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Amar Charan & Tharani asked: Why the issue of fishermen between India and Sri Lanka has not been resolved yet? What steps Indian Government is taking to overcome the problems faced by the Indian fishermen?

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  • Gulbin Sultana replies: Both Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen have been fishing in the Palk Bay for centuries. Problem emerged only after the maritime agreement was signed by India and Sri Lanka in 1974. In fact, initially the 1974 agreement did not affect fishing on either side of the maritime border. In 1976, through exchange of letters, both India and Sri Lanka agreed not to engage in fishing activities into each other’s waters. However, fishermen of both the countries continued fishing in the Palk Bay peacefully until 1983, when the Eelam war broke out and fishing in the area was banned. The Indian fishermen given their dependence on the Palk Bay for livelihood would still enter into these waters, often at the cost of heavy price and valuable lives.

    There is absence of value fish in Indian waters, whereas the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Bay is rich in marine resources. Though there are plenty of resources available on the offshore areas of the Indian waters, but due to lack of deep sea fishing capability Indian fishermen prefer to fish in the Palk Bay. Unfortunately, Indian fishermen use trawlers which are considered harmful for marine ecology and are also banned in Sri Lanka. According to the Sri Lankan fishermen, more than 500 trawlers from Tamil Nadu cross the international maritime boundary line and fish on the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Bay, threatening the livelihood of the fishermen in the north who had resumed fishing since the end of the war in 2009. These trawlers not only harm marine ecology but also destroy the fishing gears of the Sri Lankan fishermen.

    Recognising the issues involved with bottom trawling, it has been conveyed from the Indian side that it will take at least three years for the Indian fishermen to shift from trawling to deep sea fishing. Until then, as an interim mechanism, Indian fishermen should be allowed to fish for 83 days. However, the Sri Lankan fishermen refused to have any kind of understanding with the Indian fishermen until and unless bottom trawling is completely stopped. Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development is of the same view and has asked the Sri Lankan Navy to be strict with the Indian fishermen crossing the maritime boundary line. Even if detained Indian fishermen are released as a goodwill gesture, the trawlers confiscated from them will not be released.

    So, the ball is now in the Indian court. The Tamil Nadu Government has reportedly sanctioned Rs. 52 crore for improving deep sea fishing capability and has sought additional Rs. 1,520 crore deep sea fishing package from the Central Government. It is alleged that there is a strong nexus between the trawler owners and the politicians who do not want to stop the business of trawling.

    Meanwhile, India has asked Sri Lanka to deal with the issue in a humane manner as livelihood of a large number of fishermen is involved. India has also requested Sri Lanka to refrain from firing at the Indian fishing vessels or killing the fishermen. The issue has been discussed by the leaders of the two countries at every high level meeting.

    Two rounds of talks were also facilitated between the fishing communities of the two countries. As the Sri Lankan fishermen refused to have any further dialogue until bottom trawling is stopped by the Indian fishermen, both the countries have decided to find the solution at the official level. However, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Fisheries seems to be talking in the same tone as the Sri Lankan fishermen. Nevertheless, there is a need to check trawling and divert the fishing activity towards the high seas by improving the deep sea fishing capability of the Indian fishermen.

    Posted on May 23, 2016