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Government restrictions anger Tamil fishermen

Moves to stop fishing in or near Sri Lankan waters will destroy their way of life, fisher-folk say

Government restrictions anger Tamil fishermen

Mourners attend the funeral ceremony of three Tamil fishermen who were killed while fishing in disputed waters between India and Sri Lanka, in this 2011 file photo. reporter, Chennai

May 28, 2013

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Fishermen in Tamil Nadu are up in arms over attempts by the federal government to stop them fishing in disputed waters between southern India and Sri Lanka.

The federal government has recently warned Indian fishermen against venturing into Sri Lankan waters.

Frequent violations of international boundaries have resulted in confiscation of equipment and the arrest of many Indian fishermen by the Sri Lankan navy, the government says.

Unconfirmed newspaper reports say the government is now planning to impose heavy fines on fishermen who flout the ban.

The fishermen, however, have responded to the reports by accusing the government of trying to kill off a long-standing tradition and their way of life.

“This move by the federal government is unacceptable to us and we will continue to fight for our inalienable fishing rights which we have enjoyed for generations,” Yuvani Arulandam, a fishermen’s leader in Rameswaram, told

Instead of preventing fishermen from fishing in their regular grounds, the government should provide them with alternative sites and also allow deep sea fishing, Arulandam said.

He said the Sri Lankan navy has been illegally attacking Tamil fishermen under the pretext of territorial water violations since 1983.

More than 350 fishermen have died and over 1,500 have been arrested by the Sri Lankan navy in the last three decades, Arulandam claimed, adding that, many boats and fishing nets worth millions of rupees have also been seized.

Muhammed Rafi, a Rameswaram-based journalist, said thousands of fishermen from Nagapattinam, Pudukotai and Ramanathapuram districts have been affected by attacks by the Sri Lankan navy.

 An estimated 1 million people directly depend on fishing in these districts, he said.

“The Palk Strait separating the two countries is six to eleven nautical miles at various points and it is difficult for thousands of fishermen to limit their fishing areas,” said Rafi.

Increased attacks on Tamil fishermen also coincided with the start of the Sri Lankan civil war in 1983 against Tamil Tiger rebels, he said. 

However, attacks have not subsided since the end of the war in 2009, he claimed.

“The Sri Lankan navy attacks Tamil fishermen just because they are Tamils and for no other reason,” Arulandam said.

Alleged cross-border violations became a serious issue after India ceded the uninhabited islet called Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka (Theevu is Tamil word for Island) in 1974.

Fishermen from both countries have been fishing in those waters for years and sudden restrictions imposed by the federal government in Delhi is causing resentment among Indian fishermen who say the 1974 Katchatheevu agreement allows Tamil fishermen to fish in those waters, the activist said.

The Tamil Nadu state government led by Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has challenged the agreement giving the island to Sri Lanka in the Supreme Court. The court has yet to take up the case.

Last week she wrote to the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, urging him to redraw Indian maritime boundary lines so that Indian fishermen can once again fish their traditional waters without fearing attack. 

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