How to avert these fishing wars

Udai Rao | Updated on March 09, 2018


Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen are trying to work out an agreement. A joint Palk Bay authority to settle disputes would help

Sri Lankan President Mathripala Sirisena reportedly ordered the arrest of intruding Indian fishermen; 37 persons were apprehended on April 3, following which fishermen from Tamil Nadu staged a protest in Rameshwaram on April 11 for their return.

In March, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe had made a belligerent statement that Sri Lanka would shoot at Indian fishermen violating its waters.

Now, shooting is something which is not done even when Indian and Pakistani fishermen transgress into each other’s waters. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was only partially correct when she responded that India too could shoot at Sri Lankan fishermen, but it involves livelihood, humanitarian and legal issues.

It is little known that Sri Lankan fishermen often poach in our exclusive economic zone off Kerala, Lakshwadeep, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and even in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, but India does not shoot at them; it deals with them in a civilised manner. But as far as livelihood and humanitarian issues are concerned, India cannot be insensitive to them.

The International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) between India and Sri Lanka was demarcated by the Maritime agreements of 1974 and 1976 which gave the latter control of Kachchativu Island. New Delhi has told the Supreme Court that Kachchativu was never ceded to Sri Lanka.

Hypothetically, even if we were to get control of Kachchativu Island, the problem will not go away. Indian fishermen from all along the Palk Bay, which includes Nagapattinam, Thoputhurai and Rameshwaram venture into Sri Lankan waters not just off Kachchativu, but also off Delft and Iranitivu off southern Sri Lanka to Kankesanturai in northern Sri Lanka and in the process deny Sri Lankan fishermen their livelihood.

Overfishing the waters

While the fish may be forgiven for their ignorance of the IMBL, fishermen do not need GPS to figure out their position in the sea.

The Indian side of the IMBL is overfished due to bottom trawling, by which large fishing nets with heavy weights are dragged across the ocean floor to scoop up fish; this severely damages the sea floor ecosystem.

As a result, Indian fishermen are desperate: they have to pay for boats, nets and diesel hired from trawler owners. They are, therefore, tempted to cross the IMBL and are willing to risk being shot at. The situation assumes complex dimensions with an increasing number of fishing trawlers going to sea.

Unfortunately, neither New Delhi nor Chennai have done anything to resolve the issue. Sri Lanka’s sensitivity to the perceived Big Brother attitude of India with Tamil Nadu politics acting as a spoiler is only to be expected.

However, in an encouraging departure, Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen backed by their respective governments have now met thrice since January 2014, the last being at Chennai in March this year, to work out a mutually acceptable solution. Various ideas were debated, but the way that has emerged is to wean our fishermen away from traditional fishing in the Palk Bay and to train, equip and subsidise them to take up deep sea fishing.

Other options

Simultaneously, fish farming in our waters in Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar needs to be pursued vigorously. Sri Lanka also needs to be persuaded to lease fishing blocks and permit licensed fishing for a short period during the transition to deep sea fishing. A joint Palk Bay fishing authority also needs to be set up to lay down the rules and act as an arbitrator to resolve disputes.

The transition from traditional fishing to deep sea fishing would be painful. More so since our industry lacks deep sea fishing trawlers with refrigeration facilities.

The government, therefore, issues licences to foreign vessels to fish in our waters. Poaching in our EEZ by foreign vessels is rampant. A pilot project in the Palk Bay to shift to deep sea EEZ fishing could be a trendsetter for rest of India. The department of fisheries would have to move quickly on this.

India and Sri Lanka have drifted apart for various reasons. While the Ram Sethu connects the two countries, the narrow and shallow waters of the Palk Bay separate them both physically and metaphorically.

The frequent problem of Indian fishermen intruding into Sri Lankan waters and being captured and sometimes shot and killed by the Sri Lankan Navy has the potential to blow into a major diplomatic row every few months.

A resolution of the fishing problems has the potential to bring lasting peace to our southern maritime frontier.

The writer has served as Naval Commander with the erstwhile Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka

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Published on April 15, 2015
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