Violent incidents involving Tamil Nadu fishermen and the Sri Lankan Navy in the Palk Bay are not new. The fishing grounds, rich on the Sri Lankan side of the maritime boundary, are today the bone of contention between Tamil fishermen of both countries. The Sri Lankan fishermen, the worst victims of ethnic conflict, have resumed fishing and find poaching by Tamil Nadu fishermen to be a major hindrance to their livelihood.
In order to understand the true nature of the conflict, it is necessary to highlight certain, basic realities. Fishermen throughout the world are no respecters of maritime boundaries; they go wherever there is fish. Thus, Sri Lankan fishermen enter the Maldivian waters and the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone to catch tuna, while Indian fishermen get into Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan waters.
The root of the problem can be traced to the mid-1960s when trawlers were introduced in the Palk Bay. Short of foreign exchange and keen to boost exports, the government of India provided subsidies to trawler owners. It was an illustration of being penny wise and pound foolish. While exports went up, overfishing and destruction of the seabed ensued. As a result, there is practically no fish on the Indian side. As Rameswaram fishermen told me, to earn their livelihood they have no other option but to enter Sri Lankan waters.
The maritime boundary agreements of 1974 and 1976 further vitiated the situation. Not only was the island of Kachchatheevu ceded to Sri Lanka, but the traditional fishing rights enjoyed by Indian fishermen were bartered away. However, it did not alter ground realities because the Sri Lankan government was not keen to enforce its jurisdiction over the sea.
The civil war brought about a qualitative transformation. Tamil Nadu became the sanctuary and support base of the Tamil Tigers and the Palk Bay became the conduit through which the war machine was fuelled. Colombo imposed a ban on fishing and fishermen became refugees and took shelter in India. Poaching in Sri Lankan waters became rampant. Fish production went up and the trawler fleet more than doubled. The Sri Lankan Navy, which could not distinguish between a fisherman and a guerrilla, began to resort to firing. A number of fishermen were killed, many injured and the catch, worth crores of rupees, dumped into the sea.
During the Fourth Eelam War, in order to get New Delhi’s support the Sri Lankan government began to make overtures. Basil Rajapaksa stated that his government had no problem if Indian fishermen fished in Sri Lankan waters, but the fishermen should not enter high security zones. On October 26, 2008, a joint statement was issued in which Colombo made a solemn assurance that “there will be no firing on the Indian fishing vessels.”
Colombo has since gone back on them. Today, it questions the right of Indian fishermen to cross the maritime boundary line. While incidents of firing by the Sri Lankan Navy have declined, Indian fishermen continue to be detained, intimidated and harassed.
Issue in provincial politics
With the Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen resuming their vocation, new tensions began to develop. Fishing is one of the major vocations in the Northern Province and before 1983, 38 per cent of the island’s fish production came from Jaffna, Mannar and Mullaitivu districts. Sri Lankan fishermen told me that Indian trawlers came very near the shores, severed their fishing nets and caused incalculable damage by bottom trawling. Sri Lanka, aware of the negative effects of trawling, has banned the use of trawlers and monofilament nets. Occasionally clashes have taken place between Tamil fishermen of both countries. What is more, as and when elections take place in the Northern Province, poaching by Indian fishermen will be a major issue in electoral politics.
While competitive one-upmanship in support of the Sri Lankan Tamil cause is the order of the day in Tamil Nadu, the question of the livelihood of Sri Lankan fishermen never gets any mention. The State government repeats that the problem is a direct offshoot of the 1974 and 1976 agreements and that the only remedy is to get the island of Kachchatheevu back by “lease in perpetuity,” reopen dialogue with Colombo and get the traditional fishing rights restored.
According to informed sources, the Sri Lankan government has taken photographs of how Indian fishermen get into Sri Lankan waters on an hourly basis. Powerful sections within the government are also clamouring that Colombo should internationalise the issue by filing a case in the International Court of Justice.
The need of the hour is for the government of Tamil Nadu to tell fishermen not to poach in Sri Lankan waters and deprive the other side of its livelihood. Steps should also be taken to reduce the number of trawlers with buy-back arrangements. At the same time, fishermen of both countries should continue their dialogue to arrive at an amicable solution. While New Delhi has welcomed the ongoing dialogue among fishermen, Colombo continues to maintain an ambivalent stand.
Given the limitations of space in the Palk Bay, it is necessary to reconcile to the reality that transborder fishing is likely to continue. But it cannot go on in an unregulated manner. Perhaps the ideal solution is to look at Palk Bay not as a contested territory but as a common heritage. A Palk Bay Authority (PBA) should be constituted immediately, comprising representatives of both countries. The PBA can determine the annual sustainable catch, the type of fishing equipment that can be used, the number of days on which Indian and Sri Lankan fishing vessels could fish, and how the marine resources could be enriched. The Tamil fishermen should also be encouraged to undertake joint ventures in deep sea fishing. This perhaps is the only way to promote bilateral and regional cooperation in South Asia.
(Dr. V. Suryanarayan is senior professor (retired), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras.)
It is time for Tamil Nadu to face up to the reality that its fishers are hurting livelihoods of Tamil fishermen on the Sri Lankan side