Local fishermen in the north and east find themselves helpless against Indian boats poaching in Lankan waters
Indian intrusion
By Frances Bulathsinghala
For them, the day begins and ends with the sea. Their survival lies with the ocean and follows the vicissitudes of the tide. Their lives have always been on the edge - but never of such despondency and helplessness as it is now.

The sea is beguilingly calm as the evening is ushered in on the coastal belt of Pesalai in the Mannar district. Hidden in the distant horizon are not sharks but a row of boats. "Sophisticated fishing boats which instantly mangle our fishing nets when they are steered around the areas where our nets are cast," explains Kannan, who has lived on the bounty of the seas for the past thirty years.

"The problem is not only in Mannar. It is the same for the entire north-eastern seas," he says adding that the intruding Indian fishermen would often be armed with knives and acid. "It is no longer fishing that we have to do. It is a battle and because we cannot fight their way, we starve.”He adds that the total number of trawlers in the Pesalai area is 260 and boats which run without a motor, 60. In the region of Thalaimannar the number of motor boats total about 300 and fibreglass boats close upon a 100.

Appeals have been made to the Fisheries Minister, the Navy, the Indian High Commission and the police about the proble ,all to no avail.According to the fishermen, the problem had begun when the high security in north-eastern seas was eased after the ceasefire agreement between the LTTE and the former UNF government. Acccording to the fishermen, with the fishing restriction no longer being there, the benefit is wrenched away from the local fishermen as the Indian boats encroach upto two kilometres from Lankan shores.

"We have pleaded. Once we used whatever force we could muster and persuaded a group of Indian fishermen to have a decent discussion with us," says one man recalling an incident nearly a month ago when a couple of Indian boats were rounded up and the fishermen coerced into conversation. He explains that where the sharing of the seas is concerned, India and Sri Lanka are entitled to 10 km each. It is only 18 km from here to the shores of India.

Most of us are scared of the methods they use to keep us away, especially when we encounter them on the high seas.Then it is often the use of acid that they resort to," says Markus Fernando, a young fisherman who accuses the Indian fishermen not only of stealing the bounty of Sri Lankan seas but also local boats.

"It is easy to drag away our boats which are small in size. Most of the time they do this as a form of intimidation," he says as he scans the seas afloat with a few local boats. "They are not really fishing. For that you need to venture deeper into the seas. The few local boats close to the shore mean that the men are just securing the next day's meal settling for a handful of fish," he says. 'We do not go into the deep seas because of fear," he adds, reiterating what every fisherman keeps repeating the moment you begin to speak to them.

Their problem they emphasize, is that if a scuffle takes place in the high seas, the blame would fall upon them, given the lackadaisical attitude shown by local authorities to their plight. The fishermen add that the Mannar police had told them to “sort out the matter themselves, without shedding blood, of course".

" It is neither the police nor this government who will come to declare our innocence," says Markus adding that nevertheless, the temptation was to take the law into their hands.

The main problem of north-eastern fishermen for the past years during the war was that their sea movement was restricted and they were only allowed to fish up to a maximum of five km from the shore due to the north eastern seas being a part of the high security zone. Although the high security zones still exist in small sea pockets near territories occupied by the Navy, the seas are largely free to be accessed by local fishermen.

Asked what would happen if they ventured into the Indian territory, the fishermen point out that would be the last anyone would hear of the fishermen concerned, meaning that they would be arrested.

"We do not blame the Indian High Commission here for their lack of action. It is the Sri Lankan government we blame. Nobody realises or cares that it is the resources of this country that are being plundered. Millions worth of fish is being taken away from us, from our seas. We are also losing lobsters, crabs and prawns," say the angry fishermen.

Deputy Minister seeks Navy’s help
Deputy Minister for Fisheries Nihal Galapathy who had visited Mannar a month ago to discuss the issue with local authorities, said he would lobby for the Navy to be vested with powers to arrest any foreign fishermen on Sri Lankan sea territory.

"The Navy is so far authorized only to take away the fishing permit from Indian fishermen found fishing in Sri Lankan seas. They are not authorized to arrest them. The root of the problem is this and the absence of patrolling by the Navy.”He admits that close upon 1,000 Indian boats are found on the Mannar coastal belt sometimes. "What we want to urge is that equal measures be taken for both Sri Lankan fishermen found in Indian waters and Indian fishermen found in Sri Lankan waters," the Deputy Minister adds emphasizing that Sri Lankan fishermen are taken into custody even though they may have been swept into Indian waters due to bad weather conditions.

Meanwhile Government Agent for Mannar, S.Vishwalingham claims that he has taken up the matter 'as best as he could' with the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Fisheries.

"It is only the Navy which can stop this.But on a request made by me for regular patrolling by the Navy, I was informed that they do not have the fleet to do so," he said claiming that the Indian fishermen come within two kilometres of the Mannar shores. He also says that a large amount of fishing nets are stolen by the Indian fishermen.

OIC of the Mannar police, C.I Premasiri when contacted said that although it is the police which received the bulk of the complaints made by the local fishermen they cannot take any action because it is a 'matter of the seas'. But the police and the Navy could work together to create a proper mechanism that will ensure the dignity of the local fishermen, he says.No comment could be obtained from the Indian High Commission or the Navy Media and Communication Unit, despite repeated efforts.

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