Fighting For Fish

The tangled battle to rein in Tamil Nadu trawlers in the Palk Strait

Many thousands of fishing vessels work the narrow expanse of water that separates India and Sri Lanka, putting the area’s marine resources under immense strain. GETTY IMAGES
Many thousands of fishing vessels work the narrow expanse of water that separates India and Sri Lanka, putting the area’s marine resources under immense strain. GETTY IMAGES
01 November, 2016

EARLY IN DECEMBER LAST YEAR, Kadiramalai Loganathan’s father succumbed to a long illness. The funeral exacted a heavy price, and to recoup it the fisherman had little choice but to quickly return to sea. On the night of 16 December, barely a week after his loss, Loganathan set out, with one other fisherman, from Karainagar, a small island off the Jaffna peninsula in north Sri Lanka, in his small fibre-glass boat with a modest engine.

Just a few kilometres out, as he waited after casting his net, Loganathan spotted a big, mechanised boat—a trawler. “Before I knew it, the boat started pulling away my net,” he told me. He chased after the trawler as fast as he could to try and save the net, his biggest investment. He had borrowed 2 lakh Sri Lankan rupees to buy it—about 90,000 Indian rupees or $1,350—and had hardly started repaying the loan. But his boat was no match for the larger vessel.

“I shined the lights up to signal them to stop,” Loganathan said. The men on the trawler shouted back in Tamil, “Annachi”—elder brother—“don’t show any lights. The navy will get us.” Loganathan recognised their Tamil dialect, different from the one spoken in north Sri Lanka, from his days as a refugee in Tamil Nadu, in India, during the Sri Lankan Civil War.

Loganathan got his net back, but it was in tatters and could not be salvaged. He took out another loan to buy a second-hand net, which he has been using ever since. He makes ends meet with support from his wife, Rathneswary, who helps with his work on shore in addition to keeping house. The couple lives with the youngest of their three daughters, who is still in school.

I met Loganathan on a visit to Karainagar in June. On a Tuesday morning, I watched the daily auction at the village’s fishermen’s cooperative—recognised as the best run cooperative in Jaffna district by a federation of 117 of them. A man called out bids from a cement platform, with little modulation, while a small catch of silvery fish lay on an empty sack near his feet. “500… 510… 550… 550… 580… 580… 580…” He paused after each number to survey the room for a higher bid. 580 was it. The catch was dragged away, making way for another. Baskets of fish went into and out of the room, with a small percentage of each catch going into a bucket as the cooperative’s share. Two cats walked quietly about.

The place looked as I remembered it from a visit in 2014, except that back then there were at least twice as many fishermen, and a lot more fish in their baskets. Even two years ago, it was hard to find a fisherman who took home a decent profit. Now, it seemed impossible.

Loganathan’s catch fetched 1,400 rupees that day, but he had spent 600 rupees on fuel for his boat, and had to pay 1,000 rupees to a fisherman he had hired to work with him. “So it’s a loss of 200,” the lean 48-year-old said. “This is how it has been for a while now.”

About 200,000 people in Sri Lanka’s predominantly Tamil Northern Province—about a fifth of its entire population—depend on the sea for a living. For much of the two-and-a-half decades that the Sri Lankan government battled the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who wanted a separate state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority in the island’s north and east, fishermen were barred from the waters along the country’s north coast. The war caused massive damage to property, displaced huge numbers of people, and is estimated to have claimed nearly 100,000 lives. After it ended, in 2009, fishermen in north Sri Lanka started piecing their lives back together, buying small boats and returning to sea—only to find that trawlers from Tamil Nadu were ravaging their waters. Catches were significantly smaller than before, and Sri Lankan fishermen, almost all of whom practise small-scale, non-mechanised fishing, now worked in perpetual fear of losing their nets, as Loganathan had.

When fishermen in the north of Sri Lanka returned to the sea after the country’s civil war, they found that their waters were being ravaged by Indian trawlers. MEERA SRINIVASAN

Loganathan had fled to Tamil Nadu in the mid 1990s, and spent about eight years in refugee camps there. He returned in late 2004, during a lull in the fighting, only to see Karainagar devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami. But now, he said, “I feel I was better off during the war or tsunami. That is how pathetic my current situation is.”

“The people of Tamil Nadu have always stood with us, particularly during the war,” Loganathan continued. “No one in Sri Lanka immolated themselves for our cause, only people in Tamil Nadu did. We realise that and we are grateful. But they should let us fish.”

S SELLACHI DID NOT HAVE MUCH TIME to spare on the morning that we met. An annual 45-day ban on mechanised fishing, enforced in Tamil Nadu since 2001 to allow fish to breed, was coming to an end in less than a week, on 29 May. She had hired workers to repair her boat in preparation, and was supervising them.

