It has finally happened. It’s been threatening to happen for a while now. The news is deeply saddening and everyone’s thoughts must be with the family members of the 22-year-old Tamil Nadu fish-worker from Thangachimadam in central Rameswaram, who was shot and killed while fishing illegally in Sri Lankan waters early yesterday morning.
Bridgo’s death stands as a damning indictment of the Tamil Nadu trawler owners’ stubborn refusals to stop sending their trawlers to fish illegally in Sri Lankan waters. His death underlines the catastrophic consequences of the Tamil Nadu government’s failure to take appropriate measure against boat owners whose trawlers are arrested for fishing illegally in northern Sri Lankan waters. Equally, if not more so, the death of a Tamil Nadu fishworker while fishing illegally in Sri Lankan waters will leave a dark stain on the reputation of India’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its Minister Sushma Swaraj. Despite repeatedly summoning her Sri Lankan counterparts and Sri Lankan fishermen to New Delhi, Sushma Swaraj has mishandled genuine attempts by the Sri Lankan authorities and Sri Lankan fishermen to bring to an end illegal fishing by Tamil Nadu trawlers in Sri Lankan waters.
And now a young man has died. Maybe this was what it was always going to take? One death that one hopes will make politicians in Tamil Nadu and those in New Delhi finally see sense. To understand that taking no action against Tamil Nadu boat owners - who pay their skippers and crew bonuses to fish illegally in Sri Lankan waters - risks the lives of Tamil Nadu fishworkers. To appreciate that constantly demanding the release and repatriation of arrested Tamil Nadu fishworkers and trawlers without penalties or fines, actively encourages illegal fishing in Sri Lankan waters. To recognize that the International Maritime Boundary Line that separates Sri Lanka from India in the Gulf of Mannar, the Palk Bay and the Bay of Bengal is sovereign. No different from any border that separates two adjacent countries and that Tamil Nadu trawlers have no right to cross without consent.
Sri Lankan fishermen have made it clear that they were utterly opposed to issuing licences to Tamil Nadu trawlers to fish legally in Sri Lankan waters. As recently as November in New Delhi, representatives of fishermen’s organizations from Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Mannar made statements individually and collectively urging Tamil Nadu trawlers to stop fishing illegally in their waters with immediate effect. When pressed by Tamil Nadu trawler owners to give them (the owners) more time – a week, a month, a year - to withdraw from fishing illegally in Sri Lankan waters, Sri Lankan fishermen unanimously opposed the request. Sri Lankan fishermen responded, saying they would not give Tamil Nadu trawler owners so much as a minute more to fish illegally in Sri Lankan waters.
In the days that followed the meeting of fishermen’s leaders, India’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Agriculture (and Fisheries) met with their Sri Lankan counterparts. They discussed how to resolve the problem of persistent illegal fishing by Tamil Nadu trawlers in Sri Lankan waters. Despite the best efforts of Mangala Samaraweera and Mahinda Amaraweera, the Sri Lankan delegation came away from the talks with only the promise of ‘more talks’from Sushma Swaraj and her colleagues; but no commitment from the Indian side to end illegal fishing by Tamil Nadu trawlers in Sri Lankan waters.
Talks between the two governments’ officials duly took place in January. In the background, the Sri Lankan navy continued to arrest Tamil Nadu trawlers apprehended while fishing illegally in Sri Lankan waters. While officials talk, Tamil Nadu trawlers continue to fish illegally in Sri Lankan waters. According to press reports, there are currently 85 Tamil Nadu fishworkers and 128 Tamil Nadu trawlers in the custody of Sri Lankan authorities. Last week the Tamil Nadu government repeated its many calls for the unconditional release and repatriation of Tamil Nadu fishworkers and their trawlers. It is alleged that Indian diplomacy is behind the recent announcement by the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources to the release of 42 Tamil Nadu vessels. The release of vessels will be timed to coincide with the visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Sri Lanka in May, in yet another ‘gesture of goodwill’.
The emptiness of these ‘good will gestures’ was laid bare early yesterday morning. The ‘goodwill’ that the Sri Lankan government repeatedly shows towards the government of India must now be reciprocated in full and with interest. The government of India must accept that the unconditional release and repatriation of Tamil Nadu fishworkers and trawlers has no part to play in bringing to an end illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) by Tamil Nadu trawlers in Sri Lankan waters. The government of India too must accept that the responsibility to stop IUU fishing by Tamil Nadu trawlers in Sri Lankan waters lies not with the government of Sri Lanka in Colombo, but in New Delhi and Chennai.
Nor can the Sri Lankan authorities be expected to step back from protecting Sri Lankan sovereignty in the Gulf of Mannar, the Palk Bay and the Bay of Bengal. It’s not just fishing boats that move illegally across the maritime boundary line that separates the two countries. Yesterday’s tragedy notwithstanding, no one should be left in any doubt about the immediacy of the consequences they may face, should they be apprehended while engaged in anything on the wrong side of the border.
One life can change a nation. So there must be hope that Bridgo’s death will finally open the eyes of the Indian authorities in New Delhi, if not in Chennai about the need to stop Tamil Nadu trawlers fishing illegally in Sri Lankan waters. Today is a sad day but it is now clearer than ever before. The responsibility to end IUU fishing by Tamil Nadu trawlers in Sri Lankan waters lies with the Indian authorities. They need to act now, with immediate effect and with whatever means at their disposal.