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Wednesday, 7 June, 2000, 16:10 GMT 17:10 UK
Indian fishermen in dangerous waters
Indian fishing boat
Fisherman face arrest or worse in the waters off Sri Lanka
By Vir Singh in Tamil Nadu

Wild prawns caught in the waters off Rameswaram, a small port in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, are "something special," according to local fishermen who sell them to exporters.

But earning a living here has become dangerous and at times deadly because of fighting between government forces and Tamil Tigers rebels in nearby Sri Lanka, only a few hours away by boat.

By means of guns they take away all the fish, prawns, and occasionally beat the fishermen.

Boat owner Zacharias

Indian fishermen already face many problems - increased security checks by the Indian navy have created headaches all around.

Fishermen must carry identification papers at all times while naval officers have to board smelly trawlers on their way in and out of Rameswaram.

But thousands of fishermen here say their biggest problem is not at the port but on the open seas, where the Sri Lankan navy is under orders to do what it must to stop anyone suspected of helping the Tigers in their armed struggle.


Zacharias, a local boat owner, says that Sri Lankan forces become even more suspicious if they find a trawler fishing alone.

"They catch your boats and threaten," he says. "By means of guns they take away all the fish, prawns, and occasionally beat the fishermen. Sometimes by night, they occasionally shoot them."

Indian fishermen
Eighty fishermen have died in the last 10 years
Eighty Indian fishermen are reported to have been killed in the last 10 years.

The last such incident, in which three died, occurred in late April.

While most encounters with the Sri Lankan navy are not fatal, Indian fishermen say their catch and their boats are often confiscated.

Boats have been sunk and fishermen thrown into prison.

The Indian authorities are well aware of this problem - but can only advise the fishermen to stay away from Sri Lankan waters.

The fishermen say that is where most of the best fishing grounds are.

And if they want to make a profit, that is where they will have to go - no matter what the risks.

Each time a fisherman is killed, a new wave of sympathy goes out from politicians and the media. But as fishermen here have found out, sympathy is all they can expect.

Rising costs

Fishermen here face another problem.

Trawling has become more expensive after the government raised the price of diesel fuel.

Here there is no factory, there is no field, there is no chance to get any other job except fishing

Businessman V Thangam

Rameswaram fishermen say they should get special concessions as the prawns caught here earn valuable foreign exchange for the country.

But this argument has found no takers among India's political rulers.

With profits disappearing, more owners are starting to keep their boats from going on fishing trips. This means that thousands of families at this fishing centre have to starve.

"Every day they are fighting for their lives," says local businessman V Thangam.

"Ninety percent of the people are doing fishing. Here there is no factory, there is no field, there is no chance to get any other job except fishing. Then how will they get their bread?"

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25 May 00 | South Asia
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