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Ganesh Pol asked: Why do Indian fisherman often run into problems with the Sri Lankan authorities in the Indian Ocean? What are the causal factors?

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  • Gulbin Sultana replies: Both Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen have been fishing into Palk Bay area for centuries. Problem emerged only after a maritime agreement was signed by India and Sri Lanka in 1974. In fact, initially the 1974 border agreement did not affect fishing on either sides of the border. In 1976, through an exchange of letter, both India and Sri Lanka agreed to stop fishing in each other’s waters. However, the agreement could not stop the fishermen from fishing in these waters, as fishermen know no boundary. They go wherever they can get maximum number of catch. They, knowingly or unknowingly, often violate the International Maritime Boundary Lines in search of a good catch, at times at great personal risk.

    Both India and Sri Lankan fishermen have been known for entering into each other’s waters. However, cases of arrest of Sri Lankan fishermen by Indian authorities are comparatively less since they mostly fish in the high seas by using multi-day crafts. On the other hand, due to the dearth of multi-day fishing capability, Indian fishermen cannot shift their fishing effort from the Palk Bay area to the offshore areas of the Indian waters or way beyond the continental shelf. Therefore, Indian fishermen have no other option but to fish into the Sri Lankan waters. While for the Sri Lankan authorities protecting their maritime boundary is important, for the Indian fishermen the priority is of securing their livelihood.

    It is noteworthy that despite the signing of maritime boundary agreements, fishermen communities of both the countries continued their fishing in the Palk Bay area peacefully until the Eelam war broke out in 1983. Nonetheless, after the end of War in 2009, the Sri Lankan fishermen have been raising their objection to Indian fishermen fishing in their waters. According to an estimate, more than 500 trawlers from Tamil Nadu cross the International Maritime Boundary Line and fish in the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Bay, threatening the livelihoods of the fishermen in the north of Sri Lanka, who have just commenced fishing after the end of war in 2009.
    Thus, the main problem with Indian fishermen is that a large number of them are dependent on fishing in Sri Lankan waters, which is prohibited by the 1976 Maritime Boundary Agreement. Also, a large number of Indian fishermen are dependent on trawling which is banned in Sri Lanka.