ISSSP Reflections No. 10, January 6, 2014
Author: Dr. M. Mayilvaganan
Fishery resources have always sustained fishermen communities in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, however over time these resources have become the object of “uncommon controversy.” The battle over fishing in the Palk Straits especially for tuna, prawns, lobsters, blue swimming crabs and cuttlefish is a classic political maritime confrontation: a showdown between the state government, India and Sri Lanka which, like past disagreements, snowballs into a major diplomatic row between two countries. With the continuing trend of attacks and arrests of Indian fishermen by Sri Lankan authorities, the issue is slowly approaching a ‘crescendo’, with no solution in sight.
Sri Lanka’s decision to detain and prosecute Indian fishermen, who poach in Sri Lankan waters, indicates a qualitative change in their handling of the issue since August 2013. The change has accentuated the sense among the fishermen community in Tamil Nadu that it is a vindictive action by Sri Lanka for India’s political posture vis-à-vis Colombo. The surfacing of photographs showing detained Indian fishermen being chained and handcuffed in Sri Lanka on December 1, 2013 and later the news of Sri Lankan court in Mallagam extending remand of 30 Indian fishermen, hailing from Pudukottai and Rameswaram clearly points to a change in Sri Lanka’s tactics.
The alleged assault of four Indian fishermen besides pelting of stones at a boat carrying Indian fishermen injuring 20 of them on December 22, 2013 by Sri Lankan Navy and detention of 25 fishermen on January 3, 2014 has caused outrage among the Indian fishing community, human rights activists and political parties in Tamil Nadu. The latest arrest has come as a shock especially to the fishermen community as their delegation recently met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on December 28, 2013 seeking his intervention. This has turned the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) in the Palk Bay into a sensitive and volatile space. N J Bose, General Secretary, Tamil Nadu Coastal Mechanised Boats Fishermen Association argues that the handcuffing and chaining of Indian fishermen “is an insult not just for the fishing community but for India. It is a challenge to India by the Sri Lankan Government.” Further he points out that Indian authority treat detained Sri Lankan fishermen with respect and with their remand being extended through video-conferencing.
Earlier, when Tamil Nadu fishermen were arrested by the Sri Lankan navy, they were released and handed over to the Indian Coast Guard on the maritime boundary. However of late, Indian fishermen are being held in Sri Lankan jails for prolonged periods. This measure seems to be the latest Sri Lankan strategy to stop Indian trawlers from crossing the maritime border for fishing. Violation of maritime border by Indian trawlers has affected the livelihood of Lankan fishermen besides depriving them of financial profits and foreign exchange earnings to the tune of running into tens of millions of Sri Lankan Rupees when prawns, tuna and cuttlefish are exported to the West and Japan.
This fishing war not only strains relations between India and Sri Lanka but also puts the livelihood and lives of fishermen, who are often poor and desperate, in peril. According to one report at least 600 fishermen from Tamil Nadu were arrested by the Sri Lankan Navy with around 200 of those arrested still languishing in Sri Lankan jails. In 2013 alone, at least 100 Indian fishermen have been killed and 350 seriously injured. In addition, Sri Lankan authorities have seized a total of 107 trawlers from Indian fishermen of which India has so far retrieved about 40 trawlers.
Fishing is the only livelihood available to the fishermen of Tamil Nadu and northern Sri Lanka. Both prefer to go towards the Katchatheevu Island area in the strait, where fish reserves are said to be abundant due to presence of deep waters and the rocky formation. For Sri Lankan fishermen it is within their maritime boundary whereas for the Indian fishermen, crossing the boundary makes their act ‘illegal’. Sri Lanka does not see fishing by Indian fishermen close to the Sri Lankan coast of Point Pedro, Delft and other coastal areas very kindly.
Colombo views the act as not only being illegal but depriving them of their marine wealth and also causing damage to the coral reefs in the region. The Sri Lankan fishermen are also an aggrieved lot as Indian trawlers damage their fishing nets. For a community which is in the process of recovering from the restrictions imposed during the Eelam war, the Sri Lankan fisher folk view Indian actions as hampering their economic revival. Incidentally, Sri Lankan sources report that they have satellite pictures as evidence to show that every day at least 800 Indian trawlers and mechanised boats cross the IBM to fish near the Sri Lankan coast.
It seems the problem is rooted in an intricate mix of several factors. Foremost, sea along the Indian side remains shallow and possibilities of huge fish catch remain very minimal besides the steady depletion of fish stocks, partly because of overfishing. Second, the steady upsurge of Indian trawlers partly due to the relief funds doled out to Indian fishermen in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. Third, the return of Sri Lankan fishermen to Palk Bay once used almost exclusively by Indian fishermen and the expansion of Sri Lankan Navy patrol previously restricted by the presence of Sea Tigers. Finally the problem is also attributable to the closeness of shores of both India and Sri Lanka to international maritime border. The Palk Strait, which is the area of concern, is just 22 miles of water that separates the northern coast of Sri Lanka from the southeast coast of India. The international boundary line is close to both the countries and the boundary is 11.5 nm from Rameswaram and 15.9 nm from Point Calimere.
However, the law appears to be in favour of Sri Lanka and its fishermen. While Sri Lankans consider the straying of Indian fishermen into their waters as the cause for the tensions; Indian fishermen, who have been traditionally fishing in these waters view the maritime boundaries as manmade creations. The Indian fishermen believe that the maritime boundary agreements have ignored the realities of fishermen’s livelihood. In fact, the dangers Indian fishermen face in fishing in the Palk Straits underscores their desperation to sustain their livelihood.
Given the serious issues of livelihood on both sides of the Strait and the issue impacting Indo-Sri Lanka bilateral relations, authorities on both sides must act quickly and decisively. For India, failure to resolve the issue deftly will result in further politicisation with spill over effects on the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
Many proposals have been made from time to time in a bid to resolve the fisherman issue including proposal for lease in perpetuity or reciprocal licensing of Kachchativu Island. Unfortunately, the Government of Tamil Nadu and Indian government in general did not pursue it vigorously and now the time has come for a concerted action. For peaceful bilateral relations and wellbeing of fishermen, India should without delay push for solutions including sensitising Indian fishermen about the need of staying within the Indian waters and keeping to a reasonable distance from the Sri Lankan shores. Another solutions can be the provision of bringing in the licensing system whereby Indian fishermen could be permitted to fish in Sri Lankan waters in specified areas or on specified days and vice versa. If not effectively dealt with, the issues of fishing in Palk Bay will continue to add tensions in the Indo-Sri Lankan relationship apart from affecting the lives and livelihood of their fishermen.
About the Author
Dr. M. Mayilvaganan is Assistant Professor, International Strategic and Security Studies Programme, NIAS, Bangalore. He can be reached at mumayil[at]yahoo[dot]com
Picture Courtesy: Jagran Post