Minister SM Krishna wrote to the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry, expressing grave concerns about the shooting.
The Central government then pacified the then-ruling DMK government in Tamil Nadu, saying the incidents of firing have dropped since October 2008, and cautioned Indian fishermen not to go into areas designated as “sensitive” by Sri Lanka.
But within a fortnight, on January 24, news broke that a second fisherman from Tamil Nadu was killed by Lankan Navy personnel off Vedaranyam coast in Nagapattinam district on the night of January 22. State fisheries department officials said members of the Navy had tied a rope around the neck of 28-year-old Jayakumar and dragged him into the sea, strangling him to death.
His companions, brother Senthil (25) and Rajendran (55), said a Sri Lankan Navy vessel had approached them at around 11:00 pm and ordered them to jump into the sea. While the others obeyed, Jayakumar hesitated because he had lost two fingers of his right hand in the 2004 tsunami and could not swim easily. When he pleaded with the personnel, they allegedly climbed on to his boat, tied one end of a rope around his neck, the other end to their boat, and dragged him in the sea till he suffocated. They then handed over the body to Senthil and Rajendran.
Along with the then-ruling DMK, the opposition AIADMK, the MDMK and the CPI protested, and warned the Centre against taking a soft stand.
Krishna expressed his condemnation of the incident, requested the Sri Lankan government to investigate the matter, and also sought reports from the Indian mission in Colombo and from the Tamil Nadu fisheries department.
Again, Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India, Prasad Kariyawasam, denied the involvement of the navy but promised to conduct serious investigations. The Lankan Navy spokesman Captain Athula Senarth dismissed the allegations, saying they were “baseless and without proof”.
In May, 4 fishermen were taken into custody by the Sri Lankan Navy after their boat capsized. They were released after the intervention of Manmohan Singh.
On June 20, 23 Indian fishermen were arrested by the Sri Lankan Navy, after the 5 fishing trawlers they were on board were stopped. They had approached within 6 nautical miles of the Sri Lankan shore, according to the Lankan Navy, which also said the GPS systems installed in their trawlers were working, and so the trespass was deliberate. Jayalalithaa, who had taken over as Tamil Nadu Chief Minister in May, wrote a letter to Manmohan Singh, terming the frequent detention of fishermen crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line “worrisome” and “vexatious”. The Sri Lankan Navy responded to India’s subsequent protest, saying the fishermen were being treated well, and would be set free as soon as formalities were complete. They were released on June 29.
Next, on October 8, just two days before Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai was to hold talks with the Sri Lankan government in Colombo over the issue of fishing on Palk Bay, there were reports that the Sri Lankan Navy had chased away Tamil fishermen by firing in the air, off Mandapam coast in Ramanathapuram district.
Jayalalithaa termed the attack “an act of provocation and aggression against India.” She also said that even if the attack was launched by other boats from Sri Lanka, and not naval vessels, the navy must have been in the know.
Mathai’s Talks with Sri Lanka
When Mathai finally met Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and raised the issue of attacks on fishermen from Tamil Nadu, he was told that the Lankan navy was not involved in the attacks and it was under strict instructions not to attack Indian fishermen.
The previous day, local officials in Jaffna made a presentation to Mathai on how local fishermen were suffering because, they claimed, of Indian fishermen poaching in their waters.
Mathai said there was no room for violence when the issue was one of livelihood, and suggested deep sea fishing as a means to prevent clashes between the fishermen of the two countries. This was turned down by Sri Lanka, which said Indian fishermen were free to go deep sea fishing if they wished.
What is Being Done Now?
Soon after taking over as Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa announced a solatium of Rs 3 lakh to the families of deceased fishermen, to be increased to Rs 5 lakh if the victim was the sole breadwinner of the family.
Ex-gratia amounts of Rs 50,000 and Rs 20,000 would be paid for major and minor injuries sustained, respectively.
On 14 November, as part of a 77-point action plan on various issues, Jayalalithaa announced that helicopters would be hired for the search and rescue of missing fishermen, that Marine Police would be provided high-speed boats. She also said multi-day fishing permission for fishermen in Ramanathapuram district would be granted soon.
However, no firm resolution on the issue of Indian fishermen straying into Lankan waters has been reached, because Sri Lanka continues to deny the involvement of its navy in harassing Indian fishermen.