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Wednesday, February 16, 2011 at 12 : 00

Fishing in troubled waters


Tamil Nadu politicians have perfected the art of playing injured martyrs even though the cause is suspect. Take the case of fishermen facing legal proceedings in Sri Lanka. The DMK and other usual suspects are hopping up and down, in pretend rage, but they would know that the fishermen in question have much to answer for.

Fact is a veritable mini flotilla - comprising 18 trawlers and 112 fishermen - was in the waters just south of Jaffna on 15th February. This was not a case of inadvertent straying into Sri Lankan waters. Neither was this the first time that Indian fishermen have gone poaching deep into Sri Lankan waters. The local fishing community of Jaffna has on past occasion brought this illegal fishing to the Indian Consul General's notice and demanded India check the poaching.

It's not hard to understand why the Jaffna fishermen are upset. The civil war meant that for almost thirty years they couldn't fish in their waters. The LTTE had a presence, the Navy had imposed strict surveillance. Now is their chance to make a living and they don't believe outsiders have a right to their fish. The flip side is the Indian fishermen also know that the under-harvested Sri Lankan waters give them a richer catch than the waters of Tamil Nadu. So there's a temptation to cross over.    

Fact also is those complaining about the Indian fishermen are Tamil. The men who accosted the flotilla and forced the Indian fishermen to land at Point Pedro and handed them over to the local police were Jaffna Tamils, and the men who have complained about the poachers in the past are Tamils from Sri Lanka's Northern province. One politician from the north says there have been nights when upto a thousand fishermen have come from across the Palk strait.

This is about livelihoods, it's not about Sinhala versus Tamil and not about India's rights over Katchatheevu, which the DMK keeps raising. Those courting arrests in Tamil Nadu are resorting only to tired theatrics ahead of elections in May.    

The Tamil Nadu government ought to instead think seriously about providing alternative opportunities to its fishing communities, including vocational training so that those who find it unsustainable to be fishermen can transit to more lucrative work. The Centre too needs to find ways to manage this growing tension between fishermen of two friendly countries. The India Sri Lanka joint working group is expected to meet in March and hopefully can come up with some practical suggestions.            


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Paarull Malhotra is CNN-IBN's Chief Diplomatic Correspondent. When she's not reporting, she's a newscaster. She considers herself very lucky because she enjoys what she does - which is covering India's relations with the world, with a special focus on the neighbourhood. Her areas of interest are Af-Pak, West Asia and China. She's an East West Centre fellow, and prefers to relax by blogging, tweeting, reading and travelling. You can reach her on her blaze page via ibnlive.com or on her facebook page. Paarull's twitter handle is @paarull