Fish move over the Indian Ocean knowing no borders, while marine resources including corals on the continental shelf are important for the seasonal migration and reproduction of fish. Similarly, for centuries past, fishers and traders travelled freely over the ocean, fishing and accumulating wealth needed to build coastal economies. Eventually, colonial empires and post-colonial states drew borders and boundaries across land and sea as capitalist forms of fishing and coastal industries steadily ravaged marine resources. The backdrop to the discussions and the upcoming India-Sri Lanka negotiations on the Palk Bay fishing conflict is the tension between a history of coexistence in the Indian Ocean and the contemporary predicament of exploitative fishing that destroys livelihoods and the environment.

During the decades of war, the Northern fishers in Sri Lanka were restricted from the seas. Their livelihoods were devastated as they confronted repeated displacement. They lost many of their kith and kin to the unceasing firing and bombs, but struggled to keep their communities together through the years. Today they recall the decades before the war as a golden age of prosperity when the North contributed to over a third of the fish catch of the country. With such prosperity came social mobility and the consolidation of fishers’ cooperative unions. Although it was a herculean task for the fishers to keep their cooperatives running, these unions remained intact through the war. With the end of the war came hope that fishing would be revitalised in the North. There was an expectation of relief and return to sustenance on fishing, which about two hundred thousand people in the Northern Province depend on for livelihoods.

Almost five years after the war, the reconstruction of the war-torn North and East has failed due to flawed neoliberal policies which banked on infrastructure development, financialisation and the market, with little serious attention given to local livelihoods. For the Northern fisherfolk, the problem is compounded by an armada of some two thousand Indian trawlers mercilessly poaching in their seas. On the three nights of a week when the Indian trawlers relentlessly invaded the seas, the local fishers’ smaller boats were run over and their costly nets destroyed. Having lost millions of rupees in damaged equipment, they now mostly stay at home on those three trawling days. Their catch is greatly reduced exacerbating their plight. With decreasing incomes, waning political and economic power and the politicisation of rural development by the regime in Colombo, the cooperatives, which managed to survive the war, are weakening and face the danger of collapse.

While the Sri Lankan fishers also compete with Indian small-scale fishers on non-trawling days, it is the more high-powered trawlers that are the cause for rage in the coastal North. The humming and the lights of the larger trawlers venturing close to the shores are the disquieting reality of the Sri Lankan fishers’ stolen future. With crippling indebtedness, some fishers are abandoning their way of life and resorting to day wage labour as masons or seeking work as migrants.

Deep-sea trawling

On the environmental front, years of trawling have led to the depletion of fish stocks. There is ample evidence of ecological damage by trawling, which scrapes the seabed, destroying biodiversity. Indeed, trawling is banned in many countries. In Sri Lanka, fishery policies in recent decades opposed trawling, which culminated in a ban in 2010. Research by marine scientists is now beginning to map the environmental damage due to Indian trawlers on the ocean bed.

Why has this dire situation arisen? It is not that fishers in the past or elsewhere did not face such conflicts. When such conflicts did arise, there were struggles, negotiations and agreements reached. Indeed, that is how the trawling from the Tamil Nadu side came to be restricted to three days a week, as small-scale fishers hit back at trawlers. The problem with the Palk Bay fishing conflict is precisely its interstate character. Indian trawlers ravage Northern fishers’ livelihoods, but cannot be confronted and negotiated with on the shore as they live in two different countries.

In this context, there have been two significant rounds of talks between Tamil Nadu and Northern fishers in 2004 and then again in 2010. The agreement reached in 2010 called for a complete end to trawling in Sri Lankan waters within a year, giving Indian trawl fishers time to shift to other forms of fishing. The agreement has not been implemented by either country across the Palk Straits, and three and a half years later, the situation has reached crisis proportions.

