India, Lanka must solve fishermen issue

The death of an Indian fisherman, who was allegedly shot dead by the Sri Lankan Navy personnel, on Monday has understandably triggered anguish and outrage among the fishermen community of Rames­waram. Three others were injured in the incident. The Sri Lankan Navy has denied having shot the fisherman but the government has ordered a probe into the incident. Clashes between Indian fishermen and Sri Lankan security personnel have risen sharply over the past week. Since the beginning of March, the number of Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan custody has increased from 35 to 53; 18 of them were arrested in three incidents on a single day.  This is alarming. Only a few months ago, India and Sri Lanka agreed to set up a Joint Working Group on fisheries that would meet once in three months to discuss the fishermen issue, and a hotline between the Coast Guards of the two countries. Importantly, the two sides made a commitment to not resort to violence to address their grievances. The killing of the fisherman on Monday and the surge in fishermen arrests in recent weeks signals that the agreement has not held the peace in the Palk Straits.

Sri Lanka charges Indian fishermen with entering its territorial waters. India maintains that the fishermen are in the high seas when they are nabbed by Lankan personnel. Accusations and counter-accusations have flown across the Palk Straits. But these have only roiled the waters further. India and Sri Lanka need to realise that the issue is not just one of whether borders were crossed and territorial sovereignties violated but of livelihood and human security. It is impossible to make out in the high seas where the maritime bo­undary runs and to detain or shoot fishermen is an excessively heavy-handed and inhuman response. It is people on the ground who should be leading the quest for a solution. Unfortunately, it is diplomats in Delhi and Colombo who have little familiarity with problems that fishermen encounter in the seas who are making the decisions. Importantly, Tamil Nadu needs to be more proactive in addressing the root of the problem, which lie in the use of trawlers by its fishermen. Trawling has destroyed the marine environment along the Tamil Nadu coast, forcing its fishermen into Sri Lankan waters. This is not only depriving Sri Lankan fishermen of catch but also destroying their marine environment. Tamil Nadu must halt the use of trawlers and to this end provide education and support to its fishermen to make the shift.  Sri Lanka is wrong in using force on our fishermen but India must act to end unsustainable fishing too.

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