Sunday, May 25, 2008

Fishing in troubled waters

Transboundary crossings by fishermen

These days the media is awash with reports of Indian fishermen getting arrested for crossing the maritime borders of neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka and even as far away as Oman in the Gulf region. Some of them belong to Kerala, and it is unfortunate that the State Government has not been able to do much to help them.

In May 2004, for instance, the Pakistan Coast Guard arrested six fishermen from Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam for straying into Pakistan's territorial waters. Joboy Pascas, Yesudasan Raju, Joseph Vincent, Stalin Alosius, Antony Vijayan and Jose Varghese put out to sea from Muscat on May 23.

After several days at sea, their motorised boat, which drifted out after developing a technical snag, was captured by the Pakistan Coast Guard. The fishermen were jailed for three months and later released. According to their relatives, the sponsor in the Gulf and the Indian Embassy in Muscat had failed to respond to repeated requests to secure their release.

Although their wives, led by the Kerala Swathanthra Matsyathozhilali Federation (KSMTF) launched an indefinite sit-in strike in front of the State Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram, seeking the intervention of the State and Central Governments for their release, nothing has been done. The KSMTF President, T. Peter, said the officials in the office of the Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy, had informed them that the matter was being taken up at the highest level in New Delhi.

Pakistan and India agreed to release fishermen of both sides on the occasions of Id ul Fitr and Diwali, a source in the Pakistan Interior Ministry told Dawn newspaper. The agreement was reportedly reached at a meeting between Indian High Commissioner Shivshankar Menon and Pakistan's Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Sherpao.

The efforts to release the held fishermen were stated to be part of the "confidence building measures" being taken by the two countries. Pakistan and India routinely arrest each other's fishermen for border violation or sometimes on suspicion of being spies. According to some sources, there are now 725 Indian fishermen in Pakistani jails and about 102 Pakistanis in Indian jails.

Similar efforts for humanitarian treatment of fishermen arrested often for no fault of theirs have been reported from Sri Lanka as well. In a joint statement issued at the end of talks between Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the Indian leadership during the former's visit to India, the two sides decided to expedite the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on Fisheries, under consideration.

While agreeing to continue with the existing understandings on the humane treatment and early release of apprehended fishermen, it was decided to constitute a Joint Working Group which could meet frequently to deal with issues relating to straying fishermen, work out modalities for prevention of use of force against them and explore the possibilities of working towards bilateral arrangements for licensed fishing.

Back in Kerala, Fisheries Minister Dominic Presentation recently demanded a `National Mission on Fisheries' to increase the potential of the fisheries sector for growth and to provide a range of solutions to the problems confronting the industry.

The initiative for the same should come from the Union Agriculture Ministry and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), he said, while also asking for the expertise of the ICAR to develop open-ocean aquaculture in the State's offshore waters.

Perhaps some initiative should also come from the State Government to save the livelihoods of the fishermen who inadvertently stray into foreign territory.

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