How The NDA Government Has Taken Up The Cause Of The Fishermen Of Tamil Nadu

How The NDA Government Has Taken Up The Cause Of The Fishermen Of Tamil Nadu

by SG Suryah - Mar 22, 2019 09:04 PM +05:30 IST
How The NDA Government Has Taken Up The Cause Of The Fishermen Of Tamil Nadu Tamil fishermen 
  • The NDA government has worked hard through various projects and diplomatic initiatives to secure the safety of the Tamil Nadu fishermen against the Sri Lankan navy.

After 26 years of civil war in Sri Lanka between Tamils, chiefly Hindus, and the Sinhalese majority, primarily Buddhists, the Sri Lankan state decisively won in 2009. The Sri Lankan army defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which claimed to have fought on behalf of Lankan Tamils, in 2009 after a civil war that lasted for more than two decades.

At this time, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was in power in Tamil Nadu, and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was ruling at the Centre. Both were seen to have helped the Sri Lankan government against the LTTE. Human rights activists say that hundreds of Lankan Tamils, political leaders and their families, including LTTE chief Vellupillai Prabhakaran and his family, were killed. Their estimate was that over 40,000 Tamil civilians died in the final months of the war.

In March 2013, the DMK celebrated in its Chennai headquarters the announcement by its president, M Karunanidhi, that the party was dropping out of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition. The DMK said it cannot participate in a government that is unwilling to take a strong stand against Sri Lanka for committing what the DMK described as "a genocide" against ethnic Tamil civilians.

Post the Sri Lankan civil war, many political developments took place in the country leading to the formation of a democratically elected government. There are also Tamil political representatives in Sri Lanka who frequently gave voice to the rights of Tamils in the Sinhalese-dominated country.

The Tribulations Of Fishermen From Tamil Nadu

However, the tribulations of fishermen from Tamil Nadu have remained unchanged. The fishermen were frequent victims of shooting, arrests and assaults by the Sri Lankan navy for allegedly trespassing into their waters. Even if Indian fishermen traditionally held fishing rights across the Palk Strait earlier, they had the zone virtually to themselves during Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war.

Though Sri Lanka is India’s neighbouring country, there was hardly any goodwill between the countries during the UPA rule, despite the help provided by the Manmohan Singh government to neutralise the LTTE.

Between 1991 and 2011, 167 incidents of shooting of Indian fishermen by the Sri Lankan navy were reported. Nearly 85 fishermen were killed and 180 were injured in these incidents that took place within Indian waters.

A sharp increase in the arrests was seen in the year 2013 when a total of 600 fishermen from Tamil Nadu were arrested by the Sri Lankan navy and a total of 107 trawlers were confiscated. The year 2013 showed that diplomatic trade-offs can, at best, be a myopic response to an acute problem.

The Narendra Modi government, which took over the reins of administration in 2014, dealt with the issue by holding several talks with the Sri Lankan government at the highest levels. This has drastically brought down the killings, arrests and assaults of Tamil fishermen by the Sri Lankan navy.

The Role Of The Indian Government Since 2014

In 2011, Emerson, P Augustus, R Wilson, K Prasath and J Langlet, five fishermen from Tamil Nadu were arrested by the Sri Lankan navy and were convicted for smuggling drugs. All the five fishermen were sentenced to death on October 2014 by a court in Colombo. In 2014, the Indian government challenged the conviction in Sri Lanka's Supreme Court. Prime Minister Modi raised his concerns with then president Mahinda Rajapaksa and the two leaders reportedly agreed that the fishermen would be transferred to an Indian prison. In a major diplomatic success for India, Sri Lanka released the five fishermen from Tamil Nadu.

India and Sri Lanka held ministerial level talks on the fishermen issue on 14 October 2017 in New Delhi. Radha Mohan Singh, India’s Minister for Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, met Mahinda Amaraweera, Sri Lanka’s Minister for Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development, and held detailed discussions.

As India was satisfied with the progress on the release of the apprehended fishermen and the confiscated fishing vessels in 2014, the release of the remaining Indian fishermen and fishing vessels in Sri Lankan custody was also brought up in that meeting.

The remarkable initiatives taken by the Modi government to end bottom trawling in the Palk Bay area were shared with the Sri Lankan side. These include launching of a programme for diversification of bottom trawlers into deep sea fishing vessels for tuna long liners under the Blue Revolution Scheme, construction of Mookaiyur and Poompuhar fishing harbours and capacity building programmes for fishermen of the Palk Bay area in deep sea tuna long lining.

Apart from that, fresh registration for bottom trawlers in the Palk Bay area has been banned by the government of Tamil Nadu. In addition, alternative livelihood opportunities for the fishing communities in Palk Bay area are being offered through open sea cage farming, seaweed farming and other allied coastal fisheries activities.

When we look back at the number of fishermen killed by the Sri Lankan navy during UPA 1, UPA 2 and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), we can clearly see the diplomatic impact made by the Modi government. During January-April 2007, there were seven incidents where the Sri Lankan navy attacked Indian fishermen, killing three. Between 1 January and 5 December 2008, six Indian fishermen were allegedly killed by the Sri Lankan navy. However, the Sri Lankan navy denied this following an investigation of the incidents. In July 2010, one fisherman was reportedly killed and three injured. Between 2009 and 2012, three Indian fishermen were reported to have died in the Sri Lankan waters.

