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25th July 1999

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For a catch in a tank

In the face of LTTE threats, 250 families have left the north western coast to set up home beside the Maduru Oya tank and earn a living through inland fishery

By Hiranthi Fernando

Brightly coloured fish- ing boats were drawn up along the banks of the picturesque Maduru Oya tank. A few were setting out on their daily fishing expedition, sails billowing in the breeze. Nearby, the fishing village was bustling. Fishermen of all ages streamed out of the Community Centre, after a meeting. Young children and dogs played between the rows of wattle and daub huts. In front of the huts, rows of fish arranged on cadjans, lay drying in the hot afternoon sun. While some of the elders enjoyed a siesta, the younger fishermen were gathered in groups around the grocery stores in the village. A Saruwath seller did a brisk trade in cool glasses of the bright red drink.

The fishing community at Maduru Oya is made up of 250 fisher families who left their homes in Chilaw, Thoduwawa and Iranawila on the north western coast, to settle in this dry zone area. Having set up their humble homes beside the wewa, they earn a living through inland fishery.

"I came to settle here in June 1982 along with the first 72 families," recalled an elderly fisherman, W.P. Newton Perera. "We did fresh water fishing in the lakes of Iranamaduwa, Vavunikulam and Oddusudan. In 1977, seven fishermen were killed and a lorry was burnt by the terrorists. Since we could no longer fish in the lakes there, we left our homes and came to settle here."

After the first group of families settled in Maduru Oya, more and more fisher families joined them. Today, the village has a population of around 1,500. G.M. Gunaratne, secretary of the Village Welfare Society, came from Anamaduwa. He said 40 families of the first group had been given 10 perches of land each by the Mahaweli Authority.

These settlers pay an annual rent of Rs.50/-. The rest of the settlers were given a block of common land for which they pay Rs.3,933 a year.

mending a netThey have also been given half an acre of land to build a church. In the midst of the thatched huts that make up the settlement, the partly completed large brick structure of the church is a focal point. Being a 100% Roman Catholic population, all the villagers are donating money to complete the church.

A simple thatched structure now houses a temporary church dedicated to Our Lady of Madhu. On two Sundays a month, the priest comes to the village church for a mass. On the feast of Madhu, the villagers say, 10 to 15 buses bring pilgrims from the north western coast to celebrate this feast.

They live with relatives or camp out in tents.

The fisherfolk say that at Maduru Oya they can fish throughout the year. However, according to G.M. Gunaratne, the catch was better in the northern inland waters. Also since the fishing population in the village is high, the income is less. In the tank, the catch is largely Thalapiya, known as Wew Seer and other fresh water fish such as Loolla. "On some days we get Rs.400 to Rs.500, but there are days we hardly catch any fish," said Newton Perera, who has four sons and several grandchildren living in the village. The family has four huts close together.

The fishermen go out 18 to 20 kilometres in their sailboats to catch fish. They set out in the afternoon, sail far out and lay their nets. After dinner, they sleep on the boat. and start the return journey around 2. a.m..

Earlier the fishermen would return to the shore and sleep beside their boats until they pulled in their nets at dawn. However, since three fishermen were abducted by the LTTE while sleeping by the boats, they now anchor their boats far out on the water. Camillus and his son who were setting out in their boat said they go as far as Amparai to lay their nets. The return journey takes four hours.

"We net about 50 to 60 kilos of fish on good days," Gunaratne said. "On rainy days we catch more fish but it is also more difficult to sail out. Gunaratne employs two helpers to take his boat out as he is often busy with the work of the Welfare Society. As they have no facilities for freezing, the fish is sold daily. The excess fish is salted and dried.

The fisher families of Maduru Oya retain close contact with their families and associates in the hometowns. Most of their fish is purchased by lorries coming in from Thoduwawa and Chilaw. "They bring all our requirements in food and buy our fish and dried fish," Gunaratne said. "People from nearby also come to buy dried fish while traders from Kurunegala and Polonnaruwa come for fish.

packing dry fishElderly Agnes comes all the way from Thoduwawa by bus to buy dry fish. She has a regular arrangement with Jeanette Tissera who makes the dry fish. Jeanette has three sons who are fisherman. "When lorries come, we sell about 25 to 30 kilos," she said. The balance fish is cut and kept in salt for 12 hours, after which it is dried in the sun for two to three days. Jeanette uses a kind of fish she calls Batto.

The selling price of the tank fish is around Rs.23 per kilo. "For every kilo of fish sold the Dimbulagala Pradeshiya Sabha takes one rupee," complained P.T. Camillus Fernando, another of the original settlers. "The fish mudalalis used to give us Rs.25/- for a kilo but now they charge the one rupee levy from us." The dry fish is sold at Rs.50/- per kilo.

The fisher folk bemoaned the lack of community facilities. Schooling is a problem, the closest school being 15 kilometres away. "Only the small children live here with us," explained T.H. Sugath Sherman, vice president of the Welfare Society. "We have to keep our school-going children with parents or relatives back in our home towns. We have requested the Pradeshiya Sabha to give us a school for our children."

The lack of transport poses another problem. It is a long way to the main road or town. Their only means of transport is a ride on an Army vehicle from the nearby camp. In sickness too the villagers go to the Army camp for medicine since there is no hospital close by. Water is scarce too. Although they have drilled three tube wells, very little water is obtained from them. In the drought, there is no water at all. They have to go to the wewa for water. The Army helps to bring in water by bowser for drinking.

"Without the Army's help, it would be difficult for us to manage," Gunaratne said. "On rainy days, when our fish lorries get stuck in the mud once again we have to appeal to the Army to help us out. The Pradeshiya Sabha gets over one lakh a month from the sale of our fish," Gunaratne continued. Why can't they give us some facilities? At least provide us with a motor, water tank and a water line."

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