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TN may have the answer for fishermen issue, but what about funds?

February 22, 2016 14:44 IST

It maybe time for the Centre to take a closer look at Chief Minister Jayalalitha's innovative’ solution to a long-pending problem, says N Sathiya Moorthy.

Despite perceptions to the contrary, across the country and also across the Palk Strait in Sri Lanka, the Tamil Nadu government has been doing a lot for resolving the fishermens’ issue, though only in the medium and long terms.

Yet, it’s not known why the state government in general and Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa in particular continue to give the impression that they are talking only about ‘traditional rights in historic waters’, and also about the periodic arrest of Indian fishermen and their boats by the Sri Lanka navy.

The local media has also seldom given adequate coverage/publicity to the state government’s schemes in this regard. Instead, they confine themselves invariably to Jaya’s repeated missives to the prime minister of the day on the fishermens’ arrests and demanding their immediate release by Sri Lanka.

Occasionally, the chief minister’s letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi now, and Manmohan Singh earlier, have also been talking about Indian fishermen’s’ rights, and also about Jaya’s demand for India to retrieve Kachchativu (an uninhabited barren islet in the Palk Strait) from the island neighbour.

The recent TN initiative, confined mostly to the inside pages of sub-regional editions of select newspapers, relates to the state government’s proposals to try out the ‘mother ship’ concept to encourage deep-sea fishing (particularly by the affected fishermen from across the Sri Lankan seas).

According a report in The Hindu, the concept of mid-sea carrier mother vessels scheme is to be launched in the southern Kanyakumari district, first.

Though not in the eye of the fishermen’s issues, Kanyakumari district may have qualified for what could be called trials, owing to its long history of deep-sea fishing.

It is possible that the state government might then extend the scheme to other coastal areas, where deep-sea fishing is yet to be popularised.

In a way, it’s a very thoughtful effort, as by the time deep-sea fishing had become popular with fishermen in other regions, particularly in the Rameswaram/Nagapattinam areas, ‘mother vessels’ could be introduced there almost alongside.

The combination, if popularised, could help distract TN and Puducherry fishermen away from the troubled Sri Lankan waters.

It is not unlikely that such a course, leading to fewer arrests of Indian fishermen by Sri Lanka, could also take the sting out of Jaya’s pending Supreme Court case over Kachchativu -- but that should not be a problem.

It is not going to happen overnight. Just as the conversion to deep-sea fishing outside of Kanyakumari district and the implementation of the ‘mother ship’ concept across the TN coast would also take time to mature.

As per the current plans, “the ‘mother vessel’ would collect fish from ‘baby vessels’ in high seas and help in their preservation and storage until their delivery at shore,' The Hindu report said.

Given the mood and methods of fishermen across most of the Indian coasts, the mother vessels would deliver the stored fish on board, to the representatives of ‘baby’ vessels on the shores.

On the return journey to the seas, the mother vessel would carry food, water and possibly fuel, for the ‘baby’ vessels.

Possibly to cut short resources crunch and learn from experience before going at it in a big way, the state government has called for private operators with a minimum of two mother vessel(s) of 50-tonne capacity each, to be operated on an experimental basis, initially for two years.

Much thought seems to have gone into the planning, with the result the state fisheries department has notified that the mother vessels would also have to supply ‘subsidised diesel’ from an authorised bunk on the shores, to the ‘baby’ vessels in the sea.

The ‘mother vessel’ programme is only the more recent of the Jaya government’s initiative in helping the state’s fishermen to make a better living.

Neither this one, nor the earlier initiative of introducing deep-sea vessels in the non-traditional seas along the state’s coast, is seemingly aimed at diverting TN fishermen away from the troubled seas of neighbouring Sri Lanka.

But it might just happen, if only over a period, as an additional/actual benefit at the end.

As may be recalled, after returning to power in 2011, the maiden budget of the third Jaya government proposed and provided for deep-sea vessels, and a 20-strong cold storage chain along the TN coast and marketing education and facilities for fishermen to obtain better prices for what essentially is a perishable commodity in every sense of the term.

Budget-2011 provided 25 per cent grant for conversion of traditional trawlers into deep-sea vessels. These trawlers are at the centre of all fishermen’s issues and problems with Sri Lanka navy and Tamil fishermen in the country’s northern and eastern Provinces.

The state government promptly increased the conversion subsidy to 50 per cent in Budget 2015, after studying the ground situation and expectations.

Also read: Is Sri Lanka arm-twisting India into talks on fishermen's row?

For all this, however, funds crunch is said to be the reason for the state government not being able to go all out on the conversion issue earlier, and possibly the ‘mother vessel’ programme in the none-too-distant future.

In their first meeting after Modi took over as PM, Jaya submitted a long list of demands from the state. Funds for deep-sea vessels were a part of her memorandum, and also of some of her frequent letters to the PM on a variety of issues concerning Tamil Nadu.

However, neither did the media highlight the new programme, or the funds demanded from the Centre. Nor do the state authorities seem to have taken to education campaign among fishermen, particularly in the affected areas.

It is anybody’s guess why Jaya, who is given to walk the extra mile to convince/force the officialdom down to the last man to popularise her pet schemes, has not taken such personal interest on a live-saving scheme like this one.

Nor is it known if the CM has taken up the funds issue with regard to the mother vessels with the Centre -- or, would like to wait until after the results of the current experiment/experience are known.

Conversely, with assembly elections due in May, the fishermen’s issue could become a campaign point, particularly if the Lankan navy was to arrest a large number of TN/Puducherry fishermen or there is any mid-sea clashes with their Tamil brethren from Sri Lanka.

It could well kick off yet another round of blame-game, in which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre cannot escape its share of criticism.

Ahead of the 2014 Parliamentary polls, the state BJP launched massive campaigns, as if to claim that the Congress rulers at the Centre were alone to blame for the plight of the TN fishers.

As the party’s prime ministerial candidate, Modi promised relief from the fishermen’s woes.

The state BJP even launched the ‘Kadal Thamarai’ (‘sea lotus’) in Rameswaram, which is invariably at the eye of lankan fishermen’s issues and problems.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was the key BJP campaigner on the occasion.

Yet, two years after the BJP came to power at the Centre, and Modi became the PM and Swaraj assumed her post, no solution seems to be in sight.

All India Dravida Munetra Kazhagam parliamentarians, agitating over every other issue in the two houses of Parliament, including those pertaining to the fishermen’s arrest, are not known to have protested delays, if any, over the Centre not taking suitable follow-up action on the TN’s  funds’ demand for providing ‘conversion subsidy’.

With the result, it could become a political free-for-all among parties and candidates in the state, during the run-up to the assembly polls, particularly if there are more arrests and more issues and problems, mid-sea.

In Sri Lanka recently, for a meeting of the bilateral joint commission, Swaraj called for ‘innovative’ ways to resolve the fishermen’s issue, which has been threatening to spoil bilateral relations more than anything else -- including the ‘ethnic issue’.

Talks at the fishermen level have excited governmental stake-holders on either side of the Palk Straits having not produced any substantive results or even next step(s), it may be time the Centre took a closer look for that ‘innovative’ solution.

Tamil Nadu’s two-stage approach of deep-sea fishing and mother vessels scheme may be just that. The Centre need to take a even closer and faster look at it all -- and deliver, in ways that the affected fishers are helped and also educated, even more.

Image: Fishermen at the Chennai harbour with their load. Photograph: Babu/Reuters

N Sathiya Moorthy is director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation.

N Sathiya Moorthy