Until Monday when the northern farmers joined their southern counterparts in protesting against the government’s untimely decision to ban chemical fertilizer, the northern people were more concerned about the protests by fishermen in the region against the plundering of their wealth by the Indian fishermen.
They have been agitating for the past several weeks to persuade the government, especially the Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda who is also a northerner to stop the Indian fishermen from stealing their resources. Some of them accused Devananda of inaction in the face of Indian fishermen destroying the marine resources using their bottom trawling technique, while the minister was claiming that he was doing his best through diplomatic channels to prevent the Indians, especially the Tamil Nadu fishermen from trespassing into the Sri Lankan waters.
Northern fishermen took approximately 1,000 boats out to sea to participate in a large-scale protest on Sunday extending from the seas of Mullaitivu to Point Pedro in the Northern Province, against what they termed the inaction of the government over Indian fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan seas. Although the protest had a political colouring with the leaders of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), M. A. Sumanthiran and Sanakiyan Rasamanickam being in the forefront, there are genuine grievances behind the agitation.
However, this is not something that happened overnight; rather it has been a controversy that goes as far back as 1960 or even further. One could find newspaper reports even in 1960s where the Tamil Nadu officials warning their fishermen against their unlawful fishing activities in Sri Lankan waters. However, the situation came to a head during the war between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as the Sri Lankan navy imposed restrictions on the local fishermen’s activities and a large part of fishing industry across the Palk Strait gradually changed into the hands of the politicians.
The President of the Northern Province Fisheries Association, M. V. Subramaniam had alleged in April that most of the boats poaching in the Sri Lankan belong to Members of the Legislative Assembly in Tamil Nadu who are knowingly sponsoring these illegal acts. During the war The Tamil Nadu politicians were agitating against the Sri Lankan forces accusing them of “genocide” of Tamil in Sri Lanka. Owing to this moral support the Tamil leaders in Sri Lanka including leaders of political parties and the armed groups seemed to have thought it fit to be mere observers of plundering of their marine resources by the Tamil Nadu fishermen. The LTTE had an additional advantage in this as their boats were able to mingle with the Tamil Nadu fishing boats to smuggle in weapons and medicine. Now, Indian fishing vessels illegally fishing in Sri Lankan waters pillage around Rs. 900 billion worth of valuable marine resources in the northern seas of Sri Lanka annually, Subramaniam says.
So many rounds of negotiations have been conducted for the past several decades between the Sri Lankan leaders and leaders of both the Indian Central Government and the State government of Tamil Nadu, despite the fact that there is nothing to discuss here, as this is a clear violation of an agreement between the two countries. The 1976 agreement between Sri Lanka and India which determined the Maritime Boundary of the two countries clearly says that “The fishing vessels and fishermen of India shall not engage in fishing in the historic waters, the territorial sea and the exclusive economic zone of Sri Lanka nor shall the fishing vessels and fishermen of Sri Lanka engage in fishing in the historic waters, the territorial sea and the exclusive economic zone of India, without the express permission of Sri Lanka or India, as the case may be.”
The Tamil Nadu leaders who constantly agitated in the name of the Sri Lankan Tamils heartlessly ruined and still ruining the livelihood of a section of the same Sri Lankan Tamil people who had just started to rebuild their lives after a three decade long bloody war, with their disastrous fishing methods. There have been proposals to allow the Indian fishermen to fish in the Sri Lankan waters on certain days of the week and issuing passes to them for a fee. All those proposals were rightly opposed by the northern fishermen who are firm on the fact that their right to marine resources in the Sri Lankan seas is non-negotiable.
Indian leaders who are generously offering to spend on housing schemes for Sri Lankan Tamils and developing airports and harbours in the north must first prevent their fishermen from destroying the sea bed around the northern Sri Lanka.