Sellachi’s boat was one of a long row of trawlers hauled out of the water and arrayed along the coast in the town of Jagadapattinam, in Tamil Nadu’s Pudukkottai district. All of them were being readied for the following week. The state has roughly 4,500 registered trawlers, at least 2,500 of which fish in the Palk Strait—a narrow stretch of sea separating India and Sri Lanka, beginning just north of the Jaffna peninsula and extending about 100 kilometres at its widest. The maritime boundary between India and Sri Lanka, mutually agreed upon in the mid 1970s, runs more or less through the middle of it, and each country has sovereignty over the waters and resources on its side.

India has been encouraging mechanised fishing for decades, ever since a joint project with the Norwegian government that pumped millions of dollars into modernising the country’s fishing fleet between the 1950s and the early 1970s. Through those decades and after, thousands of people invested in trawlers, lured by the promise of high profits. Trawlers bring in catches numerous times as large as those of unmechanised vessels—which in India still outnumber trawlers manyfold. Trawling presently accounts for 55 percent of the country’s seafood production, and the corresponding share for Tamil Nadu is higher still. The state exported a total of 93,477 tonnes of seafood in the 2015 fiscal year, earning Rs5,308 crore, or about $830 million. Indian seafood exports in the last fiscal year totalled a record one million tonnes, and earned $5.5 billion in foreign exchange.

As the number of Indian trawlers has grown, so has the intensity of fishing in the waters closest to the country’s coast. This has led to overfishing and depleted catches. So Indian trawlers have been pushing farther out, into fresher, more fruitful waters. In the Palk Strait—which is particularly tempting for its bounty of prawn, in high demand on the international market—Indian vessels regularly breach the maritime boundary to fish on the Sri Lankan side, which has remained relatively unexploited by fishermen from north Sri Lanka, with their smaller vessels and less intensive fishing techniques.

Sellachi watched two young men repairing a wooden plank that was soon to be reinstalled on the boat. In between this, she turned towards the vessel, where S Sriram, the youngest of her four sons, was getting some electrical work done. Sriram, aged 18, had just completed a three-year course in mechanical engineering in a nearby town, and was helping out while on a break before job-placement interviews. Until a couple of years ago, he used to go out to sea with Sellachi’s hired crews. “You need at least five or six people to go on a trawler boat,” she explained, “and we would send him sometimes. But not anymore. He faced enough problems, and he has not forgiven me for that.”

Clad in black shorts and a yellow T-shirt heavily stained with grease, Sriram jumped with ease off the boat deck some three metres above us, and led me to a shaded spot nearby to tell his story. About a year and a half ago, the boat was fishing near Katchatheevu, an island that lies across the maritime boundary, when it was intercepted by the Sri Lankan navy. “They pelted us with stones, and arrested us,” he said. Sriram spent three months in detention in Sri Lanka—about a month in prison, and the rest in a children’s home in Jaffna city. At the home, he joined five other Indian youngsters detained on charges of illegal fishing. “The food was bad in the jail, but okay at the children’s home,” he said. After a brief pause, he added, “I will never go back to sea.”


THROUGH THE MIDDLE OF THE LAST CENTURY, movement was freer on the Palk Strait, and fishermen from both sides comfortably shared its rich waters. NV Subramanian, a leader of a fishermen’s cooperative in Jaffna, told me how, in the early 1970s, he used to take boats to the town of Rameswaram, on the other side of the strait, to watch Tamil films. “We would set out by noon, reach India by six in the evening, watch the show and leave by ten,” he said.

The war changed things completely, and hit Sri Lankan fishermen especially hard. In the early days of the conflict, numerous Tamil militant groups operated in north Sri Lanka and had bases in Tamil Nadu. Fishermen were ideally placed to smuggle fighters and supplies across, and many of them developed strong ties to these groups, including the Tigers. As the war intensified and the Tigers consolidated control over the insurgency, the Sri Lankan navy began battling them for control of the coast and sea. Government forces treated fishermen from the north of the island with particular suspicion. The association between the Tigers and the fishing community in the public mind was strengthened by the fact that the rebels’ leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, came from a traditional fishing caste.

But the fishing community in north Sri Lanka was hardly a uniform whole, and its interactions with the Tigers were shaped by coercion as well as cooperation, and by internal fissures of class and caste. The rebels did not hesitate to overlook the community’s interests in favour of their own. Fishermen were kept from the sea at various points during the conflict, sometimes by the navy, sometimes by the Tigers’ naval wing, and sometimes by both.

By the time the war ended, trawlers dominated the Indian side of the maritime boundary, and soon they brought trouble into Sri Lankan waters. Trawling involves dragging large nets through the sea, either in the middle of the water column or along the seabed. Particularly when practised intensively, it has severe ecological effects. Environmentalists complain that it causes overfishing, and indiscriminately scoops out young fishes and other creatures that the fishermen are not targeting. Bottom trawling also disrupts the marine ecology by damaging the seabed and throwing up large quantities of sediment.

