Rajkiran, 30, from Tamil Nadu’s coastal Pudukkottai district, is the fifth Indian fisherman to lose his life in the Palk Strait this year, after Samson Darwin, A. Mesiya, V. Nagaraj and S. Senthil Kumar from Ramanathapuram, who died in January. The boat that Rajkiran was on, with two others, sank late on October 18 after reportedly colliding with a Sri Lankan Navy patrol vessel. The two other fishermen were remanded in Sri Lanka until November 1, while Rajkiran was reported “missing”, until his body was recovered by the Navy a few days after the incident. Tamil Nadu fishermen’s associations have accused the Sri Lankan Navy of brutally attacking Rajkiran, while Sri Lanka has denied the allegations.
In both instances this year, what we know is that the fishermen died while trying to earn a living. In both cases, they reportedly crossed the International Maritime Boundary Line, an invisible demarcation between India and Sri Lanka. They were intercepted in Sri Lankan waters by the Sri Lankan Navy for “illegal fishing”, following which some of them returned dead.
New Delhi conveyed a “strong protest” to Colombo after the death of the four fishermen in January, allegedly at the hands of the Sri Lankan Navy. But there is no sign of a full inquiry since, let alone a credible one. The distressing incidents are neither peculiar to this year, nor inevitable.
The fishermen’s deaths serve as a stark reminder of the unresolved fisheries conflict festering in the barely 30-mile-wide (at its narrowest point) Palk Strait. The problem has existed for more than a decade now, from the time Sri Lanka’s 30 year-long civil war ended in 2009. That was when the island’s northern Tamil fishermen, who were displaced and barred access to the sea, began returning to their old homes, with hopes of reviving their livelihoods and resurrecting their lives. Their return, however, marked the beginning of a new tension with Tamil fishermen on the other side of the sea. This has posed a serious threat to their livelihoods, fishing gear, and the marine resources they rely on.
In Tamil Nadu, daily wage fishermen are only too aware of the risks that come with working on mechanised fishing vessels used for ‘bottom trawling’. Their wage depends on the catch they bring back. Using the bottom trawling fishing method, they drag large fishing nets along the seabed, scooping out a huge quantity of prawns, small fishes and virtually everything else at one go. The practice, deemed destructive the world over, has ensured sizeable profits for their employers — the vessel owners — and a small income for the fishermen taking the highest risk.
Incessant bottom trawling along the coast of Tamil Nadu over the years has meant that the fishermen are drawn to the relatively resource-rich Sri Lankan waters. This pushes them into a cycle of arrest, remand, release, or in some unfortunate cases, violence or death at sea.
The Sri Lankan state’s response to the problem has been largely a military and legal one, tasking its Navy with patrolling the seas and arresting “encroachers”, banning trawling, and levying stiff fines on foreign vessels engaged in illegal fishing in its territorial waters. Little support has been extended to war-affected, artisanal fishermen in the Northern Province by way of infrastructure or equipment. Despite accumulating big losses, the fishermen received no assistance even during pandemic-induced lockdown months.
The hefty penalty on foreign vessels proved a deterrent, at least temporarily. But over the last few months, northern fishermen have sighted Indian trawlers frequently, especially when the Sri Lankan Navy relaxed its patrol, fearing import of COVID-19 infections.
India and Sri Lanka have held many rounds of bilateral talks in the last decade between government officials as well as fisher leaders. The outcomes have mostly ranged from deadlocks, with Tamil Nadu refusing to give up bottom trawling, to template responses from the governments, with India seeking a “humanitarian response” from Sri Lanka. The closest that the two countries came to reaching a solution was in November 2016, following a meeting in New Delhi led by the Foreign and Fisheries Ministers from both sides, with other key interlocutors. A Joint Working Group was constituted to first and foremost, expedite “the transition towards ending the practice of bottom trawling at the earliest”.
The Indian government’s attempt to divert fishermen to deep sea fishing has not taken off as was envisaged, even as profit-hungry boat owners in Tamil Nadu stubbornly defend their trawler trade. Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu fishermen continue to allege that the Sri Lankan Navy is unleashing violence on them; Sri Lanka denies this. Five years since, we are at a rather low point in the fisheries conflict, with a rising human cost.
Meanwhile, this could be the biggest test yet to the solidarity that Tamil Nadu continues to express with Sri Lankan Tamils who bore the brunt of the civil war and still await justice and a political solution.
By now, it is evident that bottom trawling has maximised not only the profits made by vessel owners in Tamil Nadu, but also the risk faced by poor, daily wage fishermen employed from the coastal districts. The rich owners and those employed by them for a meagre wage ought not to be clumped together simply as “Tamil Nadu fishermen”, without recognising that their interests and risks differ enormously.
It is equally well known that the relentless trawling by Indian vessels has caused huge losses to northern Sri Lankan fishermen. Their catch has fallen drastically and they count vanishing varieties of fish. They are dejected as their persisting calls to end bottom trawling have not been heeded by their counterparts in Tamil Nadu, or “brothers” as they repeatedly call them.
For politicians and activists in Tamil Nadu, the death of fishermen is understandably the most outrageous, emotive dimension of this complex problem — especially since no past case has been probed or perpetrator held accountable. All the same, seeing the conflict merely through the prism of Tamil Nadu fishermen and the Sri Lankan Navy may not yield a solution to the problem, although that might keep its most deplorable symptom in focus.
At the heart of the conflict is a tale of competing livelihoods in a narrow stretch of the sea, amid a looming environmental threat, and a glaring asymmetry of power — be it in numbers, equipment, or political backing — between two Tamil-speaking fishing communities. The growing trust deficit between them does not augur well for the prospect of a solution.
India and Sri Lanka must urgently refocus their energies to address this crisis. As the first step, Tamil Nadu must consider a moratorium on bottom trawling in the Palk Strait. Such a move must be accompanied by both New Delhi and Colombo substantially supporting their respective fishing communities to cope with the suspension of trawling on the Tamil Nadu side and the devastating impact of the pandemic on both sides. The time must be used for evolving a lasting solution. Strong bilateral ties are not only about shared religious or cultural heritage, but also about sharing resources responsibly, in ways that the lives and livelihoods of our peoples can be protected.