Tamil Nadu Fishermen's Problems
Syed Ali Mujtaba
The burgeoning problems of the fisher people of Tamil Nadu do not catch the ears of the powerful, either in the state or the centre. Madras seems to be far from Nagapattinam, Ramanathapuram, Thuthu-kudi or Kanyakumari, the hubs of fishing activity in the state. As for New Delhi, it is almost a distant planet from there. Those in the corridors of power, instead of solving the problems of the fisher folk, are asking them to change their profession.
Their demands have been put up in a 42-point charter, which includes implemen-tation of the 21 recommendations of what is known as the Murari Committee, which had been approved by the central cabinet on 28 September 1997. That 42 member committee, comprising parliamentarians from all political parties, was constituted in order to look into the grievances of the fisher community arising from Government of India’s (GOI) issuance of licences, in 1991, to joint venture, lease and test fishing vessels. Opposition voiced by the national trade union federations and various political parties reflected the fear of the depletion of fish stock in the Indian Ocean, consequent on unrestrained deep-sea fishing through the use of mega-machines, which would quite literally leave the fisher folk stranded on the shores.
The Murari Committee recommended, among other things, the formulation of proper marine fishing regulations in the exclusive economic zone, a savings-cum-relief scheme for fishermen, subsidised fuel, a monsoon trawling ban, and the central government’s withdrawal of the Aquaculture Authority Bill. This bill allows for large-scale, intensive aquaculture by industrial and tourism lobbies in the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ), which afterall is the survival mainstay of traditional fisher folk. The govern-ment accepted all the recommen-dations, only to toss the mandate about from one ministry to another. It is an expression of just how much concern the government had for the fisher people of the country that the administration of deep-sea fishing was eventually entrusted to the Ministry of Animal Husbandry!
The fisher folk want irksome fishing regulations to be repealed. As of now, fishermen are allowed to venture into the sea between 5 am and 9 pm for three days in a week. However, bad weather conditions keep them shore-bound for 45 days in a year. This has led them to demand financial compensation, which they say, should be extended to their women folk as well. They had taken these de-mands to the Prime Minister, who had promised to acc-ord all facilities to both the fishermen and their womenfolk. But the President of the Fishing Labourers’ Union, Baluchamy, who had met the Prime Minister with these demands, laments that the state govern-ments approach remains lukewarm when it comes to their implementation of specific proposals.
Tamil Nadu fishermen have demanded an extension in the fishing time, now restricted from 5am to 9 pm, after the state government clamp-down owing to the periodic conflicts between fishermen using mechanised boats and those in traditional country boats and catamarans. Fishermen using traditional methods also demand that mechanised boatmen should not be allowed to fish within three nautical miles of the coast and the ban should be strictly implemented. They complain that the use of trawlers or mechanised boats has created havoc on the seabed.
There is an international di-mension too. One of the demands of the state’s fishermen is the restoration of their fishing rights in Kachchativu Island. This is a small island between the Indian mainland and the island of Sri Lanka, which once belonged to India. Tamil Nadu fishermen have been using the Kachchativu Island for resting and drying nets. Under treaties in 1974 and 1976 between the countries, the island was ceded to Sri Lanka but it has since then remained a bone of contention between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. The Tamil Nadu government quotes archival sources to claim that the island formed part of the zamindari (revenue territory) of the raja of Ramnad. It protests the central government having unilaterally given it to Sri Lanka.
The waters around the island are known for their lobster catch. Tamil fishermen use Kachchativu as a halting point after laying their nets, before returning to their coast after collecting their catch. The island is also known for its religious festivities in which Tamil Nadu fishermen have participated since long ago. On certain days of the year, fishermen throng the island with their families to worship at the St Anthony’s Church. The site is revered by the fishermen and a priest from Ramnad goes there to conduct regular mass.
Since the 1980’s, Sri Lankan navy patrols have reportedly started objecting to the Tamil Nadu fishermen fishing near Kachchativu. The Sri Lankan navy round up these fishermen and incarcerate them. Related to this is the issue of frequent detention of Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lankan navy for allegedly straying into Sri Lankan waters. Earlier, the Tamil Nadu fishermen used to be repatriated back to India. Since ethnic conflict erupted in Sri Lanka, however, suspected of being LTTE sympathisers, the fishermen are also shot at. Over a hundred fishermen have lost their lives in such incidents. Even though shooting incidents have stopped since the commencement of peace talks between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government, the accosting and detention of Tamil Nadu fishermen continues. When the fishermen raised their concerns, the Indian govern-ment told them that the agreement allows Tamil Nadu fishermen to use the Kachcha-tivu Island as before, even though it now belonged to Sri Lanka.
Meanwhile, repatriated Tamil Nadu fishermen complain of being roughed up while in Sri Lankan custody. Protesting against action by the Sri Lankan navy, a relay demonstration was held in Rames-waram recently where the fishermen charged the central and state governments in India with a callous attitude. Ironically, the basic demands of the fisherfolk pale in comparison to the pompous rhetoric of Tamil Nadu’s political leaders such as Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, who has gone so far as to declare that the island be retrieved by force if negotiations fail to yield the desired outcome.
Recently yet one more dimension has been added to the suffering of Tamil Nadu fishermen who stray into Sri Lankan waters. They are now first detained by the LTTE, who levy fines and penalties before the Sri Lankan authorities even get into the act. The fact of the matter is that LTTE has intensified its patrolling in the Palk Bay region. “If this trend continues unchecked, soon the Indian government instead of the Sri Lankan government will have to approach the LTTE for release of the fisher-men”, says Professor Surinayarana, a Sri Lanka expert in Madras.
The problem in the Palk Bay is over-fishing accompanied by pollution that has led to the depletion of the fish and the destruction of the marine ecology. Fishing by mechanised trawlers has further accen-tuated the problem. Pearls were once found in plenty in and around the Gulf of Mannar till at least as late as the 1960s. But Thoothu-kudi, the ‘pearl city’, has witnessed a severe dwindling in the number of oyster catch over the years. The age-old diving profession is in rapid decline.
Another issue which concerns the Tamil Nadu fishermen is the ambitious Sethu-samudram project linking Palk Bay with the Gulf of Mannar on the east coast of India by creating a shipping canal through the Rameswaram Island. Doubts were raised by the green lobby about the environmental impact of the project, since it involves extensive dredging of the Pamban channel where coral fish abound. Because of this sustained pressure, an initial environ-mental examination was carried out through the National Environmental Engi-neering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur in 1998. The Sri Lankan Government has also communicated its opposition to the project because of the perceived threat to marine life in the territorial waters along the Pamban Channel.
Though the NEERI pre-feasibility report indicated that the project was environ-mentally safe, with little effect on the eco-system and on the Gulf of Mannar’s Marine National Park, there is, however, no clarity as to how much the Sethusamudram project would help or affect the fishermen. If all the hype about the shipping activity that the Sethusamudram project may generate is to be taken seriously, then it is clear that there will hardly be any scope for much profitable fishing in the area.
As always, when confronted with the problems of livelihood being affected by state-initiated projects, the bureaucrats always trot out a stock solution. The talk in the state government is about getting the fishermen to switch over to some new profession. And now a feasibility report on this matter is being prepared by the state and the central governments, the big question is will the fishermen be forced to abandon their profession? And if they are, what measures will be taken to ensure that they will get another source of income. The paucity of options stare 20 million fisherfolk in the face.