Acute diesel shortage spells doom for fishermen

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By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan 

Ninety per cent of the fishing community in Sri Lanka says a severe shortage of kerosene supply for fishing boats, the present economic crisis, and unstable government have destroyed their livelihood.

“Fisher families are contemplating sailing to Tamil Nadu to ‘at least have a meal’ and their survival in Sri Lanka is hanging in the balance,” President of the Vadamarachchi North Fishermen Society, Nagarasa Warnakulasingham said.

The Vadamarachchi North Fishermen Society represents 16 fishermen societies across the coastal area in that region.

“Whoever we talk to wants to flee to India by boat,” said Warnakulasingham.

He added that another 21 persons have fled. He said fishermen are unable to do deep-sea fishing, as they need at least 30 litres of kerosene per trip.

“We get 30 litres every 10 days, but that too is pending, as there is no kerosene supply. Fishermen are wandering around without kerosene and there is a drop in harvest for domestic use and for export purposes,” he said.

He added that for transportation of fish, lorries don’t have diesel. “The Government has failed to work out its priorities,” he lamented.

“The fishermen last received kerosene on 30 March. Some rich fishermen are receiving supplies on the sly as they are connected to politicians,” he pointed out. He added that fishermen can’t engage in any other form of employment and their lives have come to a standstill. 

The fishermen cooperative societies have submitted a letter to the Indian High Commission in Jaffna, urging them to supply at least 26,000 litres of kerosene. They have requested that the letter be forwarded to the Department of Fisheries and they will “look into it.” We need at least 30 litres of kerosene per day for each person. 24,000 families depend on this. If not, how can fishermen survive?, he queried. The fishermen families are also suffering from power outages and their children are unable to study at home. Long-distance travelling by bus is also no longer possible due to the diesel crisis. Three-wheeler drivers charge higher prices and exploitation and irregularities have caused untold hardship, according to him.

Ninety per cent of fishermen are left with nothing and are further harassed by Southern fishermen, who come stealthily to net fish. “They throw dead fish into the sea,” he said. He also said local fishing trawlers haven’t been banned everywhere. Some fishermen are banned from using trawlers, but in the Jaffna District, Vadamarachchi East, Mannar they use trawlers. The law of the land differs from area to area, he added. 

“Fishing trawlers were banned in 2017, but there are 500-odd local fishing trawlers going to sea. These things go unchecked by authorities. If the fishing industry is to thrive, the Government has to design a proper plan to earn revenue,” he said.

Meanwhile, Aruna Rohantha, President of the All Ceylon Fisheries Trade Union, said it is the same situation in the South. Over 220,000 deep-sea fishermen are left with no hope, while the President is fighting to keep his position, and the clergy are engaging in politics, rather than addressing the burning issue of dollar crisis.

He said the temples, churches, kovils, and mosques have plenty of funding. “They are rich, but are calling for the leaders to step down. What else can they do? They can support their communities. The Catholic priests can give money to the Government to buy kerosene, while Buddhist monks and Muslim religious leaders can support agriculture businesses and other needy sectors.”

“True, the leaders are corrupt and they plundered dollars, but religious entities have enormous wealth and they don’t pay taxes. They can purchase kerosene,” Rohantha added.

“No fisherman can survive with 40 litres of kerosene for 10 days. The Government has got its priorities mixed up. Our fishermen are at Galle Face. We visit them daily with food. Is this how you run a country? If everyone engages in politics, what is the ordinary citizen supposed to do? We hear that a group of pro-Rajapaksa monks are going to surround the Cardinal’s place. What purpose does this serve? They want violence, without finding a solution to the crisis,” Rohantha added. 

“People are stealing to survive and the Government is insensitive,” he lamented.

He reiterated that there is no end in sight and the people will continue to suffer. “Rich and influential people should come forward to fund to get more petrol, diesel, and kerosene, as the energy crisis can ditch this country further,” he said.

State Minister of Fisheries Kanchana Wijesekera was not available for comment, but in a Facebook post, he said, “2021 has been a year of challenges and records for the Sri Lankan fisheries sector. With the challenges of the Peliyagoda cluster, domestic Covid lockdowns, lockdowns in overseas markets, freight costs tripling, X-Press Pearl maritime disaster, and floods in the Puttalam District, fisheries sector stakeholders and officials working together have managed to record the highest export value in history –  US$ 318 million (US$ 215 million in 2020). The largest balance of fish trade in history – US$ 192 million (US$ 23 million in 2020). The lowest import value and quantity in over a decade – US$ 126 million and 56,176 MT (US$ 191 million and 85,809 MT in 2020). Highest production of shrimp farming in history – almost double from the previous highest quantity – 14,415.” However, the present crisis has hit the tea, rubber, and coconut plantations severely and the fisheries industry won’t be spared either.

Photos T. Pratheepan (Jaffna Correspondent)