Arrested at sea, adrift on land: Tamil Nadu fishers struggle with boats stuck in Sri Lanka

From 2016 to now, there are 179 boats of fishermen from Rameshwaram, Nagapattinam, Thanjavur and other districts in Tamil Nadu currently in Sri Lankan custody.
Trawler boats moored at Rameshwaram coast
Trawler boats moored at Rameshwaram coast

“It was the day after Deepavali 2016. Most fishing boats don’t go out to sea on this day, but some including mine did. I’m the boat owner,” says Karthikeyan, “But I wasn’t on the boat that day. Four people who worked for me were. They were near Katchatheevu when the Sri Lankan Navy captured them. They spent 72 days in a Sri Lankan jail before they were released.” Karthikeyan’s boat however is one of the vessels that will never come back to India.

When a boat is captured on high seas for venturing into Sri Lankan maritime borders, the fishermen are jailed and a case is filed against them in Sri Lanka. Even in the event they are released from prison and are able to return to India, their boats continue to remain in Lankan custody until the case is completed. If the court rules that the boat had crossed into Sri Lankan waters only because the fishermen were desperate enough to risk it, the Indian government is notified that the boats will be freed, says Devadoss, president of the Rameshwaram Meenavar Sangam (Fisherfolks’ Association). 

Meanwhile, there is little guarantee that the boats will be properly cared for. In Karthikeyan’s case, by 2018 when the legal proceedings were finally completed, his boat was in no condition to be brought back to India. Left exposed to changing tides, unprotected from rains and cyclones, the boat that he says had cost him Rs 25 lakh, was lost for good. “Trying to temporarily fix it and tow it back would have been pointless. The damages were too great. It would not only have drowned mid-sea, it could easily have capsized the tow-boat as well while sinking. I had to let it go.” Karthikeyan says.

Between 2016 and now, there are 179 boats of fishermen from Rameshwaram, Nagapattinam, Thanjavur and other districts in Tamil Nadu currently in Sri Lankan custody, says Devadoss. Quality of life for every one of them has deteriorated greatly since the loss of their boats. A majority of these boats are trawlers, measuring 40-60 feet. A smaller number of non-motorised country boats, called “nattu padagu” in Tamil Nadu, have also been seized. Normally, about five fishermen go out to sea in one trawler, or “launch” as the smaller ones are called. The larger trawlers are worked by around seven fishermen including the owner in most cases.

Livelihoods hit hard

“Ever since our boat was captured, we have barely any livelihood,” says Muthu Irrulayi, the wife of Muniasamy, a fisherman from Rameshwaram whose boat was seized by the Sri Lankan Navy in 2018. “Our family has no one but my husband to labour for us. I am unwell and unable to even leave the house. For earning enough for food or fees for education, we have few options. We’ve sold everything in our home to make it this far. There’s nothing left.”

“The navy showed up suddenly, without any lights on,” Muniasamy says, “I tried everything, even fell at their feet saying I have four daughters, our family depends on this boat. Nothing came off it. I was sent to a jail in Jaffna for a month and a half. All I had when I returned home was ‘coolie’ work. When I had the boat, it was possible to pay my children’s fees without a problem, since we lost the boat, we’ve lost everything else in our home. Losing our boat has destroyed our family,” he says.

For families such as Muniasamy’s, the loss of a boat has meant completely giving up fishing. Today, he does masonry work as a daily-wage labourer. His wife and four daughters were entirely dependent on his income, until he got his two older daughters married. His third daughter is doing her second year of BSc Biochemistry in a college in Paramakudi, the last is studying in class 12. Paying their fees has been a struggle. This time, Muniasamy says he has to take a loan for the fees.

A cycle of debt

In Karthikeyan’s case, purchasing a replacement boat has pushed him further into debt. He describes a system of lending and repayment that exists between fishermen and buyers of each type of catch that the trawlers bring back. There will be buyers just for octopus, or for crabs and so on. “If I take a lakh from one buyer, I’ll be paying off the amount by reducing the price-by-kilo of the catch for them. I put in some of the money for the boat and had to borrow the rest. If we don’t go to sea even for a few weeks, we end up having to borrow from the buyers to run our homes. Boat-maintenance costs money too, which also we have to take loans for at times. The debts pile up, but my revenue isn’t increasing,” he says.

Devadoss, who lost his boat in 2018 — the same year the Sri Lankan Fisheries (Regulation of Foreign Boats) Act was amended — alleges that ever since, the Lankan courts declare the seized boats government property. This was the situation with him, he says, forcing him to challenge the ruling all the way from a magisterial court to a high court in the neighbouring country. “The money to travel there, hire an advocate, the stay for each court proceeding, had to come from my own pocket. I spent Rs 5 lakh.” His boat continues to be held by Sri Lanka.

No help from Union government

Many boats, maintained poorly in Sri Lankan jetties have become dilapidated beyond repair, some boat owners have come to know. Eighteen fishermen — boat owners and labourers — received an aid of Rs 5 lakh from the Tamil Nadu state government in 2018. No help has come to them since. With loss of revenue, increased debts these fishing families continue to be in dire conditions, but no one is listening to them, they say.

