Sri Lanka: ‘Soft-launch’ takes some wind out of deep-sea fishing?

Fishing Trawlers

By N. Sathiya Moorthy

 The low-profile, soft launch of the joint project for supplying deep-sea vessels in mid-February may have denied yet another occasion for the Government of India and of the southern Tamil Nadu to adequately highlight the continuing efforts at easing ‘Palk Bay tensions’ involving the State’s fishers in Sri Lankan waters. Apart from ‘marketing’ the scheme more effectively to the affected Rameswaram fishers, a high-profile project-launch would have also sent a message across to Tamil fishers in Sri Lanka and also to their Government and Navy, on what is being attempted in the matter.

If much of the local media and all of the national media missed out on Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami handing over the first four deep-sea fishing vessels to the enrolled beneficiaries, they could not be blamed. He did so through video-conferencing from the State Government Secretariat in distant Chennai, the capital city – that too along with other projects, all costing upwards of Rs 500 cr. Not many, barring possibly the district officials who were at the other end of the VC facility and the immediate beneficiaries even possibly got to know about it.

Given the context and content, a high-profile, on-site ceremony, possibly involving Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Palaniswami at Rameswaram could have done the trick. Nearer home, it would have taken the message to more fishers in the affected neighbourhood, for them to feel convinced about the seriousness that the governments in the country attached to their long-term welfare and prosperity as much as to their immediate safety-at-sea.

Given the history of fishers’ tensions between the two nations, the national and international media would have extensively covered a VVIP launch of the ‘deep-sea vessels’ scheme, but it was not to be. A celebratory function would have taken the message even more across the Palk Strait, to their Tamil fisher-brethren in Sri Lanka, the latter’s polity, bureaucracy and Navy, that Governments and fishers in India are serious about sorting out the issue as much as possible and as fast as possible.

Blue revolution

‘Deep-sea fishing’ project has been on cards for more than a decade, though the Tamil Nadu Government was reportedly slow in acting on the proposal. It offered multiple advantages, but individual fishers as also the local industry needed to prepare themselves for the eventual shift from their current fishing methods. The make-over is yet to be completed, and in some cases even taken up — but a start has now been made.

Deep-sea fishing comes under the Centre’s ‘Blue Revolution scheme’, modelling the earlier successes of ‘Green Revolution’ and ‘White Revolution’ on the agriculture and animal husbandry fronts. Under the scheme, the Centre now provides 50-percent funding in the total cost of Rs 80 lakhs, and the state grants another 20 percent. Of the balance 30 per cent, the beneficiary contributes just has to contribute only 10 percent with the rest of it coming from banks, as loans. The Centre and the state government have facilitated bank loans for the purpose and the remaining 20 per cent is funded by banks.

When completed over a five-year period, over 2,000 deep-sea vessels would have hit the waters off Rameswaram and neighbouring fishing hamlets, at a total cost of Rs 1,600. At present, the public sector Cochin Shipyard has been entrusted with building the deep-sea vessels to specifications. It is not unlikely that the private sector too may be encouraged to enter the sector, depending on demand in the coming years and based on strict quality-control.

According to state government officials, the state-of-the-art boats, called ‘Tuna long lining and gillnetting fishing vessels,’ are equipped with modern navigation and communication equipment, besides advanced net hauling and liner winches. Other facilities include galleys, bio-toilet, refrigerated seawater system and stainless steel-clad PUF (polyurethane foam) insulated fish-hold, to preserve the catch.

Two fishing harbours, Kunthukkal and Mookaiyur, both in Ramanathapuram district, are also being readied exclusively for the deep-sea fishing boats. Priority would be given to fishermen whose boats have been apprehended by Sri Lanka and those damaged in their custody, among other categories, a government order said. Public sector Cochin Shipyard is building a total of 16 such boats, besides other shipyards.

Cultural conditioning

Much of the off-shore fishing in southern Tamil Nadu is controlled by private sector canning industry in and from neighbouring Kerala. They have their refrigerated vehicles transferring the catch from the TN shores, where individual fishers in groups have been selling their catch, to canning factories in Kerala.

At the level of the individual, Rameswaram fishers in particular and many, if not most, of the rest of the community elsewhere in the state are not culturally conditioned to stay in the seas for long periods, as required in deep-sea fishing. For generations and centuries, the Rameswaram fishers in particular have been out at sea only overnight. In the era before motor-boats, they used to spend days together on the other side of the Palk Strait, in northern Sri Lanka, before embarking on their return journey.

However, there have been fishing communities in the southern coastal neighbourhood in the state where individuals and groups have been at sea on board deep-sea vessels for days and weeks together. The Thoothoor fishers in southern-most Kanyakumari district are a case in point. The state government has been encouraging the latter to work with the Rameswaram fishers and others, to prepare them in the matter.

However, the ‘Ockhi cyclone’ that hit southern Tamil and adjoining south Kerala seas and coasts alike in November 2017, led to panic among fishers not only in the region but also in the extended neighbourhood. Many fishers lives were lost in mid-sea, owing to inadequate communication. The state government has since come up with solutions to such problems, though the motivation for more fishers to sign in for deep-sea fishing needs to return in full measure.

To address fishing community’s concerns regarding deep-sea human losses, Chief Minister Palaniswami also handed over five VHF communication sets to fishermen while inaugurating the deep-sea vessels. It is part of a scheme under the Coastal Disaster Risk Reduction project. However, much work needs to be done on this score, as well.

Storage & marketing

The erstwhile Jayalalithaa Government began well by announcing the setting up of a chain of 20 cold-storage facilities across the TN shores, end-to-end, for fishing communities to be able to hold on to their stocks, and sell it to the highest bidder when the prices are relatively favourable. This project itself has not taken off in a big way. Nor has the accompanying marketing mechanism and fishers’ education on international pricing put in place, for the state’s fishing community to benefit from.

The education should involve identifying new markets for tuna and other species caught in the deeper waters off the TN coast without competing with those of Sri Lankan fishers, thus leading to a price-crash for both. Over time, the government should also design plans and schemes for ‘mother-ships’ and ‘factory-ships’, like those being used by fishers from distant Taiwan, who are encouraged to fish off the Indian waters, in the absence of local competition.

In the immediate context, deep-sea fishing could provide an alternative, longer lasting, bountiful fishing fields for the Tamil Nadu fishers than the risky Sri Lankan waters. If successful, it could provide an alternative to destructive bottom-trawling, which Rameswaram and most other TN fishers have got used to. Three, it could help reduce recurring coastal tensions also within the State, as traditional, artisanal fishers too have been resisting invasion into their limited-reach waters by bottom trawlers and other motorised vessels.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Centre)