With Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s proposing direct talks between Tamil Nadu fishermen and their counterparts in North Sri Lanka at Chennai later this year to iron out their problems, some positive energy is building up among all stakeholders. It’s time they put their heads together to find commonsense solutions to the seemingly intractable problem. All negotiations have an element of give and take. As Jayalalithaa indicated in her recent letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, urging him to set up the talks table, fishermen from the Tamil Nadu side at present appear accommodative. It is that spirit of accommodation that can find lasting solutions.
The Sri Lankan side wants Tamil Nadu fishermen to visit Lankan fishing hamlets to get a first-hand experience of sorry state in which their brethren across the Palk Bay are living. “Unless TN fishermen see for themselves, they will never be able to come up with any reasonable solution,” says S P Anthonymuthu, member of the Lankan Fisheries Ministry’s Advisory Board and Lankan spokesman of the India-Lanka Fisherfolk Platform. Though there is willingness to talk things over and a fundamental belief that such talks with the involvement of Indian, Lankan and Tamil Nadu governments are a sine qua non for a lasting solution, there is divergence in the way they read the current problem.
While those in Tamil Nadu say that it is their “traditional right” to fish in the waters in the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar and that the right was recognised in the 1974 India-Sri Lanka maritime boundary agreement, the Lankan fishermen point out that the subsequent agreement in 1976 made no mention of any such “traditional right”. The 1976 accord simply says that Indian fishermen can dry their nets on Katchatheevu, and attend the annual St Anthony’s festival there without getting Lankan visas, they argue.
Having said that, Lankan fishermen do believe that a mutually acceptable agreement can be thrashed out.
According to Francis, a senior member of the Pesaalai Fishermen’s Cooperative Society (PFCS), “We have no objection if TN fishermen fish around Katchatheevu because we don’t go there. Katchatheevu is about 10 km from our shores and we don’t have the boats for going that far.”
In other words, the Lankan Tamil fishermen are willing to let their TN counterparts cross the International Maritime Boundary Line at Katchatheevu for fishing in what is legally Lankan waters after the then prime minister Indira Gandhi chose to gift away the island to the neighbour in 1974. That is a movement forward. What they object to is TN fishermen coming too close to the shores and denying them their catch. “Tamil Nadu fishermen come almost up to the Mannar Kacheri (the district office) here. And the boats are in hundreds. They are welcome to fish at Katchatheevu but not at our Kacheri,” Frances says jokingly.
“Tamil Nadu fishermen should realise our plight and cooperate,” implores S Soosai Tarcisius, president of PFCS. “They fish within 500 meters with over a 1,000 boats on some days. They come in trawlers fitted with 140 to 325 hp engines, while we use just 30 hp engines. Earlier, we used to load two lorries a day with catch; now we hardly get 20 kg,” he says.
Society member Vijayan claims that Pesaalai fishermen have been reduced to living at subsistence level. “If we do not go to sea for a day, we have to miss a meal. Earlier, we used to fish six days a week, but now we have to make do with three,” he laments.
Lankan fishermen complain that while they consider their TN counterparts as “brothers”, belonging to the same ethnic group and speaking the same language, TN fishermen do not reciprocate the vibes. “We have been fishing together for ages. We have the same umbilical cord. But unlike in the past, we are not cooperating and sharing our resources. Tamil Nadu fishermen are eating into our resources by exploiting our current weakness due the 30-year war,” says Montford, a senior member of PFCS.
Pesaalai fishermen point out that TN fishermen continue to use bottom trawling and nets, which is destructive. Fishermen at Maadakal in Jaffna district showed this correspondent piles and piles of nets destroyed by the intruding trawlers.
The problem can be solved only if both governments get proactive after fishermen from both sides set the tone for accommodation through their interactions, says S S Tarcisius of Pesaalai. Citing an example to drive home this point, Anthonymuthu recalls that the 2011 agreement between fishermen of both sides was not implemented because the two governments were not on board.
According to N Devadas, president of the Rameswaram Mechanised Boat Owners’ Association, the ball is now in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s court since Jayalalithaa has already offered a detailed plan for talks, including suggesting the month and venue. He must respond favourably.
As for Devadas, the 2011 agreement to allow Tamil Nadu and Lankan fishermen to fish in each other’s waters for 70 days a year could be a good starting point. That idea could be improved upon, he suggests.