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Prawn cocktail across the Palk Strait

The recent political turbulence over developments in the waters between Sri Lanka and India has produced some interesting information. The people of Tamil Nadu and adjacent areas have a special liking of the ‘paraw’ fish (blacktip trevally). They have a similar liking for prawns and sea cucumber, while traders in other marine produce have a great interest in conch shells. The problem is that this special liking is mainly for the paraw, prawns, sea cucumber and conch shells found in the waters of Sri Lanka, South of the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) that separates the Indian Ocean between spheres of control of India and Sri Lanka.


M Karunanadhi


M G Ramachandran


Joseph Vijay Chandrasekhar

It is now evident that all the noise being made across the Palk Strait about the threats faced buy Indian fishermen, ‘straying’ into Sri Lankan waters is in fact a mere paraw and prawn issue. It confirms what President Mahinda Rajapaksa told media editors earlier this week that fishermen have a strong tendency to go after fish rather than serve the political interests of others. He should know it because the President has been a former Fisheries Minister too.

South Indian politics

While the politics of Tamil Nadu raises high among the waters of that divide the two countries, with the Karunanadhi’s DMK trying to monopolize interest in the fortunes of Tami Nadu fishermen, control over Sri Lankan waters, where paraw and prawn are found in abundance, has become the rallying cry of South Indian politics today.

The latest to make the political leap into these waters is the South Indian film star Vijay, who apparently sees in these eaters the opportunity to even beat the popularity of the late (Sri Lankan born) MG Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu politics. At a public meeting in Nagapattinam earlier this week, Vijay made his entry into the political fray with a blood curdling threat to the very survival of Sri Lanka as a country.

Lankan waters rich with

* Paraw
* Prawns
* Sea cucumber
* Conch shells

In a performance that shows more than a penchant for demagoguery, Joseph Vijay Chandrasekhar, better known as Vijay, urged concrete action by the Centre and TN State to end the attacks on Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy.

Questioning both the Central and State governments as to why they have not taken action to stop this threat to Tamil Nadu fishermen, Vijay uttered the dire warning: “If we retaliate Sri Lanka, which is killing the fishermen of Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka will not be there and Sri Lanka will be erased in the world map”. (As reported in the ‘Malai Malar’ in Tamil).

Sri Lankan waters

Yet amidst the political din that is increasing as Tamil Nadu state elections draw closer, there are voices of sanity also emerging. I am beholden to the Hindustan Times (HT) correspondent in Colombo, Sutirtho Patranobis, for the knowledge about the taste for paraw and prawns. In his weekly column Sleepless Nights in Sri Lanka (not surprising for an Indian journalist here today), he says: “Tamil Nadu fishermen trespass into Sri Lankan waters to largely poach paraw (blacktip trevally), prawns, sea cucumber and conch shells. Last week, 136 of them became a prized catch themselves. Lankan Tamil fishermen, in a first, intercepted them and hauled them over to the police.”

It is now being reported that the waters closer to the Tamil Nadu coast and above the IMBL have been depleted of stocks of these most sought after harvest of the ocean, which drives the TN fishermen into Sri Lankan waters. No wonder Sri Lankan fishermen now free to fish in their own waters, fear that these waters will also soon be without anything worth catching, as the TN fishermen come here is such large numbers, also bringing trawlers with which they poach the deep waters, leaving little chance for the replenishing of paraw, prawns or any other fish around.

The HT’s Patranobis makes a very succinct observation of what is actually taking place, away from the deafening noise of TN politics. What’s turning out to be more serious is the frequency with which Indian fishermen were intruding in Lankan waters, impacting the livelihood of some 22,000 families (around 80,000 people) in Jaffna who depend on fishing.

“They have destroyed the fishing habitat in their waters by bottom trawling (sweeping the seabed) and now want to fish in our waters. It is not acceptable,” Jaffna-based S Thavaratnam heading an association of 117 fishermen’s’ union, said. On Monday, fishermen wearing black bands held a silent protest in front of the Indian Consul General’s office there (Jaffna).

Humanitarian point of view

“Questions were being raised about the timing of the increased incidence of incursion; suspiciously close to the Tamil Nadu assembly elections. Attacks on or arrest of Indian fishermen could indeed a whip up a pre-electoral frenzy along coastal constituencies, leading to more incursions and incidents. But that could only help Sri Lanka’s new powerful patron, who has no such bilateral issue to tackle, to tighten its net of influence on Colombo,” he states, with a note of thinly veiled caution to the Centre.

Accepting the reality of ‘Coalition Dharma’ as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh admitted last week, India’s External Affairs Minister SM Krishna, while performing the required role of supporting the political antics of coalition ally DMK in TN, he had an important observation to make to the Rajya Sabha last Wednesday (23).

In a good admission of reality, Krishna said: “I would also like to point out to this August House that almost all instances of arrests and harassment to our fishermen seems to have occurred in Sri Lankan waters, when our fishermen stray across the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL). While this by itself does not provide any justification for use of force against our fishermen, we need to be conscious of the sensitivities on the Sri Lankan side and of the many Sri Lankan fishermen who have, after a long hiatus, started fishing in that area.

“Both our countries have agreed that the Joint Working Group on Fisheries will meet in March this year. We would also encourage the fishing associations of both countries to continue with their informal contacts since such contacts have proved to be mutually beneficial. I hope that, in the days to come, our countries move forward to ensure that our fishermen can fish with safety and security.”

Palk Strait

He was echoing what President Mahinda Rajapaksa told the editors last Tuesday, that this is an issue to be considered from a humanitarian point of view, keeping in mind the interests of the fishermen from both sides, as well as the overall interests of each country.

There have been welcome signs from the fishermen across the Palk Strait who have announced a decision not to cross the IMBL and also some good thinking by Indian officialdom to provide them with equipment such as mobile phones to give warning signals when crossing the IMBL and several means of demarcating the boundary.

There is also an important note of warning to politicians, including newcomer Vijay, who seek to ride to office on the backs of the TN fishermen. Having been used by the politicians for very long, the TN fishermen have now realized their own political clout.

There are strong moves by organizations of fishermen to field candidates in the coastal areas of Tamil Nadu. The possibility of being challenged by candidates who know the true needs of fishermen has already begin to send shivers down the spines of many who seek to use Sri Lanka as a stepping stone to political office and power.

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