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Netas Natter, Tamil Nadu Fishermen SufferSalem-News.com
Sri Lanka is an overwhelming presence here, as in every fishing village in the southern TN coast.
(DHANUSHKODI Times of India) - The sea at Dhanushkodi is a sheet of grey. With hardly any waves, it's quiet, merging with the bleak landscape that nurses the wounds of a cyclone that devastated Dhanushkodi town in 1964. All that remains are the ruins of buildings that survived the storm and sea — an old church, railway terminus, port and jetty, a post office. Nearly 250 fishermen families live a bare existence, fishing near the shores or selling shell handicrafts to tourists who arrive from Rameswaram to see the ruins. There's no electricity or road.
The only mark of development is a primary school, a three-room concrete structure sticking out of the thatched homes. Until the cyclone ruptured its relationship with the mainland, Dhanushkodi, eastern tip of Rameswaram Island, was the last stop en route to Sri Lanka. People arrived here by the Boat Mail (train) from Chennai and boarded the 30-minute ferry to Talaimannar. There's no ferry now; none comes here to journey to Lanka.
The stalking Lankans
Yet, Lanka is an overwhelming presence here, as in every fishing village in the southern TN coast. The talk this election in the coastal hamlets of Ramanathapuram district is about Lankan naval boats stalking their men out in the sea. Hardly a day goes by without news of Rameswaram fishermen being apprehended by Lankans for crossing the international maritime border. These days, most of them are freed.
Sometimes the boat and fishing gear aren't returned. In the past, the men would be jailed in Mannar for trespass or smuggling. It takes protests, petitions and talks involving governments to get them released. The few unlucky await their turn, investing their hope in the prayers of their families and efforts of community leaders. At Thangachimadom, a village in Rameswaram, families of fi ve men have waited for two years for their men to return. In the run up to the election, the Centre and the state together got over a hundred of them released from Lankan jails.
Talks are underway to settle the matter. "For 20 years this has been happening," says Sethu, a fi sherman who lives in a shack beside the tarred road that runs along the sea and ends in a no-man's land close to Dhanushkodi. "We can't make out the international boundary in the sea and get caught by the Lankan navy," he adds. Men here don't own mechanized boats but work on them. Most of them, including Sethu, operate on rafts and fish close to the shore. Rameswaram has about 2,000 families who live off small boats and their problems are distinct from those who work on mechanized boats or trawlers. They rarely fi gure in the political discourse on the welfare of fishing communities.
Mechanized boats and babu worries
Sethu says their main challenge isn't the Lankans but fending off mechanized boats and the local bureaucracy. "We are allowed to fish in the waters that extend up to 5km from the shore. We go out at 3am and return by 10am. The days we fail to catch, we starve," he says.
The fishing boundaries are defi ned, country boats can fish within 5km of the coast. Mechanized boats can go up to 15km. The kind of nets used is monitored to prevent overfishing and small fishermen often are at the receiving end. Sethu bitterly talked of how the administration damages their nets when they fish close to the shore. "It'll cost me Rs 2,000 to get a net," he said, showing the tattered net he had cast close to the shore the previous night. It wasn't the banned type, yet they damaged it. Mechanized boats, he says, can fish only between 6pm and 6am.
"But when they go out, they fish for two days. Since they are monitored in Pamban and Rameswaram, the big boat harbors, they bring the catch to Dhanushkodi and load them in trucks. They don't get caught and we are targeted," he said. At the other end of Rameswaram, issues are different. Too many boats and too many fishermen are forced to fish in the narrow Palk Straits that separate India and Sri Lanka.
During the Eelam war, Indian fishermen had a free hand in the waters here. With Lankans, many of them Tamils, reclaiming their waters, the catch has fallen. Boats, by design or mistake, cross the maritime border resulting in skirmishes in the sea. A new political rhetoric that merges the plight of Indian fishermen and the rights of Lankan Tamils has emerged. It has refused to unravel the complexities of the matter. Overfishing and the impact on marine ecology, unequal relations between mechanized boats and small-boat fishermen, issues of sovereignty are lumped together. Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi to state leaders have promised to resolve the problems.
Answers in deep-sea fishing?
U Arulanandam of Alliance for Release of Innocent Fishermen suggests that Rameswaram fishermen be encouraged to shift to deep-sea fishing as a solution to the issue that threatens India- Lanka relations. Equip and train the crew in all the boats and it'd stop Indian fishermen crossing over to Lankan waters, end the tension between fishermen on country rafts and mechanized boats and resolve the issue of overfishing, he says. The Lankan waters are too close near Rameswaram, says Arulanandam, whereas Indian Ocean begins about 50 nautical miles to the south of Pamban and the Andamans Sea is 250 nautical miles to the northeast.
Boats from Colachel, a fishing harbour near Kanyakumari, go up to 1,700 nautical miles, he said. If Rameswaram fishermen don't venture into deep sea, it's because they don't have infrastructure. A new harbour at Mukkaiyur to the north of Rameswaram should be built to facilitate deep-sea fishing. It'll help more than 12,000 Rameswaram fishermen alone. According to one set of government fi gures, there are about 50,000 active fishermen in Ramanathapuram district and nearly 70,000 who work in allied trades.
It'll be a boon to this large section, he says. That's a practical suggestion lost in the din of nationalist rhetoric spewed by politicians. Very few politicians are willing to work on this though a Rs 8-crore project to promote deep-sea fishing was mooted some time ago.
THE TIMES OF INDIA
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