Indian states have the power to formulate their own fisheries laws. Tamil Nadu bans some particularly harmful practices such as pair trawling, where two vessels draw a net between them, but leaves other forms of trawling unregulated.

In the Palk Strait, the impact of intensive fishing has been alarming. E Vivekanandan, who retired as the principal scientist at the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute in Kochi and now works for it as a consultant, told me that though huge export figures might suggest healthy fisheries, “statistics can mask several truths.” Over the years, he said, fish production on the Indian side of the maritime boundary “has come down drastically” despite Indian fishermen adopting more advanced fishing methods, and today “at least 40 percent of the catch recorded in Tamil Nadu comes from Sri Lankan waters.”

Vivekanandan spoke of clear signs of ecological decline. “Fishermen tell us they don’t find as much silver belly fish, sciaenids, threadfin breams, perches, sardines and mackerel as they did earlier. We don’t have numbers, but it’s hard to deny that their population is dwindling.” Neither the Indian national government nor the Tamil Nadu government has commissioned a scientific study to assess fish numbers in the Palk Strait or its surrounding waters. Sisira Haputhantri, the principal scientist at Sri Lanka’s National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency, said, “we hope to look into fish stocks in the north next year.” But a 2008 survey of the Palk Bay by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation found, based on reports by fishermen, that 13 species earlier common in the area had declined sharply.

For Sri Lanka, intensive Indian fishing has a great financial cost too. Seafood is a major export for the country. In 2014, it fetched $267 million of export revenue.A report by a Sri Lankan think tank that same year estimated that the country loses 5.3 billion Sri Lankan rupees, or $41 million, due to illegal fishing by Tamil Nadu trawlers every year.

With increasing competition for shrinking catches, the Sri Lankan government moved to keep intruders out. Since 2010, the country’s navy has arrested roughly 2,500 fishermen from India. Sri Lanka’s current policy is to quickly release all arrested Indian fishermen. This year, as of mid October, Sri Lanka had arrested 239 Indian fishermen, according to the navy; only five of them, all very recently arrested, remained in custody as this story went to press.

But confrontations in the Palk Strait remain a cause of friction between the two countries, and in the past have escalated with dire consequences. In early 2011, two Tamil Nadu fishermen were reportedly shot by the Sri Lankan navy in separate incidents, leading to large protests and a diplomatic flashpoint. Indian fishermen allege that the Sri Lankan navy has fired upon them many times since. The Sri Lankan navy has denied the occurrences of both 2011 shootings, as well as the allegations of subsequent firings.

As the threat of arrest alone has not been enough to keep Indian fishermen away, since the latter half of 2014 the Sri Lankan government has started holding any trawlers that stray across the maritime boundary, even after their crews are sent home. The country’s navy has seized almost 500 vessels since 2011, of which 131 remain in Sri Lankan custody. This has shifted some of the burden of punishment away from fishermen, most of whom are wage labourers, and onto trawler owners, who reap the greatest benefits from these boats. And this shift has further politicised the dispute in Tamil Nadu.

Over a million people in Tamil Nadu rely on the fishing industry, and they form an important electoral constituency. Sri Lanka’s treatment of Tamil Nadu fishermen has caused great anger among this community, and also among many others who see it as an issue of asserting the state’s clout. Trawler owners are among the richest and most powerful people in the fishing community, and for them the recent seizures of the vessels have rankled. The fishing community’s affinity for the state’s ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or AIADMK, is well known, and traces back to the party’s founder, the film star MG Ramachandran, playing the leader of a small fishing community in the 1964 hit Padagaotti. Tamil Nadu’s present chief minister, J Jayalalithaa, has made it a point to demand action on the detention of fishermen and the seizure of trawlers from the central government in Delhi, pressuring it to defend the interests of Tamil Nadu fishermen. In 2015, according to a senior official at the state’s fisheries department, who asked not to be named, she wrote 21 letters on these matters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose party has been pursuing a rapprochement with the AIADMK. This year, as of October, she had written another 22. Recent news reports detail continuing protests by Tamil Nadu fishermen, demanding an end to alleged attacks by the Sri Lankan navy and the release of trawlers in Sri Lankan custody.

Access to Katchatheevu is another emotive issue in Tamil Nadu. India maintained a claim to the uninhabited island and its rich surrounding waters following the end of British rule, but recognised Sri Lankan control in 1974. The Tamil Nadu government, under Jayalalithaa, has challenged the legality of that move in the Supreme Court, but the Indian government has stood by it. The demand to “retrieve” Katchatheevu remains a constant among Tamil Nadu’s fishing community and political class.

