Make Lankan fishing pact a success

Frequent meetings of India-Sri Lanka fishing communities will be necessary to explore pragmatic solutions.

Newly appointed Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O Paneerselvam has requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi to “intervene in the sensitive livelihood issue of our fishermen and use diplomatic channels to curb the violent actions of the Sri Lankan Navy on innocent fishermen from Tamil Nadu,” in a letter last month.

Considering the coastlines between the two countries are around 16 km and 45 km at minimum and maximum distances, respectively in the Palk Bay region, the territorial waters of each country in some areas overlap onto the other side. Often, Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen inadvertently stray into each other’s territorial waters due to ignorance of the International Maritime Boundary Line, boat engine failure or sudden turbulence at sea.

When Sri Lankan fishermen are caught poaching in Indian waters off Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Kerala and Orissa, the Indian Coast Guard doesn’t open fire, but arrests and prose-cutes them. The main complaint of Sri Lankan fishermen is against mechanised Indian boats that indulge in “bottom trawling”, an industrial fishing technique that drags large, heavy nets across the seabed, which severely damages marine eco-systems.

Ironically, most of the trawlers are owned by merchant capitalists from non-fishing and other social backgrounds. The entry of these businessmen into the fishing sector has disturbed not only local customary laws of fishing communities, but also turn-ed several traditional fishermen from owners to labourers.

These fishermen work under “fisheries compulsions”: the lesser the catch, the meagre the incentives and fear of losing their jobs. Therefore, Indian fishermen are risk-inclined and transgress into Sri Lankan waters in search of larger catches.

In addition, the mechanised trawler industry is politically influential in Tamil Nadu which makes it more obdurate to solutions that could reduce their profit margins. However, to preserve marine resources and provide enough sustenance to  traditional marginal fishermen of both the countries, it is important to impose a strict ban on employment of mechanised trawlers, which resort to bottom trawling and kills plankton and makes the seabed unfavourable to breed new fishes and prawns. 

After the ‘Eelam War IV’ in May 2009, the Sri Lankan Navy reverted to its primary role to patrol the island’s maritime borders. Still, Sri Lanka and its navy continue to remain vigilant along their maritime borders. In the post-civil war period, the relaxation of fishing restrictions along Sri Lanka’s northern coasts has enabled the Sri Lan-kan fishermen to venture into the sea. The Indian fishermen, who thus far enjoyed monopoly over these marine resource-rich waters, now face stiff competition from their Sri Lankan counterparts. At times, this leads to confrontation mid-seas between these two fishing communities.

Till the ethnic conflict broke out in Sri Lanka in 1983, the movement of fishermen across the Palk Straits was not an issue. Only after the LTTE which emerged as a militant group, with a naval wing or the ‘Sea Tigers’, the situation deteriorated for fishermen on both sides. They were caught in the crossfire between the Sri Lankan Navy and the ‘Sea Tigers’.

During the civil war, the Sri Lankan Navy was focussed on the movement of LTTE boats. Straying Indian fishermen who transgressed into Sri Lankan waters were overlooked, except to monitor goods smuggled in and out of northern Sri Lanka that would support the LTTE’s war fighting capabilities.

Right to life
Both governments should respect the right to life of fishermen and adopt a comprehensive and humane approach to evolve pragmatic solutions without further delay. Given the Indian Tamil fishermen’s dependency on coastal fishing, to immediately phase out mechanised trawlers may be difficult. As an alternative, these large trawlers could be encouraged to venture into high seas across the country’s Exclusive Economic Zones.

To avoid shooting incidents due to “mistaken identity”, both countries could consider ‘coordinated patrolling’ between their marine forces. Additionally, development of ‘fish farms’ extensively in Indian waters would prevent its fishermen to venture into alien waters to search for a ‘big catch’. The solution ultimately lies in better fisheries management. India can also consider leasing fishing blocks, especially those identified as ‘surplus total available catch’, from Sri Lanka which would enable Lanka earn much required foreign exchange.

The Indian Navy has mooted a proposal to fit Global Positioning System (GPS) in every boat to enable fishermen to navigate accurately and determine their locations correctly. Costs of installation could be shared by the Centre and government of Tamil Nadu, with a token contribution from the beneficiary fishermen. Apart from training fishermen to use GPS, the local administration should sensitise them about the need to preserve marine biology and not to transgress into international waters.

There is already such an agreement between fishermen of these two neighbours which they do not adhere to. Besides, New Delhi and Colombo should organise frequent meetings between their fishing communities to explore pragmatic solutions and develop cordial mid-sea relationships with each other.

(Manoharan is Associate Professor and Shruthi is a post-graduate student at the Department of International Studies and History, Christ University, Bengaluru)
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