What happens to the 12 Rameswaram fishermen arrested by Sri Lankan Navy last week may well decide what happens to fishing in the island. A new law passed by Sri Lankan Parliament that imposes harsh punishment on foreign fishermen looms over these fishermen. “We will know on July 12 what the Sri Lankan government intends to do with the fishermen,” said S Balachandran, India’s Consul General at Jaffna. He however refused to elaborate on whether the Indian government had taken up the issue with the Sri Lankan government officially.
On July 5, 12 fishermen who went on two boats from Rameswaram were arrested by Sri Lankan Navy and charged with fishing in Lankan territorial waters. It is feared that a new law passed in January by Sri Lankan Parliament against non-Sri Lankans arrested for fishing inside Lankan territorial waters will be used on them. The law seeks to punish such fishermen by levying a fine of Rs 50 lakh. If the fine is not paid within a month, the boats may be destroyed and the fishermen may face prison term of two years.
After the law was passed, the Indian government was informed of the details. “The external affairs ministry was informed who informed Tamil Nadu government and through them to fishermen representatives. It is better that our fishermen stay away from that area,” says M Ilango, leader of the National Fishworkers Forum and consulting editor at inmathi.com.
“Only those arrested on July 5 are now lodged in Sri Lankan jails. All others have been released. Only the Sri Lankan Prime Minister’s Office or the Attorney General can order their release. In the past, the Indian High Commission was able to help secure the release of the fishermen. But the new law has complicated the situation. Further, some local fishermen groups in Sri Lanka have also opposed their release,” says U Arulanandam, a fishermen activist who has helped to secure the release of Rameswaram fishermen held in Sri Lanka.
Ilango adds that the Sri Lankan law is against international conventions and the jail term is too long and harsh. Yet, the Indian government has not taken up this matter at a government-to-government level, he said.