Indians admit they fish in Sri Lanka’s troubled waters

August 1st, 2008 - 11:35 am ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Manmohan Singh
By M.R. Narayan Swamy
New Delhi, Aug 1 (IANS) Indian fishermen under attack from Sri Lanka’s navy admit they frequently fish in the island nation’s waters, but argue that they have no other choice and that cross-country fishing needs to be quickly regularised. Leaders of the fishing community in Tamil Nadu’s Rameswaram coast, however, accuse Sri Lankan security forces of beating, humiliating and looting them when they are caught catching fish and seafood illegally. The Rameswaram activists spoke to a group of Chennai-based lawyers who visited the region for three days until Thursday to understand the problems of the fishing community in Tamil Nadu that has become a thorn in India-Sri Lanka relations.

Popular belief has it that Sri Lankan naval personnel harass and beat Indian fishermen — in Indian waters. Indian and Sri Lankan officials have insisted this is not so. Now the fishermen themselves admit to violating maritime law.

“Yes, we cross the international border,” lawyer and team leader K. Elangovan quoted a fisherman as saying. “We have told this to so many people including the collector and the chief minister. The problem is nobody understands why we do what we do.

“First, mechanised trawlers are not allowed to fish from the shore up to three nautical miles. These are reserved for non-mechanised fishermen. Then we encounter rocky areas. By the time we travel two hours, Indian maritime border ends.”

Rameswaram, which is also a revered Hindu pilgrimage centre, lies on one side of the Palk Strait, a narrow strip of sea that divides India and Sri Lanka. The sea has seen major battles in the ethnic conflict in which Indian fishermen have been caught up.

According to one account, since 1983 about 800 Indian fishermen have been killed in firing by Sri Lankan security forces. Others dispute this, saying the figure of dead should be far less although the number of injured would be many.

Fishing is Rameswaram’s biggest organised industry. In view of allegations that some fishermen may be supplying fuel to the Tamil Tigers, Indian authorities have put in place strict monitoring of their movements.

Hundreds of boats sail out from Rameswaram every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, returning the next day with their catch after spending the night at sea. Friday is a rest day.

Elangovan, who spoke to IANS over telephone from Rameswaram, and his colleagues interacted with fishermen leaders Devadas, Emirate, Jesudas and N.J. Bose to get a first hand idea of the problems.

One of them told the lawyers: “The fact is that the fish we want is available only in Sri Lankan waters. And we have no problem if they (Sri Lankan fishermen) want to come to our waters. Why can’t the authorities agree to this?”

The fishermen admitted that some from the community might be engaged in smuggling. In one instance, they said, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) bought an Indian boat and used it to attack the Sri Lankan Navy.

“So we understand their frustration. But what we cannot accept is the way they (Sri Lankan Navy) deal with us. They beat us, they humiliate us, they loot our catch, and they even steal our GPS (global positioning system).

“Recently, when 300 Indian fishing boats were rounded up, the occupants were asked to strip. This is absolutely unacceptable.

“We don’t deny that we are in their waters. But why damage our property? On top of it, we get no compensation for all this suffering.”

Asked about the issue, Indian external affairs ministry spokesman Navtej Sarna told reporters in New Delhi Thursday: “In any incident involving Indian fishermen, they must be treated humanely.”

Already, politicians from Tamil Nadu have taken up the plight of the fishermen with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who Friday became the first Congress prime minister in two decades to visit Sri Lanka.

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