The Indian Parliament has witnessed uproar on different occasions over the repeated detention of Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan waters but, till now, no serious effort has been made to sort out the issue. The Sri Lankan proposal of licensed fishing is yet to be properly acted upon, writes Amitava Mukherjee for South Asia Monitor
By Amitava Mukherjee
What is impeding a resolution of the long standing tussle between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen is that both New Delhi and Colombo have been affirming their commitment to find “a permanent solution to the fishermen issue” without actually doing much.
A sensible suggestion to sort out the problem of Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu allegedly fishing in Sri Lankan waters had come from former Indian President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam when he suggested that fishermen of India and Sri Lanka may be permitted to fish in the disputed waters of Palk Bay, Palk Straits and the Gulf of Mannar on alternate days. But neither Colombo nor New Delhi accepted the suggestion.
During the last decade instances of the Sri Lankan navy firing on Indian fishermen and impounding their boats has increased considerably. There is an unofficial estimate that, since the middle of the 1970s when the bilateral crisis began with India handing over the island of Kachhatheevu to Sri Lanka, more than 700 Indian fishermen have been killed by Sri Lankan navy.
The fishing community of Tamil Nadu claim the island of Kachhatheevu should belong to India. There is no doubt that a proper survey was not conducted before the international maritime boundary line (IMBL) was demarcated in the 1970s. Swaran Singh, then the external affairs minister of India, had added a great deal of confusion to the issue by asserting that Indian fishermen would continue to enjoy fishing rights in and around Kachhatheevu.
Taking advantage of the situation, a huge fishing industry has grown in the five districts of Tamil Nadu bordering the Palk Bay, which has attracted large investments from several non-fishing communities also, thereby removing many traditional fishermen. However, the problem lies in the fact that three districts of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province are also dependent on fishing in the same waters. While around 270,000 people on the Indian side are dependent on fishing in these seas, the corresponding figure on the Sri Lankan side is much larger- nearly 1.2 million. Many of them were not able to practice their livelihood during the decades of LTTE-related unrest in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. After the hostilities ceased and they returned to their traditional profession, clashes with Indian fishermen became more regular and acute.
Large capital investments have enabled the industry on the Indian side to become much more capable of exploiting marine resources and, according to observers, flotillas of Indian fishing trawlers just swoop down upon Sri Lankan waters periodically.
In 1986 the number of registered trawlers in Thanjavur, Pudukkottai and Ramanathapuram districts of Tamil Nadu was 1,568. In 2000 this number had increased to 3,339. Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu alone has more than 1000 mechanized trawlers nowadays.
This has resulted in not just a great loss to Sri Lanka’s economy but a depletion and destruction of its marine resources as well because the Northern Province of Sri Lanka contributes more than a one-third of the country’s total marine catch. It is estimated that due to the absence of any clear cut operational arrangement between the two countries, the Northern Province has been losing between 80 lakh to 200 lakh rupees per day, and between Rs 300 crore to 700 crore per year.
For the fishermen of Tamil Nadu also, venturing out into the sea and occasionally crossing the IMBL has become inevitable, as the quantity of the catch within the Indian exclusive economic zone has become low, because of years of ‘bottom trawling’ by Indian trawlers, which are wrecking the sea bed.. An acceptable solution may emerge if fishing operations in Tamil Nadu are institutionalized and a Palk Bay Authority is created. This would set up a comprehensive plan like downstream processing industries and alternative employment generation programmes, which would shift a considerable number of fishermen to other professions.
The Indian Parliament has witnessed uproar on different occasions over the repeated detention of Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan waters but, till now, no serious effort has been made to sort out the issue. The Sri Lankan proposal of licensed fishing is yet to be properly acted upon. Another good idea will be constitution of fishermen’s cooperatives comprising representatives from both countries.
In 2010, fishermen’s associations of both India and Sri Lanka had met and formulated suggestions like limiting the number of fishing days to two per week, a twelve-hour time limit for each fishing trip and, for the Indian fishermen, a prescribed distance of three nautical miles from the Sri Lankan shore. Even this endeavour failed to produce any result.
(Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)