Sri Lanka’s latest position that it will prosecute Indian fishermen arrested for poaching instead of arranging for their early release is bound to cause alarm in Tamil Nadu, where over 100 families await the return of their kin from Sri Lankan jails. The country’s External Affairs Minister, G.L. Peiris, has clarified that the stress is not on detention, but deterrence; and that a fine, rather than a long jail term, could be equally effective. This may not be enough to address the disquiet in Tamil Nadu over their continued imprisonment. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has repeatedly asked for India’s intervention, and the Union government has summoned the Sri Lankan High Commissioner and issued a démarche. Sri Lanka’s response has been to highlight the frequency, scale and unsustainable nature of poaching by Indian fishermen. It is understandable that Colombo believes imprisonment for just a few days is insufficient deterrence against repeated incursions and plunder of its marine resources. It is possible that diplomatic intervention may ultimately set free all those detained, but it will hardly be the end of the problem.
Routine crossings, arrests and release need not be the only way of dealing with this seemingly intractable problem. On the one hand, fishermen in Tamil Nadu believe Sri Lankan waters are their “traditional” fishing grounds, and on the other, their Tamil counterparts in northern Sri Lanka, eager to make full use of their post-war freedom to fish, understandably resent the repeated incursions of Indian fishers into their maritime territory. Any meeting ground between these two claims will have to come from the fishermen themselves. Any settlement they arrive at will have to be backed by appropriate government measures. It is in this context that New Delhi and Colombo must facilitate a fresh process of negotiations on how best the two sides could share the marine resources. The earlier such a process is begun the better for fishermen from both sides. Further, the bilateral Joint Working Group on Fisheries has not met for a long time and it is India’s turn to host it. A key priority will be to ensure that Tamil fishermen in northern Sri Lanka, who were robbed of their livelihood during the war years, be given a chance to reclaim their maritime resources. The available resources are insufficient to meet the competing demands of both sides, and some will have to look for alternative livelihoods. Instead of crying foul over routine arrests, the Tamil Nadu government must strengthen measures to wean its fishermen away from unsustainable fishing practices, encourage deep-sea fishing and come up with livelihood solutions for those left out.