Fishing in Turbulent Waters

Introduction

Newly initiated development projects in the Northern and Eastern Provinces in post-war Sri Lanka are expected to open new avenues towards ethnic reconciliation, as proclaimed not only by government media but also by the mainstream development scholarship. However, this popular perception about opening up new avenues for reconciliation through development seems to foreclose certain barriers and obstructions existing within the so called development highway itself, especially with regard to ethnic minorities. To understand the possible political and other forms of repercussion of the currently existing development-community encounter, one should turn one’s ears not only to the subject-agents of the development discourse but also to those who are subjected to the development industry, considering the fact that the subalterns also are involved in creating meanings (or counter-articulate the dominant discourse, as Laclauian discourse analysts would suggest) in their own way. This piece explores the ways in which the local communities in the Northern fishing villages receive the messages enunciated by the dominant or official discourse of development and counter-articulate meanings in a different, competing manner and the ways in which this community-development encounter would affect the wider problem of post-war ethnic and social reconciliation.

Jaffna’s fishing industry

The Fishing industry, being one of the main sources of livelihood of a large number of people in the Jaffna Peninsula, happens to be a sector that was severely affected by the thirty years ethnic civil war. Before the war, Jaffna was the largest fishing production district and contributed about 48,000 metric tons per year comprising almost one fourth of the total production of the country.  However, this significantly developed fishing industry was  severely affected by the war. “While the Jaffna District alone provided 20-25% of the total fish production in Sri Lanka before 1983, its contribution was reduced to 3-5% by the end of the third Eelam war.” The annual fish production in the District numbered around 2000 metric tons during the war. Although this got recovered to some extent in two years after the war, it is far from pre-war levels.

Current Problems and Challenges

Many problems regarding the fishing industry in the North in many ways related to the militarization that was strengthened during the last phase of the war but not completely relaxed even after the end of the war. For instance, some coastal areas, which are very significant to fishing, still remains as High Security Zones (HSZ); and therefore fishermen are banned from engaging in their livelihood activities in those areas; in many areas, fishermen were allowed to go to sea only within a permitted corridor, and even for that they had to get passes from military forces. Currently, although some of those restrictions have been removed or relaxed in some coastal areas, the Northern fishing community, CBO leaders and civil society representatives remain concerned about the continuing stringent security arrangements even after two years after the end of war, in the areas where Northern fishermen used to do their livelihood activities.

Although the authorities are claiming that the situation in the Northern Province has largely been normalized in terms of de-militarization, this claim was highly contested by the special situation report on the Northern and Eastern Provinces presented to parliament by M.A Sumanthiran, a TNA parliamentarian on October, 21, 2011. The report explains the situation of the fishing industry in Jaffna within a militarized context, as follows,

Severe restrictions are placed on members of Tamil fishing communities, resulting in a drastic impact on their means of livelihood. The report tabled by me in July of this year detailed the restrictions placed on members of the fishing community in Mullaitivu, especially in the areas of Kokkilaai to Chundikkulam in Kilaakaththai, Maathirikkiraama, Uppumaaveli, Thoondai, Alambil, Semmalai, Naayaaru, Kokkuththoduvaai, and Karunaattukkernee. These restrictions are still in place and of serious concern is the fact that several Sinhala fishermen in the area have received direct permission to fish in this area from the Ministry of Defence.

Apart from the militarization, Jaffna based researchers and civil society members highlight a series of other issues related to the development of fishing industry in the region. These  issues include illegal fishing in the Sri Lankan waters by Indian fishermen, which is popularly known as ‘Indian Trawler’ issue. Other contentious issues include an increasing number of seasonal fishing in Northern and Eastern regions by Southern fishermen; illegal fishing methods used by Indian and Southern fishermen that has negative impacts on resources; lack of sophisticated boats that are essential for deep sea fishing; lack of stock assessment; specific problems in the island areas like transport problems and dependency on big mudalalies who have political patronage; lack of infrastructure facilities; institutional support and insurance facilities etc.

Potholes, Checkpoints and Cattle in the Development Highway

Although recently initiated development projects in the Northern Province have addressed some of the issues discussed in the preceding part of this article, they have not contributed to make a significant breakthrough. Structural problems that barricade the development of the fishing industry such as regional disparity, dependency relations, political patronage structures and related socio-economic issues remain to date. On the contrary, sometimes, these development initiatives seem to contribute towards furthering of some of these issues. For instance, the merchants from the Southern Provinces who have coolers, sophisticated techniques and market networks are now being facilitated to come along the ‘development highway’ into the Northern fish market, to strengthen their dominance over the Northern competitors, whilst the perceptions of the Northern fishing community over this new development is not yet publicly heard. Some sectors of the Jaffna civil society members expressed their feelings on this aspect of regional disparity in the highly propagated post-war development, by comparing and contrasting the current situation with the ‘good old days’ of the Jaffna fishing industry. Signs of uneven development between North and South become apparent by the way Southern fishermen get all the advantages in the competition for limited resources in the sea because of their technological and economic advancement.

