MAILIDDY THURAI NORTH, SRI LANKA — The early morning light is breaking by the time Muththuththurai Inparasa reaches the Mayilittitturai beach on Sri Lanka’s northern coast, where rows of fishing boats are drawn up high, away from the water.
Inparasa, 43, has traveled 7 kilometers (4 miles) from his home in Kankesanthurai West. He’s soon joined by other fishermen who work quickly to unmoor their boats and pull them to the water. As they work, they glance around to see if anyone is approaching.
Often, people who live near the beach demand that the fishermen leave. A portion of this beach is an ancestral cemetery, they say, and the fishermen are desecrating it.
But in January 2017, the natural harbor was officially designated a fishing area by the government. Inparasa and the other fishermen were resettled into villages in this district that same year as part of a government effort to find permanent homes for people displaced during Sri Lanka’s civil war. The people resettled in Mailiddy Thurai North were taught fishing skills and given state subsidies and loans to buy boats.
The dispute between the fishermen and local people has escalated since then. It’s now being mediated by the Valikamam North Pradeshiya Sabha, the local government authority in the area, but discussions are at a standstill.
The local people say the dispute arose because the government didn’t work to understand the traditions practiced there before they trained the people who are now fishermen. Inparasa and the other fishermen say they’re willing to relocate their fishing base if the government provides one for them. So far, though, that hasn’t happened.
An estimated 800,000 people were displaced during Sri Lanka’s civil war, which lasted from 1983 to 2009. The fighting escalated in Jaffna district in 1990, which sent many people there to state-run welfare centers or to live with family elsewhere.
That year, people who lived in Mailiddy Thurai North, where the new fishing harbor was designated, left their village to escape military shelling in the area. They lived with relatives or in rented homes, says Kanakalingam Gunabalasingam, 70, a long-time resident.
A massive government resettlement campaign to secure permanent homes for displaced people began after the conflict ended.
In 2015, more than 1,100 acres of land in the Tellippalai Divisional Secretariat, where Mailiddy Thurai North is located, were released by the military. Residents who had owned private land in the area began to resettle in their traditional homes. In 2019, another 53 acres were released.
Gunabalasingam says that he and other families returned to Mailiddy Thurai North in 2018.
In total, 2,460 people were resettled in the Tellippalai Divisional Secretariat between 2015 and 2019.
Inparasa and the other fishermen and their families didn’t have private land before the war; many were young children when they were displaced. They were all residents of Jaffna district, so when the time came for resettlement, they were returned to the area.
The 188 fishermen now registered with the Rural Fisheries Organization of Kankesanthurai who work in the Mailiddy Thurai North harbor came from neighboring towns and villages.
“It’s only now, for the last two years, that we are living peacefully,” says Inparasa, remembering the nearly three decades of war when he and his family lived in government welfare centers. “And to stop us now from fishing is something that torments our heart.”
Inparasa says that he invested all of his savings and took out a loan of 500,000 Sri Lankan rupees (about $2,830) to buy nets, a canoe and the motor boat. The other fishermen, too, are in the same situation, he says.
But Gunabalasingam, who has become the de facto spokesman for landowners in the area, says they have a right to preserve the Avalai Hindu Cemetery. That burial ground has existed since at least 1931, and is considered one of the oldest Hindu graveyards in the area.
Everyone is rebuilding their lives since the war ended, Gunabalasingam says, and returning to traditional burial practices is a key piece of that for people in Mailiddy Thurai North.
“We need our graveyard,” he says.
There are other issues at play in the dispute, too. Gunabalasingam says he was a successful fisherman before the war, as were many of his neighbors. The new fishermen were day laborers, he says, who cleaned fish and performed other menial tasks.
“But now they have learned this job and demand they need a harbor,” he says.
Somasundaram Sugirthan, chairman of the local government agency and a key figure in resolving the dispute, acknowledges that the resettlement wasn’t well-planned.
“How can this area now be identified as a place for landing of boats?” he asks.
Sugirthan says he proposed to build a wall around the cemetery land, to separate it from the fishing activities being carried out nearby. But the fishermen say that plan would block off a large area that they use for their work.
The two sides are at an impasse, Sugirthan says.
Inparasa says the dispute is complicated by expectations related to Hinduism’s caste system. He says he and the other fishermen are from a lower caste than the people who own land in the village. Historically, he says, what Gunabalasingam says about the new fishermen’s previous livelihoods is true. Inparasa, as well as his father and grandfather, worked in the homes, fields and fishing boats of people from a higher caste.
But growing up in government welfare centers gave Inparasa and the others a chance to learn new skills. Even so, he says, people in Mailiddy Thurai North don’t want men from a lower caste to work near their graveyard.
Santhiramohan Parththeepan, another fisherman, says the group has collectively invested millions of rupees to develop fishing businesses.
“Is it the living or the dead which is more important?” he asks angrily.
Inparasa says that he and other fishermen are fighting for more than just a stretch of beach. Their livelihood is in fishing, he says, and the future of their families depend on it.
“We were not educated,” he says. “But we need to educate our children. This is my dream.”
Josephine Anthony, GPJ, translated this article from Tamil.