One important condition that will make coastal integration possible in the region is a new understanding of ‘sovereignty,’ in which the coasts do not symbolise control or power but become spaces for interdependence.

Bangladesh’s recent decision to take to the U.N. long-time maritime boundary disputes with India, and to issue a compulsory arbitration notification under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), marks a new chapter in coastal conflicts among South Asian countries (The Hindu, October 10, 2009). The region has been unable to amicably resolve a large number of issues regarding sea laws, maritime boundaries and coastal resources, leading to increasing conflicts. International sea laws, foreign policies and domestic interests have often cross-cut each other in this process. South Asian coasts need de-bordering and any such process entails a re-bordering from the perspective of coastal fisherfolk and sustainable fisheries. More possibilities, therefore, need to be explored for greater coastal, bilateral and regional integration.

India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh share the resources of the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. Whereas India’s maritime boundaries necessitate delimitation with seven states on adjacent and opposite coasts -- Pakistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, and Bangladesh -- it shares land borders with six states. Since the 1970s, India’s maritime boundaries have been demarcated with many countries, but these remain seriously unresolved with Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has comparatively much less of a coastline. It has no agreed sea boundary with its neighbours. It has special reasons to be interested in the evolution of the law of the sea. Its people have historically been seafarers. The limited land-based food and fuel resources available to them, and the disparity between resources and subsistence needs of a large population make it imperative for Bangladesh to recognise the potential of oceans as a tangible promise for the future. Thus the government enacted the Territorial Waters and Maritimes Zones Act, 1974. This Act, however, did not specify the breadth of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal in clear-cut terms.

The delimitation of maritime boundaries has created a conflict between Bangladesh and its neighbours. Disagreement arose mainly with India when Dhaka signed in 1974 contracts to share production with six international oil companies, granting them oil and natural gas exploration rights in its territorial waters in the Bay of Bengal. The Bangladesh line moved towards the south from the edge of the country’s land boundary, while the Indian line took a south-easterly direction, thus creating an angle within which lie thousands of square miles of the Bay, claimed by each country as its economic zone. This overlapping claim has become a critical problem between the two neighbours. For example, the territorial sea, the EEZ, and the continental shelf will depend on how this dispute is resolved.

Harekrishna Debnath of the National Fishworker Forum said in an interview with the authors: “Since the mid 1970s, after the International Conference on the Law of the Sea, a sense of EEZ and maritime boundary has deeply got involved with questions of sovereignty of a nation. All nations, particularly those with coastal lines, are therefore engaged in demarcating their maritime boundaries. However, while theoretically this has been realised, unlike land, it is not easy to demarcate sea boundaries. The process is also tied closely to the lives of millions of fisherfolk across the globe. India and Bangladesh are no exception to this. Between them, there is a less than 400-km area in the sea. Thus there is an absence of the 200-km EEZ on both sides, though it theoretically exists. This has led to a great amount of confusion. In this situation it is not only difficult but near impossible to maintain the LOS decision.”

Although negotiations have been going on since 1974, Dhaka and New Delhi are not able to settle the delimitation problem, mainly because of the concave nature of the Bangladesh coast. Bangladesh’s position is that no right principle can be applied in the present case and that the basic guideline should be equity. India, on the other hand, applies the equidistance principle in delimiting the boundary, ignoring the physical features of the coast. It is imperative that an amicable solution be found, even if it is based on the equitable principle.

De-bordering coasts

It is by now a truism in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka that coastal borders, EEZs and laws of the seas have radically changed the coastal areas. The term “coastal conflicts” has become a menacing qualifier among us. It is clear how and why borders have affected the fisherfolk who have lived within their cartographic confines. It is equally agonising to find how they have also deeply affected those thinkers and policymakers who live elsewhere, but who mostly see the solution within the confines of the existing borders. Thus, they are much more concerned with cross-border policing and managing cross-border infiltration than with coastal cross-border relationships and cross-border coastal conservation. More important, there is no effort to un-map and re-map the coastal borders, because the changes that have taken place are not only in the physical space but also in ways of comprehending the region.

The imaginary of the coastal borders in South Asia is conceived primarily with reference to nation-building, relationships of nation-states within the region, and natural resource management for a broader common good internationally. Coasts are places where the ‘geographic’ and the ‘management’ could be superimposed on each other to create powerful and secure nations, with perceptions of their rights to harness their coastal production. However, given the history of the region and community relationships among the coastal fisherfolk, the coastlines have been neither natural nor practical. Not allowing neighbouring coastal territories of individual countries even an informal freedom to interact has rendered the coastal borders inimical not only to livelihoods but also to shared histories, religions, festivals, sensibilities, languages and habits.

It is true that the function of the modern South Asian coastal states has been to codify and territorialise the decoded, de-terrritorialised flows of the coasts so as to prevent them from breaking loose at all the edges and hems of national, environmental and coastal balances. But this has fatally failed the coastal people. As certain sense-making machines become obsolete, new ones need to be constructed. The South Asian states must rework on their coastal borders, bilaterally and regionally, in such a manner that a collective coastal community comes into being.

Coastal integration is ideal. Any project of greater coastal bilateral and regional integration involves what are called “sovereignty tradeoffs.” Integration often requires the establishment and maintenance of structures of authority and institutions that surpass national boundaries. One important condition that will make coastal integration possible in South Asia is a new understanding of ‘sovereignty’ itself, in which the coasts do not symbolise control or power but become spaces for interdependence, even though this may at first seem to compromise autonomy. The other important condition would be an acceptance by the states of a simultaneous dialectic of greater bilateral/regional integration and sub-regional power. In such a scenario, Sindh of Pakistan would likely develop extensive links with Gujarat in India. The coasts of Tamil Nadu will resonate vibrantly with the coasts of Sri Lanka, as might those of West Bengal and Bangladesh.

On the ground, regional or bilateral coastal cooperation will gather momentum only when it is based on organic links among different coastal sub-regions of the subcontinents. Thus, it is not the centre of each country but coastlines and surrounding areas that would be the driving force behind policies and law-making. By rediscovering and re-establishing cultural affiliations and working and living ties, nations can actually emerge safer and more secure. This kind of coastal integration can also lead to an emergence of new kinds of conflict management machinery and, for that to happen, there can be devolution of power locally. As the coastal regions of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka come together, the coastal laws of all these countries will also begin to look more or less alike and work in an integrated fashion.

(Charu Gupta and Mukul Sharma are the authors of the book Contested Coastlines: Fisherfolk, Nations and Borders in South Asia , Routledge, 2008.)

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