By Punsara Amarasinghe and Eshan Jayawardena
The Palk Bay, a narrow strip of water separating the state of Tamil Nadu in India from the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, has historically provided rich fishing grounds for both countries. However, the region has become a highly contested site in recent decades, with the conflict taking on a new dimension since the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2009.
Multiple issues have compounded to bring tensions to near crisis point, with serious ramifications for domestic and bilateral relations. These include ongoing disagreement over territorial rights to the island of Kachchatheevu, frequent poaching by Indian fisherman in Sri Lankan waters, and the damaging economic and environmental effects of trawling. However, with the governments of both countries recently affirming their commitment “to find a permanent solution to the fisherman issue,” there is an opportunity to create a win-win scenario, in which the bay becomes a common heritage of mutual benefit.
The bay, which is 137 kilometers in length and varies from 64 to 137 kilometers in width, is divided by the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL). Bordering it are five Indian districts and three Sri Lankan districts. In 2004, there were approximately 262,562 fishermen on the Indian side and 119,000 on the Sri Lankan side.
Intimate ties between fishermen and the sea have affected the history, economy, and culture of both countries. Historically, the shallow waters of the Palk Bay and geographical contiguity between India and Sri Lanka facilitated the movement of ideas, goods, and men. Sri Lanka, according to many historians, is essentially an extension of the Indian subcontinent, and its rich cultural heritage the product of benign cross-cultural interaction.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, thousands of Indian Tamil labourers were ferried across to provide much needed labour for development of tea plantations. When ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka escalated in July 1983, thousands of refugees came to Tamil Nadu through the Palk Bay.
The bonds of ethnicity, language, and religion helped fishermen lead lives of harmonious coexistence over centuries. Frequent migrations took place between India and Sri Lanka through the Palk Bay. Intermarriages were common. However, over the last several decades, internal and bilateral relations have suffered from a range of issues, from coastal insecurity to overfishing.
Fishing is more important economically for the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan academic Ahilan Kadiragamar said the province “contributed to over a third of the total catch of the country” when normalcy prevailed in Sri Lanka. Fish production dipped markedly during the protracted ethnic conflict. The Jaffna District went from producing 48,776 metric tons of fish in 1983 to 2,211 metric tons in 2000. In Mannar District, production went from 11,798 metric tons in 1983 to 3,614 metric tons in 2002.
During the height of the civil war, as a security measure, the Sri Lankan government banned fishing on the Sri Lankan side of the IMBL. Fearing persecution, Tamil militants and Tamil fishermen took refuge in India. The Sri Lankan navy occasionally harassed Tamil fishermen, dumped their catch into the sea, detained some fishermen, and targeted others in incidents of firing. The vacuum was filled by the Indian Tamil fishermen. During this period, there was perfect camaraderie among Indian Tamil and Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen, who came to India as refugees and were often employed by Indian trawler (mechanized boat) owners.
However, since the conflict ended in 2009, tensions have arisen around the livelihood of Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen. They want to resume fishing, but the Sri Lankan navy has expanded and become more vigilant. Many fishing villages, converted into high-security zones during the civil war, continue to be under army control.
Further, while Tamil fishermen find the current presence of Indian trawlers to be a major hindrance, the navy has not handled the poaching consistently, causing frustration. For some weeks, during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the navy detained the trawlers but released the Indian fishermen. The current government, to avoid tensions in bilateral relations, releases the fishermen first and later the trawlers. Those trawlers return to Sri Lankan waters the very next day.
In India, the fisheries dispute chiefly began with an internal debate about sovereignty related to ceding of the island of Kachchatheevu to Sri Lanka—a situation that exacerbated the tension between fishermen practicing traditional fishing and those using trawlers. To prevent conflicts between the two, the Tamil Nadu government enacted the Tamil Nadu Marine Fisheries Regulation Act in 1983, stipulating that mechanized fishing boats should not fish within three nautical miles from the coast; the area was exclusively reserved for artisanal fishermen. However, artisanal fishermen claim, the government has made no effort to enforce the three nautical mile stipulation.
Internal relations and perspectives in both countries are having a marked impact on bilateral relations. The livelihoods of their populations and the bay’s marine ecology are being threatened, evident from the ongoing disagreement over Kachchatheevu and the economic and environmental effects of increased trawling on both sides of the IMBL.
Success of diplomacy lies in converting a crisis into an opportunity. If New Delhi and Tamil Nadu are determined, they can create a win-win scenario in the Palk Bay. The immediate decommissioning of trawlers is an important prerequisite for this unconventional solution. With sincerity and goodwill, suspicions the Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen have about their counterparts’ intentions can be assuaged. Seeing Palk Bay region as a common heritage of mankind could be an idealistic solution, but the fact is it raises the question whether Sri Lanka would agree to see the disputed area as a common heritage.
The delimitation mechanism had been properly set up in the 1976 agreement between the two countries and Sri Lankan authorities are reluctant to change the regulations of the 1976 negotiations. However, under the present circumstances, both countries should be flexible to abide by a common bilateral solution.
There is no need to take the fishery dispute further up to the SAARC to meddle with a third party mechanism, because there is a greater chance for both countries to find a sustainable solution through a bilateral negotiation.
(Punsara Amarasinghe is a PhD Candidate in International Law at National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow. He can be reached at email@example.com. Eshan Jayawardana is a visiting lecturer at Open University Sri Lanka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)