There were no reported incidents of killing of Indian fishermen between 2013 and 2016, but in 2017, the Sri Lankan navy continued the harassment and arrest of the fishermen of Tamil Nadu with impunity. In March 2017, the Sri Lankan navy allegedly fired at a group of Indian fisherman, killing one and injuring three, while they were fishing between Dhanushkodi and Katchatheevu, off the Tamil Nadu coast. The incident triggered massive protests in the coastal town. The deceased was identified as Bridgo, a 22-year-old from Thangachimadam in central Rameswaram.

In 2017, 215 Indian fishermen were apprehended and 37 fishing vessels seized by Sri Lankan authorities. With sustained diplomatic efforts, the government could secure the release of 200 fishermen from Sri Lankan custody in the same year.

Following the 2+2 initiative in November 2016, when representatives of the foreign and fisheries ministers of the two countries met in New Delhi, a bilateral joint working group (JWG) mechanism was instituted to address the fishermen issue. It was also agreed that ministers for fisheries of the two countries meet every six months to review the progress.

The third meeting of the JWG and the second ministerial meeting held on 13 October and 14 October 2017, respectively, in New Delhi, took stock of the measures taken by both sides to address the issue, pending a permanent solution. As a result of sustained diplomatic efforts, the government secured the release of 347 fishermen from Sri Lankan custody in 2017.

On 27 July 2017, acceding to a long-pending demand of the Tamil Nadu government, Prime Minister Modi launched a deep-sea fishing scheme for fishermen of this region, saying it would help them overcome problems of fishing in the Palk Strait. Under the initiative taken up under the ‘Blue Revolution’ scheme, the Centre would allocate Rs 1,500 crore over a period of time for conversion of bottom trawling boats into deep sea liners. Rs 100 crore was allotted under the scheme and as a special financial package, an additional Rs 100 crore was sanctioned by the Centre for this initiative. Recalling that the late chief minister J Jayalalithaa had battled for retrieval of Katchatheevu to end fishermen woes when she had met PM Modi in 2014, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Edappadi K Palaniswami said since 2014, she had also repeatedly taken up with the Centre the demand for a deep sea fishing and infrastructure package of Rs 1,520 crore.

Along with the Centre's contribution of Rs 200 crore, the state government allotted Rs 86 crore for the conversion of bottom trawlers to long liners. In the first phase, a total of 500 bottom trawlers will be converted into long liners at the cost of Rs 286 crore. A total of 2,000 bottom trawlers will be customised as long liners at a cost of Rs 1,621 crore in three phases.

Under operation `Tasha’, the Indian Navy and Coast Guard ships are deployed 24x7 in the Palk Bay area to prevent illegal activities and also to protect the Indian fishermen, while they are fishing in Indian waters. Indian Coast Guard has also distributed a total of 1,853 distress alert transmitters (DATs) free of cost to fishermen in the coastal states of India which relay the location of a distressed fisherman to the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, Chennai.

Whenever any such incidents of attack and consequent detention of the Indian fishermen are reported, the government through diplomatic channels, immediately took up the matter with the government of Sri Lanka to ensure that the authorities act with restraint and the fishermen are treated in a humane and pragmatic manner, and are released expeditiously.

Seventeen Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu along with their three fishing vessels were arrested by the Sri Lankan navy on 29 October 2018, off Delft Island for crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line and fishing in Sri Lankan territorial waters. These fishermen were produced before the Kayts Magistrate Court on 1 November 2018. The Consulate General of India in Jaffna arranged for an attorney to represent these fishermen before the court.

During the trial, the judge declared the fishermen guilty and sentenced them to two years rigorous imprisonment for their unlawful entry into Sri Lanka and fishing in Sri Lankan territorial waters. However, their sentence was suspended to five years, and they were released. After their release, the High Commission of India in Colombo issued emergency certificates to these fishermen and they were repatriated to India by flight from Colombo to Madurai on 15 November 2018.

In 2019, the Indian government received letters from the governments of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry and also from fishermen associations regarding alleged attacks on Indian fishermen and confiscation of their boats by the Sri Lankan navy. The Ministry of External Affairs reiterated that the Sri Lankan government may consider the fishermen issue as purely humanitarian and as precipitated by livelihood concerns, and both sides should ensure that there was no use of force under any circumstances. As per the statement by the Ministry of External Affairs, a total of 1,915 fishermen and 380 boats have been released by Sri Lanka since May 2014.

The DMK alleged in 2013 that the Congress failed to take a strong stand against Sri Lanka's Tamil “genocide". Now the Congress and the DMK have again joined forces to face the 2019 general elections. Though one cannot deny the continuation of inhumane acts of the Sri Lankan navy against the fishermen of Tamil Nadu, when compared to UPA, the BJP-led NDA government has ensured the safety of Tamil fishermen in all possible ways.

SG Suryah is State Secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Tamil Nadu.
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