The agreement between India and Sri Lanka to empty their jails of each other’s fishermen is an encouraging sign that both sides have the will to resolve a long-standing irritant in bilateral ties. At Wednesday’s meeting between Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar and Sri Lankan Fisheries and Aquatic Minister Rajitha Senaratne, both sides agreed to release all fishermen in their custody except those who face charges other than crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line. With this confidence building measure, both sides must now sit down to the challenge of finding a long-term solution to the problems of the fishing communities in the region. Over the years, Tamil Nadu fishermen have with increasing stridency made the demand for the right to fish in the entire Palk Bay, describing it as their “traditional fishing grounds”. It is no longer just about fishing rights around Kachchatheevu. The reason is that the catch is better on the Sri Lankan side. This is no accident. Bad practices such as the indiscriminate use of trawlers that dredge right down to the sea bed have depleted the resources along the Tamil Nadu coast. On the other side, the long years of conflict during which fishermen in Northeast Sri Lanka were barely allowed by the Sri Lankan Navy to put their boats out a few hundred metres into the sea has ensured that fish and other marine resources are still plentiful. Now that there are no military restrictions on fishing off Northeast Sri Lanka, Tamil fishermen there who are still struggling to rebuild their lives find themselves in daily competition with Tamil Nadu fishermen for what they claim is rightfully theirs. Worse, the fishermen from the Indian side, better organised and equipped with bigger boats and better nets, use the same practices that ravaged their side of the bay.
It is no surprise that an agreement — finalised in 2008 when the Sri Lankan military operations against the LTTE were intensifying — that was favourable to Indian fishermen is now seen by the Sri Lankan side as requiring re-negotiation. The solution to the problem may well come from the fishermen themselves. With the backing of the two capitals, they are to hold a meeting of their representatives on January 20 and may explore options such as licensing and placing restrictions on the number of fishing days. Ultimately, however, the real solution for both, especially on the Indian side, lies in preserving what is left by moving away from coastal to deep sea fishing. The State government and the Centre must also encourage fishermen to diversify into related activities such as deep-freezing, preserving and canning. That could even pave the way for collaboration between Indian and Sri Lankan fishing communities. The way forward is to find ways to complement each other’s livelihoods, instead of just competing over scarce resources.