A war over dwindling fishing resources is being fought at the bottom of the Indian subcontinent as poor and desperate Indian fishermen cross into Sri Lankan waters and run into that nation’s unsympathetic navy.
Exact figures are hard to pin down, but one report says that at least 100 Indian fishermen have been killed and 350 injured in recent years. The dispute is complicated by steadily declining fish stocks—reportedly a result of overfishing by Indian trawlers—a response to the 2004 tsunami that saw relief funds used to expand the Indian fishing fleet, and the end of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009, which meant more Sri Lankan fishing boats in the crowded waters.
Here in Vellapallam, the fishing dispute is deeply personal, since fishing is practically the only livelihood available. When the village was devastated by the 2004 tsunami, relief money was used to build concrete houses for families or to help finance new fishing boats. Nearly all of the village fishermen use small, motorized boats rather than the big trawlers docked at other nearby towns. For many years, fishermen say, they stayed close to the Indian coast, but they have gradually pushed farther out to sea as fish populations have declined.
… As they have gotten closer to Sri Lankan waters, or crossed into them, fishermen say, the Sri Lankan Navy is often waiting. One fisherman, a wiry, wet-eyed man named Pakkirisamy, pulled off his shirt to show bruises and welts on his back. He said Sri Lankan naval officers beat him last month with steel rods and heavy ropes. He said they dumped his fuel in the sea and ordered him to return to India. He rigged a sail and arrived eight hours later.
… “This is risky work,” said a fisherman named Dhanabal. “But we don’t have any other skills. We are illiterate. We are poor.”