The maritime boundary between India and Sri Lanka runs through the middle of the Palk Strait, giving each country sovereignty over the waters and resources on its side. EOSNAP / CHELYS

Attempts to resolve the fisheries dispute at the diplomatic level have so far failed. A Joint Working Group on fisheries, established by the Indian and Sri Lankan governments to resolve disputes and promote cooperation, met numerous times after the war, but has not been reconvened since 2012. The dispute has since been discussed at other diplomatic meetings, including at one between the heads of state of both governments this May. In response to my emailed questions about the Indian approach to the issue, Vikas Swarup, the spokesman for the country’s ministry of external affairs, wrote only that it has been agreed “that both countries would work towards a permanent solution on the fishermen issue.” Part of Sri Lanka’s stance, articulated at an international marine conference in September, is to insist on a complete ban on bottom trawling. The Sri Lankan foreign ministry did not respond to requests for further comment.

Sri Lanka’s Northern Province is struggling to overcome the legacy of the war, which claimed nearly 100,000 lives and led to massive property damage GEMUNU AMARASINGHE / AP PHOTO

Leaders of fishing communities on either side of the Palk Strait have tried to come to some agreement between themselves. They met six times between 2010 and 2015, but then gave up on further talks. Tamil Nadu trawlers presently go to sea thrice a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, as part of a deal for controlling overfishing reached between the state’s trawler owners and small-scale fishermen in the 1990s. Those are also the days when the trawlers venture illegally across the maritime boundary, totalling just under 140 days a year, not counting the required 45-day off season. At a meeting this March, Tamil Nadu fishermen insisted that the trawlers be allowed in Sri Lankan waters for 83 days a year—a slight reduction from an earlier demand for 90 days—and promised to phase out trawling in three years. Sri Lankan fishermen replied that even if these conditions were followed there would be nothing left in their waters by then.

It does not help that Tamil Nadu fishermen have done little to inspire faith among their Sri Lankan counterparts. Back in 2010, they promised to reduce the number of days that they ventured into Sri Lankan waters—a promise that the Sri Lankans remember for how soon it was broken. Now, Sri Lankan fishermen refuse to negotiate without an assurance that Tamil Nadu fishermen will stop trawling across the maritime boundary completely, though they are open to their counterparts practising traditional forms of fishing even in Sri Lankan waters.

Today, fishermen in north Sri Lanka largely avoid going to sea on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. That they’ve conceded this defeat, even with international law clearly on their side, reflects a gross imbalance of power. Their boats cannot compete with the trawlers, and they cannot afford to risk their nets. Their government tries to enforce control over its waters, but does not want to antagonise India past a point, and Tamil Nadu fishermen rarely hesitate to cross the boundary.

But the worst imbalance is in what’s at stake for both sides. On the Tamil Nadu side, those who go to sea on the trawlers depend on them for work, but the greatest benefit from these vessels fishing in Sri Lankan waters goes to their owners, for whom this is largely a matter of maximising profits. Across the Palk Strait, however, those being hurt are among the most vulnerable people in Sri Lanka, who were devastated and deprived of their livelihoods by the war, and are dependent on the sea to survive. Tamils in south India were staunch supporters of their Sri Lankan counterparts throughout the war, but are now denying Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen a chance to get back on their feet.

For now, Indian trawlers largely run free, depleting Sri Lankan waters as they have their own, and neither the Tamil Nadu nor the Indian government has stopped them. Sri Lankan fishermen can do little but complain. Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government is adopting a stronger stance that could well see tensions between the two countries escalate.

“We are about to amend our Foreign Fishing Vessels Act,” Mangalika Adhikari, the secretary of Sri Lanka’s ministry of fisheries and aquatic resources development, told me in Colombo. The government seeks to increase penalties for foreign boats in Sri Lankan waters, she said, and has also asked the Sri Lankan navy and coast guard to intensify surveillance. While the Sri Lankan government would continue releasing arrested Indian fishermen on humanitarian grounds, it had no intention of releasing seized trawlers, she emphasised. “If Indian trawling continues for another one or two years,” she said, “our northern sea will then become a dead sea.”


N DEVADAS'S HOME WAS NOT HARD TO FIND. He lives in Rameswaram, a town on the east shore of Pamban Island, which lies in the south of the Palk Strait, off the Tamil Nadu coast. “Oh, the fishermen’s organisation leader? Right here,” an elderly woman running a small store beside his house told me.

Devadas opened the door in a spotless white dhoti and a white khadi shirt starched so thoroughly that the sleeves looked as crisp as if they were made of paper. Caged lovebirds chirped loudly as he escorted me into an air-conditioned living room with a giant flat-screen television mounted on one wall.

Pamban lies in Tamil Nadu’s Ramanathapuram district, which has 1,725 registered trawlers—the most of any district in the state. I had come here to get to know the Tamil Nadu fishing community’s positions and politics on the India-Sri Lanka fisheries dispute. I asked Devadas, who has led a Rameswaram-based association of trawler owners for over a decade, why trawlers from Tamil Nadu would not stop entering Sri Lankan waters, despite repeated appeals by Sri Lankan fishermen.