Fishing and Development

The fishing industry which is a large source of livelihood in the Peninsula, seems not to get its due prominence in the government’s development agenda, although there is wide expectation that the fishing communities stand to reap benefits from the ending of the war and the post-war development activities. Government representatives especially highlight the significance of these general infrastructure developments such as transport facilities. They emphasize the fact that newly constructed Mannar Bridge and Kallady Bridge and road developments in the coastal areas have benefited the fishing communities and encouraged merchants in other areas to expand their market relationships to Jaffna.

Special initiatives with regard to fishing sector are also in the pipeline. They include opening up of a new office for fisheries-related issues named District Fisheries Exchange Office; distribution of some equipments; establishment of new fishing villages under the post-war resettlement programme; introduction of new laws regarding illegal fishing methods etc.

However, a different form of articulation of a ‘development discourse’ can be observed when one listens to the fishermen in the Northern Province. Many of them interviewed for this study said that although the government has performed erratic development activities those activities don’t address concerns of fishing communities.  The Northern fishermen do not go to the South for seasonal fishing, basically owing to their lack of resources and technological capacity required. It can also be observed that they sometimes tend to perceive this in ethnic terms. There were some allegations that especially in Manner area Southern fishers are supported by military forces. Some fishermen in Karainagar explained the negative impact of the Southern fishers’ arrival to the North. The low income categories were mostly affected by some environmentally harmful methods used by them such as blasting of shells; using cylinders to catch conches and using ‘small eye nets’ to capture prawns by the fishermen coming from Negombo, Beruwala and Matara areas. A community leader claimed that “if this happens in their areas, the government’s response would have been different. But here they are able to destroy our resources, without facing to any charge.”

Periphery within periphery: patronage strengthened

In the case of the current development initiative in the Northern Province, it can clearly be observed that some dependency structures supported by relations of political patronage are being reinforced and strengthened. The situation in the island area in the Jaffna peninsula, which can be considered as a periphery within a periphery, both in geographical and in socio-economic terms, provides a fine example for this. Many islands do not have roads to link with the mainland and therefore the fishing communities are depended on businessmen who own transport facilities and linkages with the market in the mainland. For a long time, a large number of poor fishing families have been exploited by this economic dependency structures, against the background that they all are become debtors to a few businessmen who could control the market and transport facilities.

These dependency structures facilitated by political patronage have significantly developed in the island region during the period of the war because of certain strategic reasons in the area.

To make development really affective on a community, there needs to be a broader approach for addressing not merely the minor technical issues, but more structural issues as explained above.

Concluding Remark

The case of the fishing industry in the Jaffna Peninsula suggests that the current development strategy can reinforce and reproduce some existing social hierarchies, power relations and suppressions among people in the war affected areas. The manner in which post-war development is being framed by mainstream nationalism strengthens uneven development among different ethnic communities that would lead to more tension amongst inhabitants in the war affected areas. In other words, against the popular belief that development is the solution to the ethnic problem, a politically articulated discourse of development can also fuel the conflict, by unevenly distributing the benefits of economic growth among different ethnic communities.

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This essay is part of a series on the theme of post war reconciliation, justice and development initiated by the International Center for Ethnic Studies, (ICES). Colombo. The views expressed are the author’s own and does not necessarily represent the views of the ICES.

  • kusum

    Thank you, Sumith.
    The South must know the truth.
    Perhaps it’ll help it make the right decisions at elections.

  • Orion

    Sumith. I like to recommend that you visit the Chammadises in the northers coasts with a Tamil who is knowledgeable and is known to them. interview them and their families to get their take on the problems, Also visit the Fiesheries cooperatives and the Fisheries offices in the different Northern districts and get informal information. This would give more depth to your article. I regret, as a Sinhalese, you may not get much information from Tamil Fisher folks or Tamil fisheries officers who think independently, for obvious reasons. Sumanthiran’s report to parliament comes closest to the true situation. But it does not mention that Jaffna fishermen get their ice from Anuradhapura!!! Mullaithivu coast also get ice from the South in mini trucks and take the fish away on contract to pay off the loan given to them to buy boats, nets etc. Fisheries cooperatives cannot produce ice, give loans to the Chammadiis and market their fish. You may want to look into this. It is a big can of worms (fish). That is ,if you an investigative reporter.
    Thank you for your efforts to high light the problem.