The issue of fishermen straying in each other’s territorial waters has come as a potential irritant in the otherwise generally good bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka.In the latest instance, the Sri Lankan Navy on 26 June reportedly “chased the fishermen near Katchatheevu and cut the ropes and damaged the nets of 10 boats.” Citing this incident, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha urged New Delhi to “impress upon Lanka the need to instruct their navy to exercise restraint and refrain from harassing innocent Indian fishermen pursuing their livelihood in their traditional waters.” Indeed, wherever sovereign coasts are in proximity (as in the case of India-Pakistan, India-Bangladesh and India-Sri Lanka), straying of fishermen is normal. Fishes know no frontiers; fishermen choose to ignore them, principally for livelihood reasons. However, in the India-Sri Lanka case, the issue is more complex and, therefore, calls for holistic approach.
Maritime border between the two countries is about 400 kilometres spreading along three different areas: the Bay of Bengal in the north, the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar in the centre and the Indian Ocean in the south. In the Palk Bay region, distances between the coasts of the two countries varies between 16 and 45 kms. This means territorial waters of each country in some areas strays into the other’s if 12 nautical mile criteria is strictly applied.
The issue of fishermen came to the fore only with emergence of violent ethnic conflict between the Tamil militants and the Sri Lankan government in the mid 1980s. Increased vigilance by the Sri Lankan Navy to check intermittent flow of Tamil refugees into India and flow of arms and supplies to Tamil militant groups made fishing difficult and risky. With the LTTE emerging as a dominant militant group, with a naval wing of its own (‘Sea Tigers’), things changed for worse to fishermen on both sides. They were caught in the crossfire between the Sri Lankan Navy and the ‘Sea Tigers’.
Logically speaking, after the ‘Eelam War IV’ and with the decimation of the LTTE, the fishermen issue should have come to an end. In reality, it has not. When the ethnic war was on, the Sri Lankan Navy focussed on ‘Sea Tigers’ and the movement of LTTE boats around the island. It overlooked straying of Indian fishermen, who were entrepreneurial enough to take the risk to smuggle goods that could be use to the LTTE. After the ethnic war, the Sri Lankan Navy is back to its primary task of patrolling the island’s maritime borders. The monitoring is also aimed at preventing possible return of LTTE cadres, who fled from the island during the height of the conflict in 2009, to revive the insurgency all over again. Security concerns still persist in Sri Lanka. Its Navy, therefore, has not let the guard down.
The end of war, however, has resulted in relaxation of fishing restrictions along Sri Lankan coasts resulting in its fishermen to venture into the seas around without any fear. The Indian fishermen, who thus far enjoyed monopoly of resource-rich waters, have now got competitors in massive numbers. At times, this leads to confrontations between the two fishing communities and in turn drawing intervention of either of naval forces. The main complaint of Sri Lankan fishermen has been against Indian mechanised trawlers that indulge in pair, mid-water, pelagic, and bottom trawling severely damaging marine resources and the sea bed. Ironically, most of the trawlers from Tamil Nadu are owned by merchant capitalists from non-fishing and other social backgrounds. The entry of ‘outsiders’ has not only threatened the local customary laws of fishing communities, but also turned several traditional fishermen from owners to labourers. Trawler sector in Tamil Nadu is also politically influential and financially sound making it more obdurate to solutions that could cut down its profit margins.
Straying of fishermen also takes place inadvertently due to ignorance of imaginary marine boundaries, engine failure or even due to sudden turbulence at seas. But, to be fair to Sri Lanka, not all Indian fishermen who stray into Sri Lankan waters are arrested or shot. Most of the times, they are warned and shooed away. Sri Lankan fishermen, who venture on high seas for ‘multi-day fishing’, are also caught poaching in Indian waters off coasts of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Andaman and Nicobar Islands and even Orissa. They are, however, not shot at, but arrested and prosecuted.
Looking at solutions, at the outset, the right to life of fishermen should be respected; then comes the livelihood issue. To avoid shooting incidents due to “mistaken identity”, ‘coordinated patrolling’ between marine forces (Sri Lankan Navy and Indian Coast Guards) of both countries can be considered. Additionally, developing fish farming extensively in Indian waters would prevent its fishermen from venturing into other waters in search of a ‘big catch’. India can also consider leasing fishing blocks, especially those identified as ‘surplus total available catch’, from Sri Lanka. Through this, Sri Lanka could also earn much required foreign exchange. To preserve marine resources and to provide enough sustenance to the traditional marginal fishermen of both the countries, it is important to impose strict and complete ban on mechanised trawlers. However, given the dependency, immediate phasing out of mechanised trawlers from coastal fishing may be difficult. But, it has to be done sooner than later. As an alternative, these large trawlers could be encouraged to venture into high seas in India’s exclusive economic zones (EEZs) rather into territorial waters of Sri Lanka. With suitable modification, they can also be used as patrol boats by the Coast Guards on hiring basis. Presently, the Indian Coast Guards faces immense shortage of patrol vessels.
Reinventing sustainable fisheries is vital for solving many issues. The issue ultimately lies in proper fisheries management. If adequate fish population is maintained in Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar areas, most of the fishermen would not find the need to venture into other’s ‘territories’. India also can consider taking on Katchchativu Island that has been the centre of controversy, on long-term lease. As a bigger neighbour, India has been accommodative to Sri Lankan sensitivities on the issue to the extent of gifting strategically vital Katchchativu Island despite opposition from Tamil Nadu. It should be noted that the Maritime Agreements of 1974 and 1976, which fixed marine boundaries between India and Sri Lanka, were done much before the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that came into force in 1994. New Delhi never asked for renegotiation in the light of this new development, despite immense pressures from Tamil Nadu to wrest the island back from Sri Lanka so as to protect the interests of its fishermen. Colombo should take note of this and reciprocate accordingly by taking a liberal approach on Katchchativu Island and its visitors.
As an additional safety measure, the Indian Navy's proposal of fitting Global Positioning System (GPS) in every Indian fishing boat should be implemented. GPS provides the fastest and most accurate method for fishermen to navigate, measure speed and determine locations. Costs of installation could be shared by the governments of India and Tamil Nadu, with a token contribution from the concerned fishermen. Apart from training the fishermen of its usage, the local administration should sensitise them on the dos and don’ts in the international waters. Apart from respecting the rights of their Sri Lankan counterparts, the Indian fishermen should voluntarily try and avoid using trawlers that damage plankton and in turn make the seabed unfavourable for breeding of new fishes and prawns. There is already an agreement between the fishermen of two countries on this, but it is not abided by.
Arranging frequent meetings between fishing communities of both countries could be explored so as to develop a friendlier atmosphere at mid-seas during fishing. ‘Solution from below’ has greater chances of success than a ‘solution imposed from above’ by the governments. There have indeed been meetings between fishing communities since 2003, but erratic and not so fruitful in terms of tangible results. If they are systematised and institutionalised, one can expect them to be more successful. It is important that whatever agreements reached by the fishing communities amongst themselves receive strong backing from the governments and their marine forces. Otherwise, all these agreements would be futile.