The story so far:
The vexatious fisheries conflict in the Palk Bay between India and Sri Lanka, especially between Tamil Nadu and Northern Province, has again acquired intensity with the Sri Lankan Navy arresting 12 fishermen of Rameswaram and impounding two boats on Saturday on the charge of poaching in the territorial waters of Sri Lanka. On hearing this, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. K. Stalin wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday, pointing out that this was the “third such incident in two weeks and 41 fishermen and six fishing boats are in the custody of the Sri Lankan Navy”.
What are the factors that have led to the present round of the problem?
More than illegal fishing, the method of fishing, as practised by the fishermen of Tamil Nadu, is the problem. The fishermen of the southern State of India have been used to mechanised bottom trawling for long whereas the fisherfolk of the Northern Province, which has been extremely hit by a civil war that lasted more than 25 years, still adheres to conventional fishing. Besides, bottom trawling is banned in Sri Lanka. The last couple of weeks saw heightened tension in the region with the reported death of two Jaffna fishermen following “mid-sea clashes with their Tamil Nadu counterparts” on January 27 and 29 and the subsequent protest by scores of northern Sri Lankan fishermen.
How many Tamil Nadu fishermen are still in Sri Lanka?
Apart from 41 fishermen arrested this year, 47 fishermen, who were rounded up along with 21 others in December, are waiting for repatriation, despite having been released from custody. Unlike the set of 21 fishermen who had returned to Tamil Nadu, the 47 persons could not be repatriated as they had tested positive for COVID-19 and, since then, completed their mandatory quarantine period.
What are the new dimensions to the problem?
The move by the Sri Lankan authorities to go ahead with the reported auctioning of 140 impounded boats a week ago caused surprise and concern to the State government and the fishing folk alike. This was because a team from Tamil Nadu, comprising officials of the State Fisheries Department and representatives of fishermen’s representatives, was supposed to go anytime now to Sri Lanka for finalising modalities on the disposal of 125 unsalvageable boats, which were said to have been berthed at Kiranchi, Karainagar, Kankesanthurai, Trincomalee and Thalaimannar naval bases. Due to the first two rounds of the COVID-19 pandemic, the visit could not take place earlier. In December 2021, the State government issued a revised order, approving the visit of the team. The Ministry of External Affairs too had consented to the visit. When there were reports in sections of the media about the auction, the Indian High Commission in Colombo, in a release last week, referred to an existing bilateral understanding between the two governments on the matter and sought again “necessary clearance” from the Sri Lankan government for the visit by the team from Tamil Nadu.
To confound the situation further, the Sri Lankan authorities have decided not to allow fishermen-devotees from Tamil Nadu to attend the annual festival of St. Antony’s Church, Katchatheevu, citing the pandemic as the reason. Mr. Stalin has written to External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, requesting him to urge Sri Lanka to enable the participation of the fishermen, who had been going to Kathcatheevu for the festival for years. Sri Lanka’s Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda, in an interview to this newspaper on February 9, said he had also requested President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to allow fishermen to take part in the festival as a “goodwill gesture.” However, Mr. Devananda, who hails from the Northern Province, defended the decision of auctioning the boats as India had not yet provided assistance promised to the fishermen of the Province. At a virtual interaction arranged by the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission in Chennai a week ago, the Minister discussed the problem with eight fishermen of Rameswaram and Nagapattinam.
What is the way forward?
Deep-sea fishing, projected as an alternative method to the Palk Bay fishermen, is yet to gain currency among the intended beneficiaries in a big way. If the Centre gives additional incentives and concessions, there may be more takers than in the past. In the meantime, as suggested by Mr. Stalin in his latest letter to Mr. Modi, the Joint Working Group’s meeting, at the level of officials of the two countries, and talks, at the level of fishermen, can find solutions to the long- pending problem that has been consuming energy and resources of the two countries.