“This has to be seen as a livelihood issue of Tamil Nadu fishermen,” he told me. During the war, he explained, Tamil Nadu fishermen ventured across the maritime boundary as often as they liked—particularly in the Palk Bay, south of the strait, which was largely spared from the conflict between the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government. Now, “all that we are asking for is 90 days.”

Devadas complained that things were difficult because those who bring in the catch have no say over the price of it, and have to take the best offer they get from traders and exporters. “Take salt, for instance. The manufacturer fixes the price,” he said. “Take Bata slippers—they fix the rate at 199.99 or something.” But in the fishing trade “we risk our lives to catch the fish, but someone else determines the price.” He also said that “the BJP has not done anything to bring back our trawlers.”

In a relatively simpler home in the village of Thangachimadam, about 15 minutes away, I met P Sesu Raja and S Emirut, leaders of a federation of 12 trawler-owners’ associations that have some 800 members between them. Both men had participated in negotiations between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan fishermen. Seated on plastic chairs, while a table fan with a Jayalalithaa sticker moved hot air around the room, they echoed much of what I had heard from Devadas.

“That is where we fished traditionally, from the time I was a child,” Emirut, whose family owns five trawlers, said of Sri Lankan waters. “How can we stop all of a sudden?”

Sesu Raja, who owns three trawlers, told me, “It is a bad time to be in this business. Mine will be the last generation of our family to engage in fishing.”

Both vehemently defended trawling. “At first we walked, then we rode a bicycle, moved on to a motorbike, went in a car, flew in an aeroplane and even launched rockets,” Sesu Raja said. “Similarly, from a modest day boat we have moved to a trawler. Now if you ask us to go back to day boats, is that fair?” Emirut described the chain of people who depend on trawlers in some way: “the four or five labourers who go fishing for a daily wage, those who work on the shore, the traders who take our catch to the exporters, those who repair and maintain our boats.” For each trawler, he said, the number worked out to “at least 25 people. Now if we stop trawling, wouldn’t all of them be jobless?”

But trawler owners’ professed concerns, I learnt, obscured several things. First, their tendency to overlook the problems of fishermen across the Palk Strait, for whom the trawler owners I interviewed expressed sympathy but refused to sacrifice their own interests. Second, that trawler owners have shown little regard for the livelihoods of Tamil Nadu’s small-scale fishermen—there are 33,000 small-scale fishing vessels in Tamil Nadu—or for the well-being of those who take trawlers to sea. And third, that many in Tamil Nadu’s fishing community do not see trawler owners as fairly representing them, though the owners often project themselves as speaking on behalf of the community as a whole.

Poverty figures in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province are high. Fishing is one of the two main sources of livelihood for northern Tamils, alongside agriculture, and about a fifth of the province’s population depends on the sea. ANURUDDHA LOKUHAPUARACHCHI / REUTERS

“Relentless trawling for decades brought wealth for a few fishermen who invested, but left little in the sea for small-scale fishermen on both sides,” U Arulanandam, the founder of the Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fishermen, told me in the town of Pamban, on the opposite shore of the island from Rameswaram. “That’s all there is to it.” His organisation campaigns for the release of fishermen arrested by the Sri Lankan navy, and he boasts a network reaching all the way to Delhi and across the strait in Sri Lanka.

Those who Arulanandam works to free pay a great price but receive limited benefit for going out to fish on the trawlers. At a shabby trade-union office in Rameswaram, I spoke with R Nageswaran, a daily-wage fisherman. Nageswaran had his own small fishing boat until ten years ago, when drastically falling catches had forced him to sell it and start working on trawlers. In 2014, he was arrested by the Sri Lankan navy, somewhere between Katchatheevu and the Sri Lankan shore, and was detained for four days before the Indian government secured his release. He explained that a large part of trawler labourers’ pay is calculated based on the size of the catch they bring in. “About four or five of us go as workers in a trawler. If the catch is good, we get about 2,000 rupees,” he said. “I know we are at fault, but there are no fish on our side. Unless I take this risk and go to that side I won’t even make 500 a day.” Nageswaran has five children to feed on whatever he earns. “Sometimes I see that our trawlers cut and damage Sri Lankan fishermen’s nets. I feel really bad and guilty. They are also just like us. But I have to face the trawler owners. There is enormous pressure on us.”

Some fishermen have apparently taken to supplementing their income by smuggling drugs across the strait. In Colombo, Akram Alawi, a captain and spokesman for the Sri Lankan navy, told me this is a major concern and asked me to “please highlight the problem.” According to the navy, 47 Indian fishermen are presently in Sri Lankan prisons for drug smuggling.

In a crowded, working-class area of Pamban, I visited K James Prasath, who, alongside four other Tamil Nadu fishermen, was arrested by the Sri Lankan navy on charges of smuggling drugs in 2011. The Indian government raised several issues regarding the navy’s evidence in this case, and lobbied hard to have the men released. In October 2014, a Sri Lankan court convicted Prasath and his companions and sentenced them to death, but the following month all five were pardoned by the Sri Lankan president and released.

