The right to fish

Sri Lanka’s fishermen want to assert their right over their own territorial waters, hindered by Indian trawlers.

March 10, 2017 12:04 am | Updated December 03, 2021 12:46 pm IST



Every time an Indian fisherman is injured or killed in Sri Lankan waters, the endless squabbles of the political parties are set aside and a noisy wall of solidarity immediately goes up against Sri Lankan trigger-happiness. On the other hand, when a Bangladeshi cattle smuggler is killed, it hardly gets even a squeak out of mainstream media.

But here is what happens at the beginning of every month and something that is not publicised. The Sri Lankan Navy Headquarters sends out a consolidated report on Indian fishing craft in Sri Lankan waters. The report for February this year was sent on March 2. It went to, among others, the Director Naval Operations (Indian) as well as the Director Operations, Indian Coast Guard. It is also usually marked to the High Commission of India in Colombo and the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in India, who no doubt forwards it to the people he deals with.


The information is quite extensive. In February, the Sri Lankans noticed approximately 835 fishing trawlers/dhows they said were engaged in bottom trawling/poaching. They were sighted in 29 locations well within Sri Lankan territorial waters, closer to the shores of Mullaitivu, Point Pedro, Talaimannar, Vetthlaikeni, Kakerathivu as well as the Delft Islands. In the annexures, in four columns, there are details such as the time when the trawlers were noticed ingressing. On February 6, off Delft there were 50 trawlers. On some days the Sri Lankans detect hundreds.

This has been going on for years. On February 19, 2011, for instance, they detected 700. A copy of this, with the registration of the trawlers, finds its way to the Fisheries Department of Tamil Nadu. They probably maintain the list of registered boats. What happens to this list when it gets there? An educated guess is that it is thrown into the dustbin as Sri Lanka does not get to hear of what we do with the information.

An easy crossing

You could cross the Palk Straits in less than three hours. Though there are no markers, it is easy enough to know when you are in their waters: every mobile phone comes with a GPS.

At the beginning of the decade, there were 60,000 fishing vessels for 591 fishing villages strung out along Tamil Nadu’s 1,076 km coastline. It is not clear how many of them have GPS. According to Sri Lankan estimates, a significant portion of this number has been regularly detected in Sri Lankan waters. Some are seized and the fishermen arrested.

In This year, in these three months, the figures are 14 boats and 85 fishermen arrested. While the fishermen will be eventually released, the boats will be held back. If they release the boats, they are likely to be found fishing again.

Since the civil war ended, some of the dynamics have changed. Sri Lankan fishermen want to assert the right over their territorial waters. If New Delhi can erect fences many hundred kilometres long on both the eastern and western borders and institute shooting as a deterrent policy, why apply another yardstick when it comes to a much smaller neighbour?

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