Northern Sri Lankan fishermen seek India’s action over disputes

Indian fishermen are crossing the maritime boundary, the Federation of Jaffna District Fishermen’s Cooperative Society Unions said in a letter submitted at the Indian Consulate

Sri Lanka’s northern fishermen want authorities in India and Sri Lanka to urgently step up action to resolve the long-persisting conflict in the Palk Strait, fearing tensions with Indian fishermen could escalate.

In a letter submitted at the Indian Consulate in Jaffna last week, the Federation of Jaffna District Fishermen’s Cooperative Society Unions pointed to the perils of bottom-trawling and pair-trawling fishing methods — commonly used by Tamil Nadu fishermen — resulting in a drastically smaller catch and frequent damage to their modest fishing gear.

“We are very worried that despite discussing this problem for more than 10 years now, there has been no forward movement or a solution until now. Indian fishermen crossing the maritime boundary and fishing in our waters has resulted in huge losses amounting several crores to our fishermen,” said the letter dated October 10, 2021.

The fisher associations have also sought compensation from Indian authorities to cope with the financial losses. Having braved the civil war, the displacement and dispossession that came with it, the northern fishermen have been struggling to rebuild their livelihoods post-war.

However, the ongoing conflict with Indian fishermen — mostly from Tamil Nadu’s Ramanathapuram and Nagapattinam districts — has severely impacted the revival of their livelihoods.

Attacks at sea

The fishermen’s concerns, voiced in the recent letter, also come amid reports of Tamil Nadu fishermen being attacked at sea, allegedly by their Sri Lankan counterparts. Fishermen’s groups along Tamil Nadu’s coastal belt held protests last month, condemning the attacks.

Tamil Nadu has repeatedly accused the Sri Lankan Navy of attacking or killing its fishermen in the Palk Strait, including in January this year, when Samson Darwin, 28), A. Mesiya, 30, V. Nagaraj, 52, and S. Senthil Kumar, 32, from Ramanathapuram returned dead.

Sri Lankan authorities have denied the allegations. While New Delhi conveyed “strong protest” over the incident then, there is no word yet on the promised probe into their deaths, either government. The investigation into the shooting of K. Britjo in March 2017 too has seen no update in the four years since.

However, the recent allegations made by Tamil Nadu fishermen against fellow fishermen in Sri Lanka have sparked serious concern.

“This is a very dangerous development. Despite our disagreement with our brothers in Tamil Nadu, we have always been in solidarity. We have relied only on dialogue and never resorted to violence. We fear that certain political forces are instigating some groups to carry out these attacks,” a fishermen’s association representative in Jaffna told The Hindu, requesting anonymity.

“Before this escalates, both governments must take swift and decisive action,” he said.

Meanwhile, addressing a media conference, Jaffna legislator M.A. Sumanthiran accused Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda of provoking violence among fishermen of the two countries. “Since he is the subject minister, that too from Jaffna, he is in a good position to implement the laws we have in place to take action on illegal fishing and bottom trawling. I urge all our fishermen to respond to this problem in democratic ways, and not resort to violence at any cost,” he said, calling for a peaceful protest next weekend.

Minister Devananda has not commented so far on the allegation.

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