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Vol. XXVI No. 23, March 16-31, 2017

For peace in troubled waters…

by The Editor

The recent death of a Rameswaram fisherman in Palk Strait waters has once again brought to the fore the thorny problem of Indian Tamil fishermen fishing in these -waters and, many of them, -ending up in Sri Lankan jails if not worse. These Indian fishers have continued to fish in Sri Lankan waters – which they claim are traditionally also theirs – despite both India and Sri Lanka agreeing to stop -fishing in each other’s waters. The violations continued -because fishermen know no boundaries and go where the catch is best.

The problem has assumed disturbing proportions from 2009 when peace returned to the Island after the ethnic conflict and Sri Lankan, predominantly Tamil, fishermen of the Northern Province found themselves free again to fish in the Palk Straits for their livelihood. They claim that they are affected by more than 500 trawlers from Tamil Nadu crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line and fishing in the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Bay, threatening their livelihood. It is also pointed out that Indian mechanised trawlers have, after severely damaging marine resources and the sea bed on their side of the Palk Strait, are now doing the same on the Sri Lankan side. It is further stated that most of the trawlers from Tamil Nadu are owned by private interests, turning several traditional fishermen from owners to labou-rers. The trawler lobby certainly plays a role in seeing that the present fishing practices in the Palk Bay continue.

To get fishermen to give up trawling and consequent destructive practices in the sensitive waters between India and Sri Lanka, getting Tamil Nadu fisherman to take to deep-sea fishing has been suggested. This kind of fishing in the open ocean requires different skills and better-equipped vessels -capable of spending many days out of harbour. The fishers need to be trained for such fishing.

The then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalithaa, -outlined in 2014 a proposal which envisaged a processing park, mother ship for receiving catches, pre-processing them before conveying them to the on-shore processing park, and mini vessels with mechanised trawling facilities for frontline fishing operations. Training the fishermen was also a part of the plan. The Chief Minister had asked for Rs. 1,520 crore from the Central Government to help make this feasible.

The former Chief Minister’s proposal if implemented, will certainly remove a major irritant to the relationship between India and Sri Lanka. What, then, is holding up the implementation of this scheme?

The State Government continues to seek a Central grant. The present Chief Minister has asked for Rs.1650 crore. It is obvious that with its own finances not in particularly good shape, it is waiting for a helping hand. But must it always seek Central help even as it doles out freebies without limit?

To correct a livelihood problem and the safety of its citizens as well to ensure it is not the cause for an irritant in an international relationship, it is up to the Tamil Nadu Government to get the Jayalalithaa plan underway on a war footing and show its commitment to it by not awaiting a dole from the Centre.

There are other options. Norway was responsible for training Kerala and south Sri Lankan (mainly Sinhalese) fishermen to go deep sea. It also helped set up boat-building facilities for such fishing in both territories. The five Nordi Ambassadors – all representation of countries with deep sea fishing expertise – were the first foreign VIPs to interact with the present Chief Minister. Did he ask them – particularly Norway with its South Asian experience – for help?

Another avenue is the Mudra Bank, which is meant precisely for funding small entrepreneurs, like fisherfolk, who are otherwise unable to meet the capital cost of trawlers and related equipment. To ensure speedy release of funds by this source, the State Government could extend its guarantee, if necessary. The State Government must also chip in its share of meeting the capital and operational costs from funds saved by re-ordering its priorities, cutting down or cutting out the freebies.

The new Government must seize this opportunity and win the goodwill of the fishing community, the people of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan people – thereby enhancing its own image.

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