By Shihar Aneez
Ramesh Kumar, a 46-year old father of three, is struggling to repay the Rs. 1.4 million loan he obtained two years ago from the village fishermen’s society. He borrowed the money to buy two sets of sophisticated fishing nets after his fishing gear was destroyed by Indian bottom trawling. One new set he bought for Rs. 800,000, while the second set was bought at Rs. 600,000.
“But I never thought I would have to leave the family occupation so soon. Now I do only part time fishing,” said Kumar, who knows only fishing as a livelihood since he was a child. He learnt fishing from his father.
“Now I am doing some odd jobs to repay the loan. I was not given any compensation when my fishing nets were damaged. It is a struggle between life and death for me. This is an injustice to all of us in Delft Island,” he said late in the evening on a Saturday.
Usually fishermen in Sri Lanka’s northern Delft Island do not go fishing on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday because of past experiences.
Indian bottom trawlers come to the Sri Lankan waters on these three days despite the island nation’s Parliament passing a law to ban bottom trawling and take action against foreign vessels fishing in Sri Lankan waters.
Northern fishermen from Jaffna including Delft Island have repeatedly pleaded with the Governments of both India and Sri Lanka to stop bottom trawling in Sri Lankan territory. However, the plea has fallen on deaf ears. The plundering of Sri Lankan fishing resources continues despite the Sri Lankan Navy arresting some Indian fishermen and confiscating some trawlers.
“Now we catch only small fish and crabs. But we don’t have enough catch,” Kumar said. “Indians (bottom trawlers) decide when, where, what, and how we should catch fish in our own waters. We don’t get the same big fish we caught in the 1980s and 1990s.”
Kumar is one of over 8,000 fishermen in Sri Lanka’s north who are desperate to return to sea to revive their livelihood after the 26-year war ended 13 years ago.
There have been talks over Indian bottom trawling for years with the last one being held in 2016 at Foreign Ministry level between both countries.
The Indian Central Government in principle agreed to ban bottom trawling in Sri Lankan waters within three years in a phased-out manner by shifting the bottom trawlers to deep water fishing, Sri Lanka Government officials say.
But bottom trawling is thriving in the north, especially around the Delft Island seas, though Delhi agreed to ban it six years back.
The cross-border fishing issue has been in existence since the 1970s.
Under the administration of Indira Gandhi, India agreed to give Kachchatheevu, an island in between Sri Lanka and India, to the Sri Lankan Government under then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
Kachchatheevu is a tiny island, 285.2 acres in area, located 10 miles northeast of the South Indian coastal district of Rameshwaram. Traditionally, the island was frequented by Indian fishermen, who used it as a staging post to dry their nets and their catch.
There is also a famous Catholic church there, dedicated to St. Anthony. Pilgrims from both countries visit the island every year at the end of March for a week-long festival.
Kachchatheevu came to prominence after Independence when the delimitation of the maritime boundary in the Palk Strait was taken up by the two governments.
The ceding of Kachchatheevu to Sri Lanka was a political decision taken by the two Prime Ministers in 1974. In order to avoid a constitutional amendment, New Delhi adopted the stance that the island was a disputed territory; if Indian territory is to be ceded to a foreign country, it is obligatory to amend the Indian Constitution.
The 1974 Agreement, while ceding Kachchatheevu to Sri Lanka, also protects traditional fishing rights enjoyed by Indian fishermen to fish in and around Kachchatheevu.
But these traditional rights were also given away when the Maritime Boundary Agreement delimiting the Gulf of Mannar and the Bay of Bengal was signed in 1976. So legally fishermen in Tamil Nadu cannot encroach the international border and fish in Sri Lankan waters.
Elder people in Sri Lanka’s North who remember the Kachchatheevu handing over said Sri Lanka compromised some of the sea area when demarcating the international maritime border between the two countries in return for having Kachchatheevu under the Sri Lankan sovereign state.
However, for many South Indian fishermen, the sea area around Kachchatheevu is still considered as Indian territory, so they fish here with bottom trawlers and have now advanced to a distance of just one km from Sri Lanka’s northern coastal belt.
Earlier northern fishermen did not protest due to Indian boats helping them to receive commodities including essential foods that were not adequately supplied by the Colombo Government during the conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Sri Lanka’s State military.
India also helped around 100,000 Tamils by keeping them in South Indian refugee camps during the war. Many of these Tamils are now gradually returning to Sri Lanka.
Above all else, there was no bottom trawling to the extent there is now and Sri Lankan fishermen enjoyed ample hauls of fish, enabling them to lead a good life.
But the equation started to change after the war.
In northern Sri Lanka, fishermen are struggling to make ends meet due to the lack of fish being caught from the sea that has been their livelihood for centuries.
Some have left fishing – youth are switching to other odd jobs across the country, fishermen have become poorer than ever, youth postpone their marriages as they do not have money and employment to plan the future, and some have become drug and alcohol addicts as a mean to relieving stress.
