Fishing for trouble

The crisis over the arrest of 136 Indian fishermen by Sri Lanka has been defused for now with Sri Lanka releasing them. The fishermen were taken into custody last week when they entered Sri Lankan waters. A little over a month ago, two Tamil Nadu fishermen were brutally killed allegedly by the Sri Lankan Navy.

These incidents have ruffled India’s feathers. While Sri Lanka is well within its rights as a sovereign nation to safeguard its territorial waters, arresting and killing straying fishermen was hardly the way to deal with the matter. After all, the two countries enjoy good relations. There are mechanisms to deal with tricky bilateral issues.

Besides, Colombo and Delhi have used dialogue to resolve contentious matters, even extending concessions to each other to improve ties. India, for instance, gave up its territorial claims over the Kachchativu Island in the 1970s in order to accommodate the demands of its smaller neighbour. A joint working group was recently set up to address the problems of fishermen. The arrest of the errant fishermen was seen therefore as a needless upping of the ante by Colombo.

While the release of the fishermen has eased tensions for now, Delhi must address the underlying conflict to avoid similar spats henceforth. Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen have been upset with the intrusion of Indian trawlers into their waters. This culminated in the seizure of 18 trawlers along with the 136 men on them.

This is basically a conflict between traditional fishermen and trawlers. It has been given a Sri Lanka versus India angle. Traditional fishermen from India and Sri Lanka have had problems with trawlers operating in the waters, whether Indian or Sri Lankan. A ban on trawlers has been suggested often by fishermen and environmentalists but governments have been reluctant to take on the powerful trawler lobby.

Politicians on both sides of the Palk Straits are seeking to draw mileage from the issue. Assembly elections are around the corner and political parties in Tamil Nadu are using the fishermen issue to score points. Across the straits, in Jaffna, Tamil politicians are seeking to revive their careers by pushing the fishermen to adopt confrontationist positions. Delhi and Colombo will have to step forward to calm the waters. Looking at the conflict through the lens of India-Sri Lanka relations alone will get us nowhere. Environment and livelihood concerns underlie the conflict and these must be addressed to calm tempers.

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