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TN Fishermen in dire straits after arrests and confiscation of boats by Sri Lankans

Arun Lakshman/ Chennai

Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu are in dire straits after several arrests and jail terms for crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) with Sri Lankan navy and police arresting them. Other than arrests and jail terms what is more worrying for these fishermen is the confiscation of their trawler boats and mechanized fishing boats costing more than 40 to 50 lakhs by the Sri Lankan authorities.

Recently in several leading news papers of Sri Lanka an advertisement had appeared calling for auction of mechnanised fishing boats seized from Indian fishermen. Many fishermen association have appealed to both the state and central governments against this apathy shown towards Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu who are trying to make out a living by fishing in deep sea.

The fishermen quite unexpectedly and unknowingly cross the IMBL at Palk Bay and in Katchatheevu and immediately falls in the custody of the Sri Lankan naval authorities. The state Chief Minister M.K. Stalin has in many petitions to the External affairs minister and the Prime Minister requested for taking up the matter with the Sri Lankan authorities so that the fishermen from Indian  side gets the confidence to fish in deep seas.

In another development Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu and Kerala were arrested by Seychelles and Indonesia for drifting into their waters. While negotiations and diplomatic discussions between the authorities of the two countries and the Indian side are in progress, the families back home are worried at the safety of their men who are in deep sea to eke out a living for them and their families. Generally fishermen go to the sea for more than fifteen days and sometimes in deep sea they wander of or drift into foreign waters leading to immediate arrest and custody of their mechanized boats.

With Satellite mobile telephones available in most of the deep sea mechanized boats, fishermen are able to communicate to the families on the predicament leading to intervention by the Indian authorities.

J. Jesuraj, leader of the South India fishermen association in Ramanathapuram while speaking to IANS said ,” The fishermen are now venturing into the sea with a heavy heart and they don’t know whether they are coming back home. Weather conditions are of course tough but the possibilities of arrests by foreign countries is the major hindrance they face, especially the Sri Lankan side. In our areas of Rameswaram, Ramanathapuram and other coastal belts the fishermen and their families are in an agitated mood over the assistance showered by the Government of India to the Sri Lankans and in turn the ill treatment meted out to Indian fishermen.”

Several fishermen have stopped going to sea after the arrests and the humiliation they faced in Sri Lankan jails and many have turned into other professions to support the family. Some fishermen were killed in the sea by the Sri Lankans and the recent case of R. Rajkiran fell into the water after being hit by a Sri Lankan trawler. He was drowned to death with the fellow fishermen in his boat claiming that the boat was hit by the Sri Lankan trawler. Three were on board in the Indian boat including Rajkiran and of this, he was drowned to death while the other two, Suganthan and Xavier were arrested and jailed by the Sri Lankan navy. The Sri Lankans however claim that the two Indian fishermen were rescued by them and that they had tried to save Rajkiran but was not possible.

The fishermen not venturing into the sea has created a major social and economic issue in the coastal belts of the state as most of the fishermen are traditionally into this job and are not familiar with any other work. During their off-season, the fishermen are mostly indulged in repairing their nets or making minor mechanical repairs on their boats, and most of them are always associated with the sea and the beaches and are not in the know of any other work.

R. Samueldas, President, fishermen’s welfare association while speaking to IANS said, “ The fishers not venturing out to the sea has created a social and economic issue in the coastal belts and most of the families are on the verge of starvation. While the government BPL cards and rations supply are providing them little solace, jobless fishermen will lead to major social issues in the near future in Tamil Nadu unless the government takes up the issue in right earnest with the Sri Lankans.”

On March 11th, Friday, the Sri Lankan minister for fisheries, Douglas Devananda met the Indian fishermen association leaders from Tamil Nadu and, according to them, has assured that the matter would be taken at the highest levels of the Sri Lankan navy. However, the possibility of the Sri Lankans deescalating the attacks against the Indian fishermen has to be seen.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M.K. Stalin has recently sent a delegation of Ministers from Tamil Nadu to meet the Union External affairs minister, S.Jaishankar, and submitted a petition to the minister signed by thousands of fishermen families in coastal Tamil Nadu.

The Chief Minister’s office had in a communication to the media said that the Union external affairs minister had assured them of taking up the matter with the Sri Lankan counterparts and also with the Sri Lankan navy.

While the fishermen associations want strong-arm tactics from the Indian government to put an end to the misery of the fishermen, the government, according to Tamil Nadu government sources, is trying the diplomatic angle. The Indian fishermen associations from Tamil Nadu are in for a strong response from the Government of India to settle the matter.

Mary Samuel who is the wife of a fisherman arrested and jailed for crossing the IMBL while speaking to IANS from Ramanathapuram said, “ My husband has just come home after languishing in a Sri Lankan prison. He is not a terrorist, not a smuggler, and not a sea pirate, yet he is arrested and jailed and our boats are seized. This is indeed misery and we have knocked all the doors, nothing is happening. How can the Government of India provide assistance to these Sri Lankans who are inhuman to our people and are indiscriminately arresting our fishermen for flimsy reasons? The Sri Lankans understand only the language of power and strong-arm tactics have to be employed by the Government of India to set things right.”

With the situation in the coastal areas of Tamil Nadu far from normal and the community facing acute poverty after lack of jobs and seizure of the only livelihood, the fishermen community of the coastal belts of Tamil Nadu wants immediate action from both the state and central governments to put an end to this misery forever.