Bottom trawling is a method of fishing that involves dragging heavy weighted nets across the sea floor, in an effort to catch fish. It’s a favoured method by commercial fishing companies because it bags large quantities of fish in one go.
However, the problem with bottom trawling as a fishing method is that it’s indiscriminate in what it catches. When dragging the large weighted nets across the seafloor, everything in the way gets swept up in the net too. For this reason, bottom trawling has a large by-catch impact, with many non-target species also being caught in the process.
This has an impact on the biodiversity of the ocean and also means that many species are being fished to the brink simply as a consequence of commercial activities, not as the target.
However, the main issue faced by Sri Lanka’s northern fishermen is that bottom trawling sweeps up all juvenile fish along with their habitats and invertebrates that get in its way. This results in fishermen not having an adequate fish catch.
“When I started fishing at the age of 16 in 1993, we had a large fish catch. But now we can’t even catch a quantity equal to what we used to catch with traditional methods. There are no fish at all,” said 43-year-old Vincent* who has now become a driver.
Fishing is now a part time job for Vincent as well after his net was damaged by an Indian bottom trawler four years ago when he cast his nets worth Rs. 100,000 on a day when India bottom trawlers usually never came to Lankan seas.
“But they came and damaged my nets. I did not receive any compensation. The first thing the Government should do is stop Indian bottom trawling,” he said, while getting ready to take a local tourist around in his small lorry – one of the many jobs he is doing for a living now after being forced out of the sea due to Indian trawlers.
“Earlier when you pumped fuel for Rs. 2,000, you could use that to easily catch over Rs. 10,000 worth of fish. But now even if you go with diesel worth Rs. 10,000, you will not have fish even for Rs. 5,000,” Vincent said.
“Youth are now moving away from fishing because there are no fish to catch. Over 100 youth from Delft are in Colombo and other areas working in construction and doing other odd jobs because they do not see fishing as a profitable venture. We have lost confidence in fishing. At the moment we are depending on the crab catch, but many of our nets are damaged by Indian bottom trawlers even now.”
Dozens of fishermen and fishing community leaders opined that the fisher-folk had now reached a trigger point because they were unable to live, given the lost livelihood.
“This is the way they go,” said a 51-year-old fisherman who identified himself as Muruhesu, referring to the path usually taken by bottom trawlers in the northern sea, while traveling in a boat carrying passengers between Jaffna and Delft Island.
“They just go in front of us with no feelings of guilt. They have destroyed our fishing gear. Every time they destroy our gear, we have to borrow money to restart fishing. Now we are permanent debtors while losing our livelihood day by day,” Muruhesu said.
“We had good fish catch before Indian bottom trawling intensified. We have been protesting over this for a long time. But nothing is happening.”
‘Umbilical cord relatives’
Northern Province Fishermen Federation President N.V. Subramanium (70) said Indian fishermen were exploiting Sri Lankan resources with the blessings of the Tamil Nadu Government.
“We are suffering. There are around 3,000 bottom trawlers coming to Sri Lankan waters on an alternative basis,” he said.
Subramanium was part of the 10-member fishermen delegation which went to Delhi in 2016 to discuss the bottom trawling issue. He said the Indian Government promised to look into the issue and resolve it within three years.
“We are not fighting against either India or Tamil Nadu. Our struggle is against those 3,000 fishermen who are bottom trawling,” he said. “If they think we are indebted to them because we were refugees in India and they helped us, then we are ready to give them the sea for a certain period to have the fish catch. But now they have done that for nearly 13 years since the war ended. Isn’t that enough for them to write off the debts they gave us in the form of kindness? At least now they can leave us.”
South India and Northern Sri Lanka have close cultural ties due to the Tamil language and Hindu religion are sometimes referred to as ‘umbilical cord relatives’.
The Indian Government has helped Tamil fishermen in the North with houses after the end of the war. Subramanium, however, says livelihood is more important now than ever, especially in the post-war situation.
“We don’t need houses or any other relief. Give us the compensation on what we have lost so far. If they can’t give that compensation, they should get out of our sea,” he said. “If we can get the sea without Indian intervention, we can earn and we will be able to build houses for each fisherman within one year at a cost of Rs. 1 million.”
“They say that they consider us as ‘umbilical cord relatives’. But then why do they cut this umbilical cord relationship and come here to do this destruction?”
There were hundreds of kilograms of juvenile fish caught in the nets of five bottom trawlers seized by the Sri Lanka Navy in December. The seizure along with the arrest of 43 fishermen saw strong protests in the Tamil Nadu District of Rameshwaram.
Jaffna fishermen say they have seen a trend in Navy arrests over the years and the arrests and seizure of bottom trawlers come only when local fishing folks protest against Indian trawlers within Sri Lanka.
Many of the fishermen were ready for Indian fishermen to use traditional fishing methods which are considered harmless.
A delegation of Northern fishermen met the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, top Navy officials, Fisheries Minister, and all other key officials requesting their help to stop bottom trawling.
