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An industry in dire straits

Tamil Nadu's fishing feud with Sri Lanka grows deadly serious

Women from the fishing community share their fears with their priest, Father Raj Women from the fishing community share their fears with their priest, Father Raj
  • Vincent D' Souza, Rameswaram
  • India
  • May 3, 2011
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It is a day after Easter and the large crucifixes erected all around the church in Thangachimadam for an open-air Stations of the Cross service have still not been removed.

Thangachimadam is a fishing village on the island of Rameswaram, on India’s south east coast of Tamil Nadu. In a small clump of cement-roofed houses, a somber mood prevails, punctured only by the talk and laughter of children enjoying their summer holidays.

The families of Victus the fisherman are in mourning.

On April 2, he and three others set out to sea. They should have come ashore 24 hours later but there was no sign of them. An alert was sounded, then a message came from Jaffna, in northern Sri Lanka: Victus' body had been found on the shoreline. A post mortem showed it bore many wounds.

A delegation led by Arulanandam, head of a fishermen’s alliance in Rameswaram, received permission to sail to Jaffna and take possession of the body which they buried it in the cemetery next to the government hospital.

A few days later, the bodies of the three more fishermen who had sailed with Victus were washed up on the shore in different places throughout Ramanathapuram, the district which covers Rameswaram.

Arulanandam suspects the Sri Lankan Navy.

"Our fishermen were informally told not to cross the international maritime boundary that night, because India was playing Sri Lanka in the World Cup cricket final and if Sri Lanka lost, its navymen could express their dejection while on patrol," he says.

According to Arulanandam, since August 1983, more than 300 fishermen in this region have lost their lives, a similar number have been injured, 80 have gone missing and there have been more than 2,000 clashes. Most took place when the Tamil Tiger militants were fighting the war in north and east Sri Lanka and the hostilities spilled on to the seas.

When peace came to Sri Lanka in 2009, the Tamil fisherfolk of Jaffna went back to their long-abandoned profession and their waters are still guarded by the Sri Lankan Navy. But it takes less than an hour by high-powered boat to reach the Jaffna shoreline from Indian waters and, as almost all of Rameswaram’s fishermen work in these waters, violent incidents have persisted.

Last month’s deaths of Victus and his crew has been the most serious such incident. Victus' brother, Lumen says that from what he learnt, the men had been beaten severely then dumped in the sea. Their boat is yet to be traced. "Our family was so shocked, we didn't even attend the Holy Week services at church," he says.

At a recent meeting between Sri Lankan and Rameswaram fishermen, the Sri Lankans insisted that the Indians should not be allowed in their waters. “We appreciate their point,” says Arulanandam, "but will India negotiate a change in the international boundary line so we get access to more seas? A practical compromise is what is needed."

Rameswaram island thrives on two activities: the huge flow of Hindu pilgrims to the famed Sri Ramanathaswamy Temple - which is said to be one of the 12 holy abodes of Lord Shiva - and the fishing business.

Over 60% of boat owners and about 40% of fish workers are said to be Christians. Leaders like Arulanandam say the Catholic church does not take more than a token interest in the community's issues, but the Church is active in some areas.

At St. Joseph's Church in Verkkodu, close to the island's fishing jetty, Father Michael Raj works with senior women from church societies, whose families are fisherfolk. They are charting ways to press the state to address their problems. They seem to be shaken by the recent deaths in the community. One woman said "it is time to rouse our men into action."

But Father Raj has cultivated relationships with fellow priests in Jaffna and, like Arulanandam, he candidly admits that the Sri Lankan fishermen have a point. "Our trawling is destroying the fish on that side and is hurting them badly," he says.

However, state politicians choose not to address the core issues. In fact, the state encourages intensive trawling.

It will need sustained efforts of activists and leaders to convince Indian fishermen that they now live in a changed environment and must respect the yearnings of their Sri Lankan counterparts.

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