The Strait of Contention

They don’t figure in any political discourse—coastal fishermen. Yet their continuing agony for venturing into international waters beggars description. While in the Arabian sea they suffer at the hands of Pakistani coastal guards, it is the Sri Lankan navy that is a terror to thousands of Tamil Nadu fishermen. How many fishermen of western coast languish in Pakistani jails for years is not known. Nor is New Delhi serious about their early release. Right now more than 100 fishermen from the southern state of Tamil Nadu are in the custody of Sri Lankan security forces, after capture in the Palk Strait.

The Indian fishermen are subject to imprisonment and fine, for violating the territorial waters of Sri Lanka. Sandwiched between India and Sri Lanka, the Palk Strait is a narrow water body, linking the Arabian sea and the Bay of Bengal. Since ages, fishermen from Tamil Nadu and northern Sri Lanka have been fishing in its waters, without any clashes. Kachchathivu is an uninhabited islet, formed part of Ramnad Zamindari, the present day Ramanatha-puram district of Tamil Nadu, and it was always excluded from the Sri Lankan northern district of Jafna, as it belonged to the Raja of Ramnad. In 1974, India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi gifted Kachchathivu islet to Sri Lanka, without India’s parliament authorizing the transfer. The maritime boundary line was redrawn, two years after the transfer of the island. Now much of the Palk Strait waters are out of bounds to fishermen from India, though they never accepted the change. The sea around Kachcha-thivu is rich in prawns and other valuable fish species.

The Sri Lankan Navy frequently shoots, assaults and arrests Indian fishermen while seizing their catches and fishing gears. Surprisingly the union government doesn’t take the issue seriously though it is a permanent source of trouble for coastal fishermen. For one thing unlike the fishermen of Mayanmar, Thailand etc. Indian fishermen have not yet been able to make their presence felt in deep sea fishing. They try their luck in low sea fishing and in a sense the Palk Strait suits them well. While on their own coast they are being systematically evicted by Nuclear power plants and other ‘developmental’ projects, they find it increasingly unsafe in sea-lanes being claimed by neighbouring countries.

Vol. 46, No. 12, Sep 29 -Oct 5, 2013

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