During his latest visit to India in early May, President Maithripala Sirisena is reported to have discussed with Prime Minister Narendra Modi the problem of frequent arrests of fishermen of both countries and seizures of their fishing vessels by the Sri Lankan and Indian authorities in the common sea area between the two countries. The issue is not new. The problem has been festering with political ramifications, particularly in Tamil Nadu for a number of years. The situation with regard to fishing has gradually turned out to be adverse for Tamil fishermen from Sri Lanka’s Northern Province after the end of the Fourth Eelam War in 2009.
During the Eelam War, active patrolling by the Sri Lankan Navy and by the Indian Navy and Coast Guard to interdict the movement of LTTE cadres also prevented Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu, and also to an extent from Andhra Pradesh and Puducherry, from undertaking fishing across the median line international boundary in the Palk Bay which had been firmed up by mutual agreement between India and Sri Lanka in 1974. But the fact of the matter is that post that conflict, Indian fishermen have extended their fishing activities to Sri Lankan territorial waters. This is owing to the gradual depletion of fishing resources in the Indian continental shelf, the relatively greater availability of fish on the Sri Lankan side, and the Sri Lankan fishermen from the Northern Province not being in a position to exploit the marine resources. Moreover, Sri Lankan fishermen did not have the means, for example, advanced fishing implements like gill nets, modern trawlers, etc. Indian fishermen have also been resorting to bottom trawling (banned as per international fishing regime), which is destructive of the layout of the sea-floor, and the natural habitat for fish breeding. In other words, opportunities induced Indian fishermen to venture into the sea domain of their Sri Lankan counterparts. Moot point so far as Indian fishermen are concerned is whether the Centre and the state government in particular will initiate comprehensive and effective measures towards providing alternative means of livelihood for them. Unless their dependence on fishing in the Palk Bay decreases, it will be difficult to curb the natural tendency of Indian fishermen to intrude into Sri Lankan territorial waters.
The Department of Ocean Development and Ministry of Agriculture, which are responsible for providing technical support to States on development of fisheries and blue economy matters, are required to develop holistic plans to ensure that Indian fishermen do not become over-dependent on fishing in Palk Bay on individual basis.
Fishing in the area may be undertaken under institutional arrangements of, say, government recognized and registered fishermen’s cooperatives or through outsourced/contractual arrangements of the Tamil Nadu Government’s fisheries department, in order to ensure that fishing is carried out in an organized manner and within an institutional framework. This will obviate individual fishermen straying across the sea boundary line towards the Sri Lankan coast.
Therefore, a multi-pronged approach is necessary to ensure that the rights of Indian fishermen are not curtailed within Indian territorial waters, they have opportunities to earn their livelihood through direct fishing in a viable manner, and they engage in concomitant fishery product processing as part of downstream activities. Such an approach can only become feasible if the Government of India takes the initiative and does not leave the issue, with all its complexities and sensitivities, to the Tamilnadu Government. The latter may not be able to deal with the broad gamut of related issues owing to resource constraints and political compulsions.
A resolution of the fishermen’s problems, their periodic arrests, impounding of their vessels -on both the Indian and Sri Lankan sides – may not be possible only through coercive measures and maritime deployments of the Indian Coast Guard and Navy and Sri Lankan Navy. The underlying causes of fishermen trespassing the sea boundary have to be attended to.
Only after action on the lines suggested above is initiated should the security dimension may be attended to as a concomitant measure through joint sea patrols. The governments in New Delhi and Colombo should also agree to a protocol to be observed by their patrolling naval forces, to the effect that, immediately after fishermen trespassers are apprehended, they are handed over to the governmental authorities of the country the fishermen concerned belong to or originate from.
Such a step will generate confidence in the fishermen that their own government will ultimately protect them from incarceration in a hostile, unfriendly or uncertain environment in a foreign country, even if such a perception may not necessarily be based on reality.
The phenomenon of long detentions of arrested fishermen in jails in a foreign country with negative repercussions on their families and neighbours, apart from the political fallout on the governments in Chennai and New Delhi, will consequently become avoidable.
The Government of India may also exercise caution in dealing with the fishermen issue owing to the interest shown by China, of late, towards assisting Sri Lanka in strengthening its fisheries and aquatic infrastructure.
China has already decided to support a Fisheries & Aquatic Research and Development Centre in Sri Lanka`s southern province at Matara – Mirissa. While on the face of it, this developmental cooperation is welcome, the fallout should not lead to Sri Lankan over-dependence on China in the fisheries domain, particularly in areas of the Palk Bay and the sea periphery of Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has plans to resuscitate 36 lagoons in the northern province and a few selected ones outside this area, and also develop the Point Pedro fisheries harbour on its northern shore. The country is also keen to remove illegal prawn cages in its territorial seabed, develop the milieu for migrant fishing and enhance its overall aquaculture capacity.
Sri Lanka has also to contend with the problem of nearly 50,000 of its fisher folk families being affected because of the constraints in fishing in the northern and eastern sea periphery and adjoining areas.
In this backdrop and keeping in view its capacity in the aquaculture domain, India should play a measured but proactive role in assisting Sri Lanka in its endeavour to develop its fisheries sector, and in regard to creating conditions in the Palk Bay for the fishermen of both countries to exploit the respective fishing potential amicably, without detriment to the livelihood needs of the northern Sri Lankan fisher folk and due cognizance of the mutually accepted sea boundary.
While there is a pressing need to diversify the capacities and opportunities of Indian fishermen and wean them away to an extent towards means of livelihood away from fishing on an individual basis, enhancing the abilities of their Sri Lankan counterparts in inland aquaculture and processing of fishery generated products may also be flagged as a matter for Indian attention. Continuing turmoil and agony at the civic level in both countries arising from the woes of fishermen will be an irritant in bilateral relations and unnecessarily generate negative fallouts in the domestic environment of both India and Sri Lanka.
The author is a retired IDAS officer. He had earlier served in the Indian Mission in Colombo at the level of First Secretary