Dire straits

March 09, 2017 12:00 am | Updated 03:36 am IST

Sustainable use of marine resources is at the heart of the India-Sri Lanka fishing problem

There is no certainty about the circumstances that led to the killing of a Tamil Nadu fisherman somewhere between the Indian and Sri Lankan coast on Monday night. There is no telling who pulled the trigger — whether it was the Sri Lankan Navy or some armed group. It is also not clear where the shooting took place, whether in Sri Lankan waters or elsewhere. Unmistakably though, this was a tragedy waiting to happen, the direct fallout of the long-standing dispute between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen over fishing rights in the Palk Bay. While the Sri Lankan Navy denies it had a hand in the killing, the shooting exposes the lack of progress in the implementation of the agreement between the two countries on preventing loss of life while managing the fishing dispute through official channels. Last year, the two countries agreed on establishing a Joint Working Group (JWG) on fisheries to help resolve the dispute. A hotline between the Coast Guards of India and Sri Lanka, convening of the JWG once in three months, and meetings of the fisheries ministers every half-year were the components of the mechanism to be put in place. But short-term measures lose their efficacy in the absence of any forward movement toward long-term solutions. Without arriving at a settlement on sustainable exploitation of the marine resources that would end the use of bottom trawlers from Tamil Nadu, India and Sri Lanka will not be able to ensure incident-free fishing in the strait.

Although instances of Indian fishermen crossing into Sri Lankan waters have always been commonplace, the consequences for such transgressions in recent years have been limited to seizure of boats and prolonged detention. Unlike during the period of Sri Lanka’s war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, when its Navy indiscriminately shot at boats and trawlers fearing smuggling of contraband by the Tamil rebels, the last few years have seen few instances of firing at fishermen. But to view Monday’s killing as an aberration is to underestimate the political and economic contours of the problem. After he returned to power in 2015, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said Indian fishermen who crossed the maritime boundary to fish in another country’s territorial waters would be fired upon. Indian fishermen, who invoke traditional rights to justify their incursions, want a three-year phase-out period before they end trawling. But unless they take to deep- sea fishing, and inland alternatives, India’s fishermen will be locked in a conflict with their Sri Lankan counterparts as well as with a hostile Sri Lankan Navy.

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