The recent killings of Tamil fishermen, allegedly by the Sri Lankan Navy, have once again highlighted the travails of South Asian fisherfolk. A reading of media reports that appeared in the last 15 years reveals that more than 300 coastal fisherfolk have been shot dead in the South Asian seas, many more injured and more than 25,000 arrested and detained.
In the specific context of India-Sri Lanka, there has been a plethora of suggestions by political leaders, specialists, policy analysts, academicians and activists: develop a database on Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean, undertake in-depth studies on the impact of the changing international environment and evolve policy measures; get Kachchativu and adjacent islets on ‘lease on perpetuity’ for purposes of fishing, drying nets and undertaking pilgrimage by Indian fishermen; introduce a system under which licensed Indian fishermen could be permitted to fish in Sri Lankan waters up to five nautical miles. Details of the number of fishing boats and fishing days, types of fishing vessels to be used, and the quantum of catch and licence fee can be settled after detailed negotiations; explore ways of exchanging regular information between the Indian and Sri Lankan navies on missing fishermen; have ‘coordinated patrolling’ by the Indian and Sri Lankan navies along the international maritime borders; and organise joint naval exercises.
However, the coastal fisherfolk on the borders of India and Sri Lanka cannot be appropriated within the narratives of borders, capital and management. The insecure, militarised and terrorised states of India and Sri Lanka are only ready to recognise a single, demarcated, bordered form of coast, even at the cost of subjugating and suppressing the aspirations of coastal communities. The struggle between coastal communities and capital in India and Sri Lanka, along with the defiance of coastal borders, continues. The aspirations of the coastal communities can be addressed and claimed only by working on an alternative livelihood system, with rights to coastal spaces beyond national borders. To re-envision the coastal communities and spaces of India and Sri Lanka along pluralist and sustainable directions, a monological imagination of the fisherfolk, aligned with national territory and identity in a singular and final fashion, has to be changed. Further, coastal autonomy and devolution of power within the coastal areas can be an important step in mitigating the violence perpetuated on the fisherfolk.
The Indian fisherfolk are at the receiving end in the present context. However, the truth is that the fisherfolk of both countries suffer on a daily basis. Documents of the so-called ‘protection’ of borders and security of nations, perhaps noble causes in their own right, are also documents of human suffering and violence conducted on the bodies and souls of fishermen and their families. Paradoxically, their living and working are concerned not with how to avoid suffering but with how to suffer. This mode of thinking, emphasised also through the discourse of law and legal processes, accentuates the thinking that the responsibility for the suffering must be borne by the sufferers themselves. This masks the real reason and the manner in which the crossing of borders, arrests and punishment are taking place, accentuated and distributed by an unjust sea order.
One of the features, which could be a basis for understanding coastal conflicts, relates to the universalising impact of capital and technology in the fisheries sector of the coastal borders of India and Sri Lanka. This growth derives from the massive expansion of big and foreign capital. What forces fishermen from Rameswaram to go to the Sri Lankan waters beyond Kachchativu, up to the Delft Island off the Jaffna coast, even at the risk of being killed? What compels the Assistant Director of Fisheries for the Rameswaram region to say: “If fishermen do not cross the border today, tomorrow there will be no fishing in the region?” Together with this growth comes income sharing in this sector, in which the fisherfolk are like wage-earners, deprived of any other rights and stakes in the seas. The crew wants to catch more and more, even in dangerous waters.
What has happened along the shoreline of the Gulf of Mannar is alarming. The Gulf, which supports the livelihood systems of over 1,80,000 fishing families in the 96 hamlets between Rameswaram and Thoothukudi, accounts for an annual fish catch of over 1,00,000 tonnes. But over the last few years, it has declined sharply, owing to the exploitation and degradation of critical ecosystems. As a result, the fishing families have been caught in a vicious circle: a degraded ecosystem, fall in fish catch and hence income levels, exploitation of resources, and further degradation of the ecosystem.
The governance of the coastal borders and fisherfolk is filled with misconceptions: the fisherfolk are ignorant of maps and boundaries; sea bordering, policing and other security measures address the border crossings and arrests of fisherfolk; growth is the recipe for the elimination of the sufferings of the fisherfolk and sea degradation. Each link in this chain of arguments is faulty, with policies and measures based on it going nowhere.
There are at least six principles that can be applied immediately to respect the rights and freedoms of the fisherfolk. First is the principle of prevention: the fisherfolk should not be arrested in the coastal borders. There are other simpler and harmless ways of stopping them from fishing in other’s waters. Thus it is important to stop the arrest, detention and jail if pro-fisherfolk strategies are to be evolved. Second, the principle of precaution: decisions and actions must be taken nationally, bilaterally and regionally to avoid possibilities of conflicts between the fisherfolk of different countries. This principle is about responsible decisions of states, in the face of changing laws, agreements, and sometimes, incomplete knowledge of the seas and their borders.
Third, the right to information: without any discrimination of citizenship, nationality, religion or residence, the coastal fisherfolk should have access to information on coasts. Informed environmental and livelihood choices can be made only on this basis. Various official or trade secrets Acts, operating in the name of security, terrorism and intellectual property rights should be confronted. Fourth, the right to participate in decision-making: the coastal fisherfolk and their organisations should be given the right to participate in all aspects of decision-making on coastal borders. They should have the right to suggest alternatives to proposed plans and policies and also to mobilise information to stop anti-fisherfolk policies. Fifth, the principle of access to justice: the coastal fisherfolk should be able to challenge any violation of their human and environmental rights before judicial bodies. The judicial procedures should be easy, free and fast. The fisherfolk should also have the right to challenge Acts, activities and agreements that contradict environmental sustainability, rights to natural habitat and their community and environmental rights.
And sixth, the perpetuator-pay principle: the coastal fisherfolk suffer a lot because of the states’ high-handedness in terms of arrests, confiscation and destruction of the fisherfolk’s productive assets that are easily measurable and identifiable. Since it is the state that causes the maximum harm, it must pay for it. To ensure that justice and redress of grievances of victims are simple, especially when the cause and effect in terms of time and space are clear. Mechanisms for immediate damage-pricing in the short-term will compel the states to prevent harming the fisherfolk in the long term.
De-bordering of coasts
South Asian coasts need de-bordering and any process of de-bordering entails a re-bordering from the perspective of coastal fisherfolk. It is true that the function of the modern South Asian coastal states has been to codify and territorialise the decoded, deterritorialised flows of the coasts, so as to prevent them from breaking loose at all the edges and hems of national, environmental and coastal balances. But this has fatally failed the coastal people. As certain sense-making machines become obsolete, new ones need to be constructed. The South Asian states must rework on their coastal borders, bilaterally and regionally, in such a manner that a collective coastal community comes into being.
(Charu Gupta, a historian, and Mukul Sharma, a writer, have written a book on the same subject, titled Contested Coastlines: Fisherfolk, Nations and Borders in South Asia (Routledge, 2008)).
7 months ago