India | India and Sri Lanka: Fishing in troubled waters

India and Sri Lanka: Fishing in troubled waters

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The death of an Indian fisherman in the waters between India and Sri Lanka has roiled bilateral relations again. The incident has triggered angry protests among Indian fishing communities along the Tamil Nadu coast, who insist that 21-year-old Britjo was in Indian waters when he was shot dead by the Sri Lanka Navy. The Indian government has raised the matter with Colombo.

While the Sri Lanka Navy denies it had a hand in the killing, it has promised a thorough probe into the incident. And in a bid to ease  tensions, the Sri Lankan government has released 53 Indian fishermen it had been holding in custody.

The crisis has its roots in a dispute between India and Sri Lanka over fishing rights in the Palk Strait between the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. Sri Lanka alleges that Indian fishermen have been entering its waters. Not only are they violating its territorial sovereignty, it says, but they are also plundering its maritime resources and undermining the livelihood security of Sri Lankan fishermen.

Indian fishermen deny plying Sri Lankan waters, and New Delhi maintains that if its fishermen are straying into Lankan waters this is accidental, as it is difficult to keep track of maritime boundaries.

Depleted catch

The current conflict can be traced back to the 1960s, when the Indian government extended subsidies for mechanization of fishing. At first, the use of trawlers resulted in an increase in catch volumes. But since trawling involves scouring the sea bed, it damages the marine environment and has an impact of fish regeneration. Over time it resulted in depletions in the catch. This forced Indian fishermen to go out further into the sea, even into Sri Lankan waters.

Since the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2009, the fishing dispute has worsened. Hundreds of Indian fishermen have been detained and their boats seized by the Sri Lanka Navy and Coast Guard. Worse, scores have been shot dead in recent years.

While Sri Lanka’s grievances on the fishing issue are understandable, its use of force to deal with errant fishermen is excessive.

Although the Indian and Sri Lankan governments have sought to calm tempers on both sides of the Palk Strait, their responses have largely been in the nature of knee-jerk reactions to individual crises.

In November last year, the two governments agreed to set up a Joint Working Group on fisheries and a hotline between their coast guards. The JWG would meet every three months and the two countries’ ministers for fisheries every six months. Importantly, the two sides agreed to avoid resorting to force to deal with the problem.

But the mechanism put in place has failed to calm the waters.

As Indian newspaper The Hindu observed in a recent editorial, “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 [Palk] strait.”

Need to end trawling

India knows that the use of trawlers by its fishermen is fueling the conflict. It agreed with Sri Lanka on “expediting the transition towards ending the practice of bottom trawling at the earliest”. But in the absence of an early time frame within which this would be achieved, its commitment to finding a solution to the conflict appears weak.

India needs to act robustly to discourage trawling by its fisherman. Experts are underscoring the need for the government to make arrangements for buy-back of trawlers, encourage fishermen to shift to deep-sea fishing in India’s Exclusive Economic Zone or the high seas and provide them with training to pursue other livelihood options.

Discouraging the use of trawlers will not only contribute to better relations with Sri Lanka but also reduce conflict between India’s artisanal fishermen and the fish-trawling companies. Like their Sri Lankan counterparts, traditional fishermen in India are hit hard by trawlers.

It is important that India and Sri Lanka wake up to the fact that the search for a solution to the conflict cannot be left to ministers and diplomats sitting in New Delhi and Colombo. There are other stakeholders too, including the fishermen, the governments of Tamil Nadu and Northern Province, and marine ecologists. They must be involved if a lasting solution is to be found.

Sudha Ramachandran
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues.
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