Indian fishermen have been habitually transgressing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL), the imaginary line in the waters between India and Sri Lanka, in their struggle for survival. On February 8, seven fishermen from Tamil Nadu were arrested by the Sri Lankan Navy for allegedly straying into their waters. In January, 37 fishermen were arrested.
Crossing the IMBL poses a greater threat as the government in the island nation has amended its Foreign Fisheries Boats Regulation Act to increase the fine on Indian vessels found fishing in Sri Lankan waters to a minimum of LKR 6 million (about ₹25 lakh) and a maximum of LKR 175 million.
What is the problem?
Indian boats have been fishing in the troubled waters for centuries and had a free run of the Bay of Bengal, the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar until 1974 and 1976 when treaties were signed between the two countries to demarcate the maritime boundary — the IMBL. However, the treaties failed to factor in the hardship of thousands of traditional fishermen who were forced to restrict themselves to a meagre area in their fishing forays. The small islet of Katchatheevu, hitherto used by them for sorting their catch and drying their nets, fell on the other side of the IMBL. Fishermen often risk their lives and cross the IMBL rather than return empty-handed, but the Sri Lankan Navy is on alert, and have either arrested or destroyed fishing nets and vessels of those who have crossed the line.
How many have been hit?
The 4,000-odd fishermen in Rameswaram have borne the brunt as they hit the IMBL at the 12th nautical mile from the jetty. They set out for fishing in 800-odd mechanised boats thrice a week, but every voyage is a nightmare. The distance between the shore and the IMBL in the Palk Bay is 15 nautical miles from Point Calimere in Nagapattinam district, 29 nautical miles from Adirampatinam and 27 nautical miles from Mallipattinam in Thanjavur district, it is only 12 nautical miles from Rameswaram and just 9 nautical miles from Danushkodi in Ramanathapuram district. The Nagapattinam fishermen could well set out to the Bay of Bengal and sail down south to enter into Sri Lankan waters and get arrested.
At present, 120 fishermen from these districts are detained in Sri Lankan prisons with their boats — 177 in all — confiscated after they were arrested on the charge of trespassing into that country’s waters. On any fishing day, 3,343 mechanised boats, including 1,581 from Ramanathapuram and 953 from Nagapattinam, get into the Palk Bay with an eye on Sri Lankan waters for the high-value giant prawns.
The IMBL is imaginary, but it was geo-tagged and is visible to the fishermen, thanks to Global Positioning System (GPS) sets. The latest ‘Garmin 585’ GPS sets can flash the boundary line on the screens and fishermen have the option to view the line in the colour of their choice. Close to 200 boat owners in Rameswaram have already switched to modern GPS sets for precision fishing.
Initially, the Sri Lankan Navy used to release the arrested fishermen along with their vessels but has now started detaining the trawlers, each worth about ₹50 lakh. With Sri Lankan naval patrol vessels keeping strict vigil along the IMBL, the fishermen take turns to get into their waters. If they get caught, the Navy usually targets a couple of boats and others hurry back to the Indian waters, sometimes leaving their expensive fishing nets behind. Thanks to the buoys, they retrieve the nets later but not all fishermen are lucky. Of late, the Sri Lankan Navy have begun destroying the nets also. But the fishermen take the risk as the returns are high.
What does the future hold?
The deep sea fishing scheme has been launched to end bottom trawling but not all have been able to join the scheme. As the Joint Working Group set up to address the fishermen’s issue is ‘inactive,’ the fishermen face a bleak future.