Living on Contested Coastlines!

When the current is strong and the Bay of Bengal is rolling wave after wave, we, as tourists, get euphoric and strive to capture the overwhelming beauty of this photographer’s paradise. While the charms of the peninsula are a delight for the peace-seeking traveler, religious pursuits take many to Rameswaram, one of the most mystical and beautiful destinations in the Hindu Char Dham Yatra; it truly is a marvellous sight to behold.

It was not long back when all that one had to do was to get a ticket for the Boat Mail train, from Egmore in Chennai (then Madras) right up to Dhanushkodi, the southern tip of Rameswaram island; from here you could just board a steamer at Dhanushkodi pier right up to Talaimannar on the Sri Lankan coast. The scenic aura of this 18 mile ride along the Palk Strait left you on tenterhooks, gazing at the Bay of Bengal on your left and Indian Ocean on your right. Post the opening up of the Pamban bridge— an engineering marvel connecting mainland India to Rameswaram in 1914, the Boat Mail train witnessed huge traffic in the Palk Strait. On one fateful night in 1964, a cyclone swept away all that the place had, sparing nothing but a few remains. After that, the place was never rehabilitated and things never became the same, leaving Rameswaram as a myriad of moss covered, blackened buildings which were once home to the unfortunate fishermen.

And now, fishing along the same Palk Strait with Dhanushkodi on the Indian coast and Talaimannar on the Sri Lankan coast— just 12 nautical miles apart has run into choppy waters, with the fisher folk of the two countries coming to blows over the maritime boundary. This maritime boundary, also known as the International Boundary Line (IBL) is midway between India and Sri Lanka, quite close to both Rameswaram and Island of Mannar. As a series of agreements demarcated this boundary in the Bay of Bengal, it barred each country’s fishermen from fishing in the other’s waters.

“As we go fishing, we don’t even realize when we cross the IBL. It’s only when the Sri Lankan navy catches us, do we realize. If we are very fortunate, we are asked to go back, else arrested by the Sri Lankan navy. Our kids are starving on the Indian coast and we have no idea of what will happen next. The quality and quantity of fish on both sides of the border is very different, which is why we need to go to each other’s territories. While fishermen from the other side get into Indian Territory, they do not face the same hassle because Indian navy is seldom on duty. All of us strongly desire that the Indian navy should also be on IBL just like Sri Lankan navy (Tamil translated)”, told the fishermen.

Another focal point on the simmering tension between the Indian and Sri Lankan governments is over the use of Kachchatheevu, an uninhabited island 15 km north of Rameswaram. While the accord of 1974 ceded the island to Sri Lanka, it also provided Indian fishermen and pilgrims access to visit and fish around Kachchatheevu. Repeated allegations on attacks by the Lankan navy on Indian fishermen further add to the distress of coastal fisher folk.

The story doesn’t end here. Like every other town located in and around Rameswaram, Dhanushkodi too has a mythical connect to Ramayana. There is growing unrest regarding the Union government’s plea before the Supreme Court to demolish the Ram Setu bridge in Rameswaram, the one used by Lord Rama to cross the waters of Bay of Bengal to go to Sri Lanka. The ocean floor here is shallow and no ships can navigate via this region, which means that India does not have a continuous navigation channel linking the east and west coasts. Ships coming from India’s west and heading to Bangladesh or Indian ports on the east coast have to go around Sri Lanka because the waterway in the sea dividing the two countries is shallow. Therefore, the Government of India has proposed the dredging of the sea to create a shipping canal to save up to 780 km of sailing distance and 30 hours of sailing time for ships plying between the east and west coasts of India. This has led to huge protests among Hindu umbrella organizations. The Save Ram Sethu campaign pushes to reconsider the construction of the canal as it will hurt religious sentiments of millions of Hindus and also pose a grave risk to the local ecosystem and livelihood of local fishermen. Besides, it is widely believed that Ram Setu can adequately resist tsunami-like natural disasters from the southern side.

Historically and culturally, the Tamils of India and the Tamils of Sri Lanka have felt close to each other. “If we cannot do commodity trade in conventional way, then why not trade in non-conventional way – trade of culture, trade of entertainment, trade of cricket, trade of Bollywood”, said a researcher based in Kochi.

“Let’s not compare ourselves to EU. EU was brought together by politics of wealth and we should be brought together by politics of welfare. SAARC countries have a convenience based relationship; rather we should have ethics based relationship. Today, marketization has reduced everything to a product and SAARC is still unsellable”, said a Professor of Loyola College, Chennai.

Talking about India’s role in SAARC, a journalist remarked, “India is like a body builder, looking at the mirror to check its own sex appeal. India’s role has been constantly under the fear of regional politics. Let’s play a role proportionate to our size. India can use its excessive resources to tap the goodwill of its neighbours. Our deep waters are so mineral rich. The waters in this area are a large source of thorium which could make number of nuclear plants operational. Overlooking this huge resource, both countries – India and Sri Lanka have, we are looking at uranium imports from Australia. We have abundant S band which can promote satellite phones across SAARC. South Asian way of living is linked to nature. India can promote Ayurveda research centres across the region. With all of this, we should also start an English newspaper that goes all over South Asia – The SAARC Daily.”

Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu gave an offbeat perspective. “On arrival, most of us were illiterate; most of the refugees are well educated now. Almost all of them are attending school. The Tamil Nadu government is doing wonders for refugees. The concessions, rights and benefits given to Indian citizens are extended to refugees as well. Plus, refugees in TN camps are given free electricity. The aim is to empower more and more of our community and equip them with skills that can be used to rebuild our homeland”, said Organization for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR).

When political parties are fishing for votes in the coastal area of Rameswaram, it’s time to address the real concerns of these fishermen. Conflict over these issues costs them their bread and butter. Stakes are high! For bilateral cooperation between India and Sri Lanka to gain momentum, coastal cooperation needs immediate attention even if that calls for hegemony trade-offs.

Dhanushkodi was washed away but is still alive!


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