“It was a nightmare,” Skenita, Prasath’s wife, told me in the couple’s tiny home, where they live with their three young children and Skenita’s mother. “At that time I was pregnant with our second son … I did not know if I would ever see my husband again.” Arulanandam had helped Skenita stay in touch with her husband over the phone. For months after Prasath came home, Skenita said, he complained of severe head and stomach aches every time he went to sea. “It was only then I found out. The Sri Lankan navy and police beat him a lot in custody. If he goes to sea for a week, he invariably stays at home the next week because his overly bruised body is unable to take the strain.”

Prasath insisted he was innocent, and that until he was standing trial, he had never seen the drugs that Sri Lankan officials presented in court as evidence against him. He still goes out on trawlers, but said he feels “very anxious each time. Memories of my time in prison keep coming back.” Like Nageswaran, he also had great sympathy for Sri Lankan fishermen. “One hour into the sea we are often in their territory. Labourers like me know that even without the GPS. But how do we support our family if we don’t take that risk?”

In addition to the risk of arrest, trawler labourers also face dangerous working conditions. CR Senthilvel, the state general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Fishermen’s Cooperative Federation, told me that trawler owners are happy to buy expensive Chinese engines for their boats, “but never a life jacket for a worker, though it is mandated by law.” Low wages and risky working conditions, Nageswaran said, have forced some trawler labourers to seek other work, in places such as Visakhapatnam or Kochi.

“We even tried organising labourers some years ago, but the trawler owners actively discouraged labourers from unionising,” Senthilvel said. “And no worker would want to antagonise them, right?”

Arulanandam told me that small-scale fishermen have also tried to organise against trawler owners. They had had some success in the past—the practice of trawlers going to sea only thrice a week resulted from their protests—but recently, Arulanandam said, they have struggled to form a united front.

To find out more, I spoke to Jerome Yas, a member of an association of small-scale fishermen in Pamban. Tamil Nadu’s fishing regulations reserve areas close to shore for small-scale fishermen, and those further out for trawlers. But even so, Jerome told me, with the extent of the overfishing by trawlers, there is hardly anything left to catch even in non-trawling waters. He complained particularly that some trawlers continued to engage in pair trawling, which he likened to running a bulldozer through the water. “The fish my grandfather saw, my father didn’t,” he said. “The fish my father caught, I don’t see anymore. I think my son will see some fish species and coral varieties only in museums.”

In 2014, Jerome was at the forefront of organising about 70 small-scale fishermen to strike for government action to control the destructive practices of trawlers. “We even received death threats,” he said. “I always carry a bottle of acid and a knife in my motorbike for protection.” As Jerome saw it, “trawler owners, government officials and international agencies involved in the export of our prawn and fish seem to be standing together, against us small-scale fishermen.”

Jerome’s protest didn’t last, and other such efforts have also failed. “That is because the fishing community is very close-knit,” Arulanandam told me. “If you take a small-scale fisherman, he would have at least one close relative owning a trawler. They need to get their act together. They should not succumb to family pressure on this matter.” He also blamed the government for the current situation. “It was the government that encouraged them to buy those destructive trawlers,” he said. And, he added, the government did little to strengthen small-scale fishermen’s cooperatives, which could help distribute the benefits of the fishing trade more equally. “There was no election, no accounting at the cooperatives—officials kept swindling the money and the cooperatives became very weak.”

The disproportionate power of trawler owners has played a big role in negotiations between the Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan fishing communities. “How can we hope to have a solution when the problem-makers are the negotiators?” Senthilvel asked. “Not once has a fisherman who goes as a labourer on the trawlers been part of any discussion. It is always the powerful bosses who direct them from the shore who go.”

Now, even small-scale fishermen in Tamil Nadu who sympathise with their Sri Lankan counterparts find themselves inadvertently at odds with them because of the trawlers. Jerome told me that increased Sri Lankan surveillance along the maritime boundary since earlier this year, and possibly the threat of having vessels seized, has restricted more trawlers to fishing in Indian waters. And with that, the catches for Tamil Nadu’s small-scale fishermen have become even worse.


FISHERMEN IN NORTH SRI LANKA agreed that there has been a marginal drop in Indian trawling across the maritime border in recent months. But that has not helped matters there, since local fishermen see the trawlers as a danger even in reduced numbers, and remain nervous about going to sea.

Meanwhile, they have a new problem to deal with. K Rajachandran, the president of a fishermen’s cooperative, told me at his office in Karainagar that a few hundred fishermen from a handful of nearby fishing villages have begun trawling too, and that, in the face of local opposition, “the trawler owners here are citing Indian trawlers” to justify their practices. “There is a lot of tension within the fishing community now,” Rajachandran said.

Sri Lanka has elaborate regulations for trawlers: the vessels here are smaller, use less powerful engines and have far less mechanised equipment compared to Indian ones. But the damage they cause is nevertheless serious, and especially hurts the already vulnerable population of small-scale fishermen. Added to this is a concern that fishermen from south Sri Lanka are fishing more and more in northern waters.

