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India-Sri Lanka Fishermen Problem: Some Solutions

Gautam Sen is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions at the Centre and in a north-east State Government.
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  • June 18, 2014

    The problems of Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen in the Palk Bay appear everlasting. The attributable causes are the instances of Indian fishermen being prevented from fishing, facing harassment and arrest by the Sri Lankan Navy (SLN), and also the nearly 200 deaths resulting from SLA operations involving interdictions and firings on suspicion of the Indian trawlers aiding LTTE and gun running while fishing in the area, as reported over the past decade. However, nothing substantive has emerged till date, in terms of a consensus on evolving a framework of response from the Indian side from Tamilnadu on how to deal with the situation or how to enable different central governments to do so. With the new National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in power there are high expectations of a solution.

    Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, the former President of India, once opined that an apparent modus vivendi could be for Indian fishermen and their Sri Lankan counterparts to fish in the Palk Bay and Straits on alternate days. The problem is relatively acute for the Sri Lankan fishermen because their livelihood is more dependent on the catch from the waters concerned, and, also their means of fishing are comparatively less expedient and effective vis-à-vis those of the Indian fishermen. A solution, which would be fair to both groups of fishermen, has to necessarily factor in these aspects.

    India and Sri Lanka had concluded a maritime boundary agreement which became effective from 8 July 1974. The agreement of 1974 was followed by an exchange of letters between the then Indian Foreign Secretary Kewal Singh and his Sri Lankan counterpart, WT Jayasinghe, and a supplementary agreement was signed in 1976. The maritime boundary between the two countries was delineated in the Gulf of Mannar from the south-western edge of the Bay of Bengal to a point further down in a south-western axis up to the point where the boundaries of India, Sri Lanka and Maldives met in the Indian Ocean. As per these international instruments, both countries enjoy sovereign rights over the waters, the islands, continental shelf and sub-soil of the maritime area on their respective side of the delineated boundary. Indian fishermen and pilgrims have also been permitted access to Kachhativu island which falls on the Sri Lankan side of the maritime boundary. The 1974 and 1976 agreements have not put an explicit embargo on fishing by Indian fishermen beyond the Indian maritime zone, though the sovereign rights of Sri Lanka in its part of the zone are unquestionable.

    There are, at present, nearly 1,900 Indian trawlers fishing in the Palk Bay within the Indian maritime zone (some venture beyond into the Sri Lankan zone). This is against less than half the number of Sri Lankan fishing boats normally operating in the area, and generally confined to the Sri Lankan side. The Indians mostly fish at night for shrimp, with the trawlers originating from Rameshwaram, Mandapam, Kottaipattinam, Jagadipattinam, Kodikkarai and Nagapattinamin coastal Tamilnadu. Moreover, their use of gill nets and synthetic nets has caused severe damage to the ordinary nets of Sri Lankan fishermen. The Indians have not been fishing at long distances deep in the Indian Ocean away from the contentious Sri Lankan maritime zone because they do not possess multi-day fishing crafts.

    Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen from the country’s northern province could not freely fish during the last three years of the Fourth Ealam War (2006-09) because the SLN had imposed security restrictions, particularly on night fishing. It was during this period that the area of activities of the Indian fishermen is alleged to have increased. The capacity of Indian trawlers, use of synthetic nets and the extended area of their operations seem to have adversely affected the livelihood of nearly 30,000 fishermen families of Mannar, Kilinochhi, Mullaitivu and Jaffna districts of Sri Lanka’s northern province. While approximately 50,000 fishermen households primarily depend on the existing pattern of fishing for their daily earnings the dependence of Sri Lankan fishermen on fishing in their maritime zone area is significantly more acute because, the present overall economic conditions in that country`s northern province, is still quite adverse.

    Given the prevailing situation, intervention by India seems unavoidable in order to gradually resolve the problem. New Delhi should work out an arrangement with the Rajapakse government wherein the rights of both the countries’ fishermen are protected within the respective territorial jurisdiction. If this is not done, the welfare of the Sri Lankan Tamils, which different governments of India have endeavoured to promote as part of a decided long-term policy, will be compromised. As a concomitant measure, the incumbent Tamilnadu government has to be taken into confidence and induced, albeit with a modicum of pressure, to reign in its fishermen from encroaching into the Sri Lankan zone. It is relevant to mention here that Tamilnadu’s fishermen are not allowed to freely operate in the coastal waters of adjoining (newly created) Andhra Pradesh state either. It is the same situation vis-à-vis Andhra fishermen’s conventional jurisdiction off the Orissa coast. Indian fisher folk normally observe such territorial limitations and there is no reason why they should not do so apropos northern Sri Lanka.

    A restriction is also required on the number of Indian trawlers that are allowed to operate beyond the median line specifying the maritime boundary. Restrictions on the number of fishing craft and their technical capacity as well as the nature of the fishing nets will be more of essence than merely specifying the permissible period of fishing. However, for such measures to be effective, they have to be a part of an institutional framework in which the fishermen’s cooperatives of both countries are involved and committed, and there is an oversight body empowered with arbitral powers to resolve disputes. At the working level of the suggested mechanism, involvement of the District Collectors of Tamilnadu`s coastal districts concerned and the government representatives of Mannar, Killinochhi, Mullaitivu and Jaffna districts in Sri Lanka, will be a sine qua non for effective operability. The oversight body will necessarily have to be at the national level consisting of a limited number of suitable administrators or political leaders of repute with a track record of promoting friendly relations between the two countries.

    India could provide technical advisory support with some financial commitment to Tamilnadu to help formulate suitable Centrally-sponsored welfare schemes, which could facilitate the setting up of processing units for fishery products and promote other income generating activities in the agro-allied sectors. A beginning was made in 2011-12 when the present AIDMK government enhanced the compensation to their fishermen for restricted fishing. Furthermore, the state government has also put in place a subsidy scheme for fishermen to procure deep-sea tuna liners. This should gradually reduce the dependence of Tamilnadu’s fishermen on trawling in the Palk Bay waters off the Jaffna coast, at least within the maritime zone of Sri Lanka.

    It is of essence that the source of discord between the Tamil fishermen folk of both countries be addressed. As part of a bilateral initiative, New Delhi and Colombo may even consider instituting a Palk Bay Authority for devising an integrated solution to the fishermen’s problems encompassing their livelihood issues and commerce in the area.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.