The irony of the tragedy facing the Northern fishers is that the Tamil Nadu polity, which claims to champion the rights of the Sri Lankan Tamils, has been complicit in the dispossession of the Sri Lankan Tamil fishers. This hypocrisy also extends to the Sri Lankan Tamil middle class, the Sri Lankan Tamil media and the Tamil National Alliance. With the singular exception of the recently elected Chief Minister Wigneswaran, who recently called for a principled cessation of trawling, the Sri Lankan Tamil polity has been, for the most part, silent, reflecting its class and caste bias towards fishers. The Sri Lankan state, in turn, has used the issue as a leverage in a difficult relationship with its bigger neighbour on issues ranging from a constitutional political settlement, continuing militarisation and the acrimonious human rights debates in UN forums.

It is in this context that multi-level talks and negotiations seem to be the only way forward. It is critical that the affected fishers and their interests are placed at the centre, but the governments will have to arrive at agreements. While confidence building measures such as releasing Indian and Sri Lankan fishers arrested on both sides of the maritime boundary are welcome, there is specificity to those releases. The Sri Lankan fishers arrested in India are mainly from the South involved in deep-sea fishing and a different constituency from the war-affected small scale fishers of the North. It is therefore critical that the negotiations are inclusive of the representatives of Northern fishers cooperatives.

Introspection needed

For now, the vision and initiative has to come from the Indian side; New Delhi, the Tamil Nadu polity and the trawl fishing communities have to engage in some serious introspection. Otherwise, the mounting anger among the Northern fishers may place a wedge between the post-war North and India. Indeed, India’s support for devolution of power, substantive demilitarisation, the massive fifty thousand housing scheme for the war-affected and building of the Northern railroad are all now overshadowed by the Palk Bay fishing conflict. Addressing the Indian trawling problem is fast becoming the litmus test for Indian solidarity; not only towards the fisherfolk but the war affected North and East as a whole.

Negotiations are not about demonising the Tamil Nadu trawlers, but rather about calling on them to take responsibility. On the Indian side, while a ban on trawling would be welcome given the ecological damage, it may, in reality require a process of buyback of trawlers by the government to reduce capacity and, over a period of time, complete decommissioning.

On the Sri Lankan side, while an end to poaching by Indian trawlers will give some relief to the Northern fishers, their devastating past means there needs to be much support for their revival. There are calls by fishers for compensation for their loss of equipment and catch over the years. There is a need to rebuild fisheries infrastructure such as jetties and harbours. Next, training and investment in multi-day boats capable of deep-sea fishing for at least some sections of the Northern fishers are needed. It is such investment that can ensure that the fishers affected by the war for decades can catch up with fishers in Southern Sri Lanka. India can support such efforts to revitalise fisheries in the North and thus address the damage done by Indian trawlers and rebuild goodwill across the Palk Bay. The Government of Sri Lanka and the Northern Provincial Council must realise that the revitalisation of fisheries in the North is inextricably linked to credible reconstruction policies by an engaged civil administration and to democratisation that strengthens institutions such as the fisher co-operatives.

The vast Indian Ocean has both a history of coexistence and the resources to accommodate the peoples of the subcontinent. It is our modern predicament, shaped by muscular nation-states and avarice of capitalist institutions, that exploitation for profits and destruction of natural resources have created crises, be it be armed confrontations or fishing conflicts. It is now time to reclaim the Palk Bay to rebuild these fractured social relations. There is an urgent need for dialogue and cooperation between Northern and Tamil Nadu fishers to end destructive trawling. At the same time, we must imagine a future where Sri Lankan and Indian fishers collaborate and traverse the Indian Ocean on deep-sea vessels, while fishing for the sustenance of the subcontinent. And closer to the coast, the socially-excluded and dispossessed fisherfolk should be given respite to revive their livelihoods in their fishing villages and re-imagine a future that can be prosperous.

(Ahilan Kadirgamar is a researcher and political economist based in Jaffna. This article draws on discussions at a recent conference on the Palk Bay fishing conflict held at the University of Colombo )

India’s support for devolution of power and substantive demilitarisation are all overshadowed by the Palk Bay fishing conflict between Tamil Nadu fishers and Northern Sri Lankan fishers