There are many who have had to turn to daily-wage labour, putting themselves and their families in severely strained financial conditions. Some who have taken loans to replace their boats struggle to pay off the debts. The process of bringing the boats back to India is one that rests squarely with the Ministry of External Affairs in the Union Government, Devadoss explains. But little has been done in this regard. 

Sethuraman, the treasurer of Ilangai Kadarpadaiyaal Vaazhvaadharam Padagugalai Izhandha Meenavargal Ondriyam (Union of fishermen who have lost their livelihood-supporting fishing boats to the Sri Lankan Navy), has lost two boats — one in 2014 and one in 2017 — both of which have been destroyed after lying unattended in a Lankan jetty, he says. He too is faced with debts trying to maintain a launch-boat, costing Rs 5 lakh. “There are so many fishermen who, after being arrested and released, have little work to put food on the table, even attempt suicide. So many have died from the continued struggle and trauma. They don’t know any other job,” he tells me.

This union has recently submitted a petition to Anitha R Radhakrishnan, Tamil Nadu state government minister for Fisheries, Fisheries Development Corporation and Animal Husbandry. Citing a government order passed in 2018. They write that in 2018, 18 fishermen had received aid amounting to Rs 5 lakh each as compensation for lost boats. The petition asks that the 81 other similarly affected fishermen from Rameshwaram also be compensated with the same amount.

An invisible line between death, capture and livelihood

Ever since the demarcation of the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) between India and Sri Lanka in the early seventies, Indian Tamil fishermen have had their fishing grounds greatly reduced. This boundary line, of course, is entirely notional, with no physical makers in place, though it has been geo-tagged and can be seen when using a GPS device. 

Central to the problem of Rameshwaram’s fishermen is the ceding of the islet of Katchatheevu, about 16 nautical miles from the Rameshwaram coast, to Sri Lanka in 1974 by the Indira Gandhi government. 

“During Emergency, with the Tamil Nadu government dismissed in 1976, without the consultation of the state Assembly and Parliament, another agreement was finalised to determine the boundary in the Gulf of Mannar and Bay of Bengal and restricted both the countries’ fishermen from fishing in the other’s waters.” writes Dharani Thangavelu, in The Mint. As the report explains, the agreement led to the establishment of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), for which India and Sri Lanka reserve sovereign rights over the “living and non-living resources of their respective zones,” thus banning Indian vessels from “fishing in the historic waters, the territorial sea and EEZ of Sri Lanka.”

For Rameshwaram’s fishermen, being able to fish in the waters surrounding the islet, rich in marine life, makes the difference between surviving, and returning to shore empty-handed. But India’s marine border ends at 12 nautical miles. Devadoss says that they also have to leave 5 nautical miles inwards to small country boats by law. “If our fishermen take the risk of crossing international borders, it’s because our livelihoods are in Sri Lankan waters, and not here.” He adds that this exposes them to capture, being fired upon by the Sri Lankan Navy (with many grievously injured or killed), nets being destroyed. An Al Jazeera report describes instances of torture such as fishermen being tied naked to ice blocks. 

The islet of Katchatheevu has been a bone of contention for the Tamil Nadu state government under both the DMK and the AIADMK, the Union government and the Sri Lankan government. The AIADMK-led government under Jayalalithaa adopted three resolutions between 1991 and 2013 to retrieve Katchatheevu and moved the Supreme Court to declare the ‘74 and ‘76 agreements null and void. Similarly, the then-DMK president Karunanidhi, filed another petition in 2013 with regard to Katchatheevu and its retrieval. All of which has proven futile. The possibility of retrieval through these measures is unclear.  Even in February this year, VK Singh, Union Minister of State for Transport and Highways, claimed the Union government was taking efforts to retrieve Katchtheevu, but termed the issue “frozen as of now”.

Not only fisherfolk, says Devadoss, but also the families of buyers of each type of catch and those of other small businesses including vendors who supply flowers for at-sea rituals or rations needed for each fishing trip are affected by the loss of one boat.

Speaking to TNM, retired deputy counsel Moorthy who served in Jaffna, says that the only long-term solution is for the governments of both countries to sit down to talks that benefit both Lankan and Indian fishermen. “A healthy conversation needs to happen between both nations, there is no other way out of this. There will be no end in sight otherwise. Talks between fishing communities from Sri Lanka and India also need to be facilitated so they can come to an agreement among themselves. In the fishermen’s view, the sea is the shared provider of their livelihood, it’s their mother. The idea of international borders doesn't make sense for them.”

It remains to be seen if India will listen to the concerns of fishermen in Rameshwaram, Nagapattinam, Thanjavur and other districts whose seas border those of Sri Lanka. Only last week, Tamil Nadu CM Stalin had written to PM Modi urging the Union government to secure the release of 23 fishermen from Nagaipattinam who had been taken into custody by Lankan Navy at Point Pedro this year on October 13. The fishermen have, as last reported, been detained at Karainagar naval base in Sri Lanka. Calling the detention “highly reprehensible”, Stalin also mentioned that such incidents keep repeating, and added that the Union government needs to arrive at a permanent solution for the problem.

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