Recently, the anti-trawler sentiment popular among fishermen in the north has been receiving increased political backing in Sri Lanka. In April 2015, MA Sumanthiran, a legislator with the Tamil National Alliance, or TNA—a grouping of Sri Lankan Tamil parties, and the ruling power in the Northern Province—moved a bill in the Sri Lankan parliament to make bottom trawling an offence in all Sri Lankan waters. Soon afterwards, R Sampanthan, the 83-year-old leader of the TNA, arranged a meeting between fishermen’s leaders and the Sri Lankan president, Maithripala Sirisena. In October, Sampanthan also raised the fisheries issue in parliament.

These moves were welcomed by the majority of northern fishermen. The TNA has limited influence in Sri Lankan politics—it holds just a small fraction of opposition seats in the national parliament. Nevertheless, it added to the pressure on the government already created by activism by the fishing community, such as a protest outside the Indian consulate in Jaffna, in February this year. Yet the TNA is also caught between competing compulsions. As per procedure, Sumanthiran’s bill has been sent to all of Sri Lanka’s provincial councils for feedback. The Northern Provincial Council has asked for additional time to respond, citing the need to find alternatives for local trawler owners—who number a few hundred in the province.

When I spoke to Sampanthan in Colombo, he stressed that the “very adverse impact on the livelihoods of northern fishermen” from the actions of Tamil Nadu trawlers was “unacceptable.” Sumanthiran, also in Colombo, told me that in order to deter Sri Lankan fishermen from using trawlers, it is very important to stop trawlers from India.

In Jaffna, I met CV Wigneswaran, the chief minister of the Northern Province. “As far as Indian fishermen are concerned, they seem to feel that they have a traditional right to the seas here,” he said. “This traditional right they claim, if it has been with fishermen earlier, it did not affect us. The moment trawlers came it began affecting both countries.”

But while TNA leaders emphasise India’s role in the dispute, many in north Sri Lanka say they have not done enough to address it themselves. Numerous fishermen’s leaders, including Rajachandran, said that the TNA’s actions have come very late. In July, fishermen held a large demonstration to protest the lack of action on the fisheries dispute, in front of the Northern Provincial Council building in a suburb of Jaffna.

Ahilan Kadirgamar, a Jaffna-based political economist, told me that the north of Sri Lanka is in crisis, and a major reason for this is the lack of vision and leadership for post-war economic reconstruction among the Tamil political elite. Poverty figures in the Northern Province are high, as is unemployment, especially among youth. The fishing conflict, Kadirgamar said, is right at the centre of this, since fishing is one of the two main sources of livelihood for Tamils in the north, alongside agriculture. “We are racking our brains to find economic alternatives and solutions to this fisheries crisis,” he said. “But, ultimately, it is a political question.”

Kadirgamar told me that “the Northern Provincial Council, including the chief minister—we even have a fisheries minister for the north—they hide behind the fact that it is not a devolved subject,” meaning much of the decision-making power in this matter lies not with provincial authorities but with the national government. “But in reality they could be doing much more—to start with, actually going and talking to the fishing community.” Part of the problem is that “the Tamil elite as a whole has really abandoned the fishing community,” whose plight does not touch them directly. “Our lawyers, our academics, our higher clergy have not said enough. … That is perhaps a reason why this has dragged on so much in the post-war context, for seven years now.” Without prominent Tamil voices to raise the issue, it remained low on the Sri Lankan government’s list of priorities—especially under the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, which stretched across the last years of the war and until January 2015.

For the TNA, even raising the fisheries dispute to its current prominence has not been easy. The party has historically relied on support from Tamil Nadu, so taking up a case where Tamil Nadu is largely at fault is a tricky proposition. Sampanthan was careful to separate the two matters. “Tamil Nadu’s feelings of sympathy for the Tamils in Sri Lanka and their desire that there must be a political solution [to the Tamil question] in Sri Lanka is welcome,” he said. “But I don’t think that is in any way directly related to the fisheries conflict.” He tried to defuse the Katchatheevu dispute too. “The Indian government has ceded Katchatheevu to the Sri Lankan government, and it is a matter which has been decided at the highest levels of government,” he told me. “Katchatheevu and the fishing issue are two different questions. And one should not be confused with the other.”

Sampanthan pointed to common ground between small-scale fishermen on either side of the strait. “There is also the view—how far it is correct I don’t know—that the persons who are engaged in this activity from the Tamil Nadu side are not so much people who depend upon fishing as a livelihood but people who are engaged in collecting a large quantity of fish for export,” he said. “My sense was that the fishermen in the northern Sri Lankan waters are willing to come to such arrangements with people from the other side who are genuinely engaged in fishing as a livelihood.”

