In Tamil Nadu, a lack of political will to end the Palk Bay conflict

It is time to encourage fishermen to adopt sustainable practices to put an end to the Palk Bay conflict

December 29, 2021 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

Fishermen stage a demonstration in Rameswaram on December 20, 2021.

Fishermen stage a demonstration in Rameswaram on December 20, 2021.

Palk Bay, an important marine zone between south-eastern India and northern Sri Lanka, has been a source of dispute for long. The conflict between the two countries has flared up again with the arrest of 68 Indian fishermen, mostly from the Ramanathapuram and Pudukkottai districts of Tamil Nadu , by the Sri Lankan authorities between December 18 and 20 and the impounding of 10 boats for “poaching” in the territorial waters of Sri Lanka.

Palk Bay, home to diverse resources including 580 species of fish, extends from Point Calimere of Nagapattinam district to Mandapam-Dhanushkodi of Ramanathapuram district over about 250 km. With a shallow and flat basin, the region has an average depth of about nine metres.


The genesis of the dispute can be traced to the October 1921 negotiations between representatives of the Governments of Madras and Ceylon, as the Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan Governments were called then, on the need for the delimitation of the Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar. It was in the mid-1970s that two agreements were signed by India and Sri Lanka, under which the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) came into being. The IMBL made Katchatheevu a part of Sri Lanka, even though the islet, which former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had once called a “sheer rock of no strategic importance”, was once an area under the zamindari of the Raja of Ramanathapuram.

Contrary to the expectations that the agreements would settle the issues of boundary and fishing jurisdictions permanently, the pacts gave way to new problems, including the recurring incidents of Tamil Nadu fishermen crossing the IMBL and getting caught by the Sri Lankan authorities. On many occasions, several fishermen lost their lives. This year, five fishermen died in what was officially called collisions between their fishing boats and vessels of the Sri Lankan authorities.

The asymmetric nature of fishing practices in Tamil Nadu and the Northern Province of Sri Lanka is said to be the cause of the problem. While the former’s fishing community uses mechanised bottom trawlers, its counterpart uses conventional forms of fishing, as trawling is banned in Sri Lanka. Tamil Nadu’s fishermen had the best run during the years of the Sri Lankan civil war with restrictions placed by the Sri Lankan Government and Tamil rebels on the activities of the fisherfolk of the Northern Province. Notwithstanding several risks and challenges, the fishermen of Tamil Nadu continue to cross the IMBL, as the Sri Lankan side of the Bay is considered to have more fishery resources than the Indian side.


Even though a section of specialists favours the creation of an international institution of stakeholders for regulating the fishing sector in the Bay, attempts are on to wean away the fishermen of Tamil Nadu from bottom trawling. The deep sea fishing project, launched in July 2017 amid much fanfare, has not yielded the desired results . Relaxation of norms of the project is under the consideration of the Union Government, to draw greater response from the fishermen. Given the fact that deep sea fishing takes a longer duration and has a higher recurring cost per voyage than what the fishing community experiences currently, the need for providing continuous motivation to the fisherfolk assumes critical importance. Experts say various strategies, including the promotion of seaweed cultivation, open sea cage cultivation, seaweed cultivation and processing, and sea/ocean ranching should be adopted. There is a view that if the community is encouraged to form fish farmer producer organisations, it may take to sustainable fishing practices. For all this to happen, sustained public pressure and political will are a must.

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