One of the reasons people dismiss the support of Tamil Nadu politicians for Tamils in Sri Lanka is their complete lack of concern for the immediate welfare of the community. Where they are going to get their next meal doesn’t matter. Unless their problems can be used to blame the Government, they are ignored.
Last week, I said that Karunanidhi was right to focus on the need for a political solution and the full implementation of the 13th Amendment in recent protests aimed at getting India to boycott the Commonwealth Summit in November. It is an entirely reasonable demand, and he will be doing everybody a favour if he can marshal the emotions of 72 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu into a campaign that can actually deliver, rather than misleading them into thinking that they are helping by continuing to call for Eelam – and in the circumstances another devastating war.
But he is absolutely wrong on the other issue that he raised – the arrests of Indian fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy.
Everybody other than Tamil Nadu politicians agrees that the treatment of fishermen who cross the international boundary has improved considerably since the end of the war. On the whole, the Navy is not shooting at them, as it no doubt once did – it would seem to have understood the rather obvious logic that sending people to jail for their crimes is far more effective than killing them when one wants to secure the support of their elected representatives. Better very late than never!
And the Government has clearly been trying to minimise the length of time it takes to send them back to India. Their incarceration doesn’t usually last more than a few days, and they are rarely made to pay more than a token fine, which is a much better deal than they get from any other country.
Of course even that is undesirable, and it is worrying that the Government is now apparently thinking of getting tougher.
These are poor people. They can’t afford fines, and they can’t afford to be kept away from their livelihoods.
But it is the job of the Indian government to look after them. The Sri Lankan government has to look after poor Sri Lankans, and the fishing communities of the Northern Province are some of the poorest in the country, having been very badly affected by the three decades of conflict in Sri Lanka.
That many lives were destroyed by the war is well known – certainly by Karunanidhi.
He should also know that their livelihoods suffered more or less the same fate. Fishing has always been a major part of the Northern economy. In 1980, the North supplied 50% of the national catch, but the catch in the Northern Province had fallen from almost 100,000 MT to just 15,000 MT by the end of the war. The restrictions imposed by the Security Forces in an attempt to prevent the smuggling of weapons and militants across the Palk Strait made it very difficult for fishermen to survive.
And although the sector is recovering, the catch has still only reached 60,000 MT.
Meanwhile, the catch in the rest of the country has increased considerably, so that the Northern Province now contributes about 12%.
Most fishermen in the North have only basic equipment, while many from the Mannar, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts who were caught up in the final battle with the LTTE lost whatever they had when they were displaced.
They are far behind where they were three decades ago.
Even more importantly, they are far behind the Indian fishermen who cross the international boundary.
In Tamil Nadu over the same period, the catch has gone up from 375,000 MT to nearly 615,000 MT. Fishermen have moved from the small boats that used to dominate the industry to trawlers, which sweep up everything in their path. Sri Lankan fishermen say that these new methods not only destroy their nets and damage their boats – the trawlers move about at such high speeds that they can easily run into them in the dark – but also risk the sustainability of fisheries in the North.
They are surely right.
After all, Indian fishermen are so keen to come to Sri Lankan waters precisely because there aren’t enough fish in their own. They have overexploited their resources.
A decidedly uninspiring editorial in The Hindu on Friday suggested that a solution could be found through negotiations between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen. It said that Indian fishermen believe that Sri Lankan waters are their ‘traditional fishing grounds’. Well, no doubt they aren’t alone – I bet that Sri Lankan fishermen believe that Sri Lankan waters are their traditional fishing grounds too!
In fact, Indian fishermen are proposing an ‘open seas’ policy, with set times for Indians and Sri Lankans to fish wherever they like.
Of course they are.
Sri Lankan waters haven’t yet been overexploited. Opposition by Sri Lankan fishermen to such a disingenuous proposal is therefore absolutely understandable, and it is stupid to ask them to agree to the extension of what is already a serious problem.
Indeed, at least some of the violent incidents in the recent past have occurred between fishermen themselves.
Tamil Nadu politicians try to pretend that the cause of all the angst is Kachchativu – the island in the Palk Strait that was ceded to Sri Lanka in 1974. An extremely belated and totally useless competition has now emerged between Karunanidhi and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, with the latter passing a resolution in the state assembly in May calling on the Centre to take back Kachchativu and the former responding in a matter of days with a petition in the Supreme Court seeking the same thing, on the grounds that the agreement was never ratified by Parliament.
Whether or not they have a point doesn’t matter, since we are not talking about just a few square kilometres.
Indian fishermen are not only crossing the international boundary near Kachchativu. According to Sri Lankan fishermen, they come right up to the mainland, and move as far down the western side as Puttalam and as far down the eastern side as Trincomalee – about one third of the coastline.
And they say that 2,000 trawlers come almost every day.
This weekend, Karunanidhi intensified his efforts by reiterating his demand for the Centre to establish a naval base in Tamil Nadu, specifically for the purpose of protecting Indian fishermen.
But it is alternative livelihoods that they need, not an armed guard.
Rather than encouraging them to believe that they can go on paying so little attention to the environment, he should be busy working out a genuine solution for the fisheries sector of Tamil Nadu. He must also explain to the fishermen that Sri Lankan Tamils need not only a devolved administration in the North but also ways to make a living.
Unfortunately, the politicians who are likely to run the Northern Provincial Council have not been willing to speak out either.
The TNA intervenes on many crucial and urgent matters, and it deserves praise for addressing problems of importance to the whole country in addition to the concerns of the community that it represents. Its leaders have made some excellent speeches on the impeachment of the Chief Justice, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and other important topics. These are all very necessary. But it does not excuse them from taking action on this issue.
The debate on the fishermen of the Northern Province must not be left to Tamil Nadu politicians and the Government of Sri Lanka, or it will never end.