Official lethargy and woes of the fisher community

SL fishermen in Indian jails
By Quintus Perera

There are an estimated 5,000 multi-day fishing craft in Sri Lanka. A majority of them are involved in tuna fishing. Since tuna has become a delicacy in many countries it has become a thriving global business. Countries compete with each other to catch for export.

Sri Lankan fishermen harvest around 40,000 metric tonnes of tuna. Around 25% of this quantity is exported and earns around US $ 60 million annually. However the traditional spots local fishermen went tuna fishing have now dried off and they have to travel between 100 to 150 nautical miles in search of fishing grounds.

Most Sri Lankan deep sea fishing craft are insufficiently equipped --having poor navigation equipment-- and tend to stray into territorial waters of other countries. Many a fisherman languish in jail in foreign countries for illegally fishing in territorial waters of those countries.

Nine such multi-day fishing craft which went deep sea fishing have been arrested by the Indian coast guard. All 51 crew members now languish in the Andaman Islands pending the disposal of cases in Indian Courts.

Stricken with anxiety, disease and poverty the parents of Wasantha await the return of their son.

Some owners of these craft said, on 8th March 2009 a multi-day fishing craft in deep sea developed engine trouble and was drifting. In response to an SOS 4 boats went to the rescue of the drifting craft. The boats and crew of 24 were taken into custody by the Indian coast guard.

On 12th March another Sri Lanka craft which developed engine failure and was drifting. Five boats responded. Unfortunately they too fell into the hands of the Indian coast guard. The 5 boats and 27 crew were arrested by Indian coast guard. In all 51 crew members were arrested under these circumstances.
While these 51 fishermen languish cin the Andaman Islands, the lives of their families are in disarray, with mothers unable to feed their children.

While the men languish in the Andamans the tale of woe of their families are heart-rending. The Sunday Times visited some of the homes of families of the fishermen now incarcerated in India and whose families live in Pitipana, Negombo.

Rows and rows of shanties have sprung up along the beach on land reserved as reservation. Many of the families are in fact squatters living in cadjan thatched shanties in sub-human conditions. Dhanuska Sheron Wasantha (22) is one of the fishermen languishing in the Andamans. He is the eldest son in the family who lives in a dingy cadjan thatched shanty where waves lap at their cadjan fence.

The family earlier lived in Trincomalee where they had been provided houses by the Government. In the face of the terrorist threat they moved from Kanddakkuli to Kuddippaduwa and finally settled at Negombo.

Dinesh Rangha (32) another captive, is a father of three children aged 11, 8 and 5. His wife faces a mountainous task to feed her brood. “What on earth am I to do with three growing children? I am unable give them even one meal a day. I can fast even for few days but what about them” she said tears dripping from her eyes. “I have no possible way” she lamented.

Catches along the coast are diminishing. Some fishermen have given up fishing and taken to various odd jobs. A Fisheries Ministry official (an Assistant Director) told the Sunday Times they had informed the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in Delhi and the other officials in areas closer to the captured fishermen on March 13th. However it was found since March no communication had been received regarding the release of the 51 fishermen.

Officials of the Dept. of Fisheries were dumb-founded when questioned regarding the condition of families of the arrested fishermen. They said the Fisheries Ministry had no practice of offering affected fisher families with dry rations or any relief measures.

An official commented “If we are to offer such assistance we would have to help 100s of families of fishermen detained in various countries. If relief was to be offered to the families here it would cost an enormous sum”. However earlier it had been the practice to provide relief by way of dry rations and even via cash payment at a local government level.

Meanwhile boat owners are shuttling to and from India in an attempt to secure the release of the fishermen and their craft. When The Sunday Times contacted boat owner -Sirimal Pinto, he said they had informed the Fisheries Department of the incident in March. He added they knew authorities including the Minister of Fisheries were making efforts to get the men and boats released. Despite this 51 crew members had been jailed for six months, He pointed out when Indian fishermen were arrested by Sri Lankan officials the Indian authorities resolved the matter within a matter of weeks.

Mr Pinto said during the past six months they had spent more than Rs. 5 million travelling between India and Sri Lanka in efforts to release the men and boats. He said they would try to bail the fishermen out. But added even in the event of them receiving bail they would be taken to another prison.

The entire episode indicates the lackadaisical attitude of the Sri Lankan authorities who do not appear to care about the number of lives and valuable property involved.

There is no scheme in place to secure the early release of fishermen straying into waters of other countries. Nor is there a scheme to protect the families of the fishermen who have strayed into waters of foreign countries until they return.

Officials should realize destitution could drive the wives and daughters of these fishermen into prostitution or similar activities. The Catholic Church in Negombo is waging a struggle to prevent this happening.

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