NORTHERN FISHERMEN SHOULDN’T BE NEGLECTED
Desperate cries of Jaffna’s fishermen demanding solutions to issues connected to their industry continue to echo despite the Government reducing the price of kerosene to Rs 70 per letre.
The price reduction in kerosene came as the result of lengthy protests by these fishermen who have time and again complained that there is intrusion into their profession by outsiders, especially Indian fishermen.
Given that this is a country where people have to stage protests to obtain even some of their basic rights, this small win by the fisherfolk must be lauded. It was heartening to see that the Jaffna fisher community-represented by the Jaffna District Fisheries Organizationalso received the support of Jaffna Private Bus Owners’ Association, Students of Jaffna University, Trishaw operators and Jaffna Traders’ Association during these protests.
But this win, which will help them cut costs in their business, doesn’t solve their biggest grievance. Since the war against Rebel Tiger separatists ended in 2009 these fishermen have been complaining about Indian trawlers encroaching into their waters.
The large Indian trawlers present in Sri Lankan waters force the islanders using small boats to move away and fish in shallow waters.
The northern fishermen also complain about the Indian fishermen using illegal fishing equipment and also netting sea cucumbers, a product that grows in the sea and is legitimately theirs.
These fishermen are also displeased with the illegal tents that have been put up in some areas by migrant fishermen. There are also concerns about the destruction of fisheries resources by these migrant fishermen.
This problem where Indian trawlers enter Sri Lankan waters has a long history. In 1970 a maritime boundary spanning 463 km was agreed upon by both states. But Indian fishermen still consider Sri Lankan waters as their fishing grounds. The migrant Indian fishermen have found strength for their activities in Sri Lankan waters largely because of the support they have from the leaders of the Tamil Nadu State Government. The late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Dr. J. Jayalalithaa championed their cause, but what stood in good stead for Sri Lanka was the non-committal stance taken by the Indian Government.
For the record the two Navies and the Indian Coastal Guards patrol the region. But it seems that a solution to this problem can be brought about only through a change in laws.
In 2011 the two Governments set up a joint working group. But the Tamil Nadu State Government often makes claims of incidents and attacks featuring the Sri Lanka Navy during which Indian fishermen have become victims. The Tamil Nadu politicians maintain that these waters that the Indians fish in are ‘traditional fishing waters’.
Indian trawlers cruising along the Southern Indian fishing ports Rameshwaran and Nagampadam use the Sri Lankan waters. These fishermen also head to Palk Bay, known for its rich fishing grounds.
What the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) must fathom is that it needs to look into the grievances of its own fishermen with the view of strengthening them.
This is a time when China is hell-bent on expanding its authority in the sea and has competition from India. Sri Lankans are quite aware of the interest that these two nations have shown in getting involved in development work in the island.
GOSL should under no circumstance neglect its Northern fishermen and take its eyes away from the waters they fish in. This is because the war is over and the Sri Lanka Navy should maintain its vigil on the Northern sea 24X7.
The Northern fishermen felt let down by the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi, a constituent part of the Tamil National Alliance, in their struggle to find solutions to existing problems in the fishing sector. Its Leader Mavai Senathirajah seemed unwelcome when he tried to join the fisherfolk who were protesting.
In this backdrop the Northern fisherfolk have found some solace to their problem thanks to the GOSL and not Tamil politicians. This augurs well for the future because the GOSL working closely with the Tamil community is so important in the reconciliation process.