But enforcing any deal, even one reached directly between fishing communities in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, would require agreement between the Indian and Sri Lankan governments. In the past, such things as the number of arrests and releases of Indian fishermen—and with them the level of tension in the Palk Strait—have risen and fallen in response to the warming or cooling of bilateral ties. Sri Lanka’s policy of not holding arrested Indian fishermen, for instance, has corresponded with the strengthening of relations since the election of Sirisena, who is seen as far friendlier to India than his predecessor. The two countries are presently negotiating a trade deal that the Rajapaksa administration had shelved.

The Sri Lankan government releases all Indian fishermen caught violating the maritime boundary, but, in recent years, it has seized and refused to return 131 Indian trawlers. ISHARA S KODIKARA / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

The next round of talks on the fisheries conflict is scheduled for early November, and will gather, for the first time, the foreign and fisheries ministers of both governments. That, perhaps, is a step closer to a bilateral deal.


WITH ALL THE INTERESTS AT PLAY, nobody can say yet what such a deal might look like. All solutions proposed so far have proven unrealistic. Most fishermen in north Sri Lanka are in no mood to entertain intruders in their waters, even on fewer days per week, as Tamil Nadu fishermen have proposed. The Tamil Nadu government mulled over buying trawlers from their owners, but the scheme did not take off. The Indian foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, has on more than one occasion appealed directly to Tamil Nadu’s fishing community to respect the maritime boundary—several fishermen leaders who met her in Delhi in November 2014 said she told them that the government cannot constantly beg for Indian fishermen’s release—but to little effect.

One way of getting fishermen to give up trawling in the sensitive waters between India and Sri Lanka, while still sustaining the Tamil Nadu fishing community, could be promoting deep-sea fishing as an alternative. This kind of fishing is practised far from shore, on the open ocean, but requires advanced skills that the state’s trawler fishermen do not possess, and larger, better-equipped vessels capable of spending many days out of harbour. The Tamil Nadu government has offered a 50-percent subsidy to trawler owners willing to make the switch, but that still means they must raise roughly Rs30 lakh for each new vessel. When Jayalalithaa met Modi this June, she asked for R1,520 crore from the central government to help diversify fishing practices.

In this, there could be room for collaboration between the two countries. Some fishermen in south Sri Lanka already practise deep-sea fishing in the Indian Ocean. A senior Sri Lankan diplomat in Colombo, who did not wish to be named, suggested that India set up training centres for its fishermen in Sri Lanka.

For now, many in Sri Lanka are pushing for more stringent action against Indian trawling. Some activists, such as the Colombo-based marine biologist Steeve Creech, are calling for Indian fishermen to be arrested not—as they currently are—under the the Immigrants and Emigrants Act, but under more stringent provisions in the Fisheries (Regulation of Foreign Fishing Boats) Act. When I spoke to Creech in June, he told me that some supporters of Sri Lankan fishermen are also campaigning for wider awareness of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated, or IUU, fishing by Indian fishermen. Recognition of IUU practices can draw international penalties. The European Union only recently lifted a debilitating 15-month ban on seafood imports from Sri Lanka imposed in response to IUU fishing.

Without a solution in sight, the problem has spilled over beyond the Palk Strait. The town of Mullaitivu, where the last fighting of the war took place, lies facing the Bay of Bengal on Sri Lanka’s north-eastern coast, some 100 kilometres south of the opening of the strait. There I met Antonypillai Mariyarasa, a fisherman who told me he is organising locals to protest intrusion by trawlers and other vessels from both Tamil Nadu and south Sri Lanka.

We spoke on a June morning in his small house, where, in one room, he pointed to a gaping hole in the concrete roof. Strong winds had moved aside the plastic sheets that covered it, and I could see the sky. “That was a bomb that scraped through our roof,” he said. “This was during the final stages of the war, in 2008, some years after the tsunami.”

Despite opposition to trawling even within Tamil Nadu, trawler owners continue to dominate the discourse on the fisheries conflict in the state.

On one wall, I saw a photograph of a young, smiling boy in a white school uniform, with a tucked-in shirt and a stiff navy-blue tie. This was Mariyarasa’s son, Jenis, who died aged 21 while fighting for the Tigers in Kilinochchi, an hour or so inland by road. “Almost every night my wife wakes up from her sleep and cries. She has not been able to cope with that loss,” he said, almost whispering, as his wife came out of the kitchen.

“I am sorry I am unable to take you around today,” Mariyarasa said. He had a meeting in an hour at the fishermen’s association that he heads. Trawlers from Tamil Nadu, he said, had already caused damage in the area, and local fishermen had reported intruders to the navy. Mariyarasa complained that Tamil Nadu fishermen keep asking for Katchatheevu, on the west coast of Sri Lanka, “but they come all the way to Mullaitivu, which is on the other side.”

He continued, “My fishermen tell me, ‘Send us to Australia or somewhere else. We will do some job to survive. We just want to live in peace.’”