Thursday, Mar 06, 2003
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By V. S. Sambandan
Their large trawlers were outnumbered by groups of mechanised boats carrying Sri Lankan fisherfolk, who assaulted them and handed them over to the island's authorities.
The 33-year old Murugan, from Ramanathapuram, the master of one of the trawlers was taken by surprise. "Around 3.30 a.m., we saw the Sri Lankan fishermen coming towards us. We have had excellent relations in the past and I thought they were approaching us for food. But they got on board, assaulted us and damaged the equipment'', he told The Hindu. The equipment, including nets and fuel pumps, he says, cost over Rs. 1 lakh.
Quick to admit that it was the mistake of the Indian fishermen, he said they encroached into foreign territory because of depleting stock in Indian waters.
For a weekly wage of Rs. 700, he dares to break the international law. Today, he is in the Mannar General Hospital, bearing the wounds of this wanton incursion.
But the incursions are a daily phenomenon, fishermen in Mannar say. "It is the Indian owners who make the money, we workers get caught in the middle'', reasoned an elderly Mannar resident, who depends on the sea for his livelihood and had visited the General Hospital.
Asked how they, in their large trawlers, were overpowered by the Sri Lankan fishermen, who use fiberglass boats fitted with outboard engines, a bandaged vessel master said: "They came in 24 boats and surrounded us. There were seven or eight persons per boat. After they seized control of our vessel, they used it to encircled the other trawlers''.
"We have made a mistake, but why should they beat us up. They could have just handed us over to the authorities'', lamented Sakthivel, who is also hospitalised. ''There is no fish to catch in Indian waters'', chipped in another.
The encroachers were also egged on by assumed impunity, with the knowledge that that they would be released as a matter of procedure. This time, however, the detention of the vessel masters and their craft, while releasing the fishermen, is aimed at sending the clear message to trawler-owners that the such encroachments should end.
Mannar's highest civil official, V. Visuvalingam, points out that the restrictions on fishing in Sri Lanka had meant reduced opportunities for the island's fishermen. Since the conflict started, fishing was restricted to specific time slots. This, added with lax patrolling, has meant that there was no deterrent on Indian fishermen crossing over. Joint patrolling is seen as an ideal solution, but Government officials here concede that constraints abound. Even if it is for a short period, if there is intense joint patrolling, the fishermen on both sides will at least get used to the fact that there is an international border, Mr. Visuvalingam said.
The opinion here is that the law should take its own course and that it should come as a deterrent to the repeat of such instances. Mannar is known for its fish catch. Before the conflict broke vital transport links, this coastal town sent 25 lorry loads of fish to Colombo and had a 10 per cent market share.
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