“Our Government is afraid of the Indian Government,” Subramanium said. “For any meaningful meetings, we have asked the Tamil Nadu Government to be represented. There is a lot of political influence from Tamil Nadu behind this and that is why it is very difficult to stop.”
Why only Sri Lanka?
Many northern fishermen are worried over their future. Some said despite all their efforts to ban bottom trawlers, they still do the same at a distance where they can hear the conversation inside the bottom trawlers.
They acknowledge the assistance by the Sri Lankan Navy to control bottom trawling, but it still happens unabated, sometimes even in broad daylight.
“We can’t stand on our own feet now. When they damage the fishing gear, it takes at least three years to recover to the level before the damage,” a fisher community leader in Delft Island said.
“Sometimes, the stress has resulted in fishermen seeking refuge in drugs and alcohol. They are actually torturing us. There is no fish catch. There are no crabs. All are destroyed because of bottom trawling. “We can only think of the next day. We can’t plan our future. Sometimes people starve because they have lost their livelihood.”
In Delft Island alone, the damage to the fishing gear of 178 fishermen is estimated at Rs. 20.1 million in one week of November 2020, one official said.
“It is having an impact on the people’s financial strength. Many women have pawned their jewellery. Many people have given up their studies because they do not have money. The marriage age of men and women is delayed because they do not have enough money. All this is because bottom trawling has depleted our resources,” he said.
“We are simply unable to live. I am afraid of a situation of fishermen dying by suicide. How can we live when they damage our gear continuously? We feel like we have gone back 200 years. We never had this kind of suffering even during the war.”
Jaffna District Fishermen Cooperative Society Unions’ Federation President Annalingam Annarasa said the northern fishermen had been cheated by both Indian and Tamil Nadu Governments from time to time.
“Since Sri Lanka is a small player, India is trying to keep it in its control over this fishing issue. It’s true that they helped us during the war, but how can we allow them to destroy our resources continuously because they helped us during the war?” he said.
“Can Indian fishermen do the same in the Chinese or Pakistan borders? Are they showing their might because we are like slaves and can easily be controlled? Why can’t Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi resolve this issue?”
The agitation against Indian bottom trawling is on the rise, with fishermen from Mannar, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, and Mullaitivu Districts protesting continuously since October last year.
They accuse the Sri Lanka Government of not doing enough to curb Indian encroaching and bottom trawling. They blame India for not taking the issue seriously, they blame their own Tamil political leadership for using the issue to their own advantage, and they blame bureaucrats for their lethargic attitudes.
“The Sri Lankan Government should aggressively arrest the Indian fishermen who come for bottom trawling and seize their boats,” Annarasa said.
“The Government should never release the boats. If this had been done, by now, the lack of bottom trawlers would have compelled Indian fishermen to look for alternatives. Because the Sri Lankan Government is caught in diplomatic relations with India, we are desperate and struggling.”
Fisher community societies say the Northern Province has at least 25,000 fishing families and most of them are looking for alternatives because they don’t have enough fish catch in the sea.
The agitation is gradually becoming aggressive and the fishermen are asking for more compensation, especially after the Chinese Ambassador visited Jaffna in mid-December to provide a Rs. 20 million compensation package.
“If the world’s biggest democracy cannot solve this problem, who can? India is refusing to listen to our problem,” Annarasa said. “We have been waiting for India to solve this issue, but nothing has happened. So from 2022, we are going to make this a national issue and protest against this injustice. We request the Sri Lanka Navy to continuously arrest these bottom trawlers as India is not acting on this.”
Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda, whose electoral constituency is Delft Island, said Sri Lanka had discussed the issue with Delhi and Tamil Nadu authorities, but there were still no solutions. “Bottom trawling has resulted in a deserted sea in South India without fish,” Devananda said in an interview.
“When we made the last arrest, we saw a heap of small fish. If they are allowed to grow, both countries will benefit since these are the fish that are going to be available for both countries.”
He said the Indian side should attend discussions after stopping bottom trawling. “India has accepted our plight and promised to encourage their fishermen to engage in deep water fishing. But they have asked for some time. But by the time they completely shift to deep water fishing, all our fish resources would have been destroyed.”
Northern fishermen are scared to go fishing due to fear of their fishing gear getting damaged and all northern fishermen are still rebuilding their livelihood, which was hit by the near three-decade war.
“There is no money for the Sri Lankan Government to provide compensation and how can we justify compensation for something done by another country?” Devananda said.
An Indian official who is aware of the issue said the Indian Central Government had given the green light for the ban of bottom trawling. “But we do not see Tamil Nadu fishermen stopping it so far,” he said.
India’s long silence over the bottom trawling and meddling, as some critics say, in Sri Lankan waters, is hurting the poor fisher community mainly in Sri Lanka’s North. It has already destroyed the livelihood of thousands of fishermen and Sri Lanka’s failure to push to ban the bottom trawling is equally painful. Big brother should be magnanimous over small brother’s plea in the region.