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CWA # 422, 9 February 2021

India and Sri Lanka
Five ways India can detangle the fishermen issue with Sri Lanka

  N Manoharan and Drorima Chatterjee

IPRI # 145, 9 February 2021

In the news

From January to February 2021, the complexity of the fishermen issue between India and Sri Lanka is attested by three significant incidents. Four fishermen from Tamil Nadu lost their lives due to collusion between their fishing vessel and a Sri Lanka Naval craft. In response, India issued a “strong protest” on the incident that is not so much unrelated to the upcoming assembly elections in Tamil Nadu. On its part, Sri Lanka appointed a three-member committee to investigate the “poaching issue” by Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan waters.

Issues in the background

The issue of fishermen came to the fore with the emergence of violent ethnic conflict between the Tamil militants and the Sri Lankan government in the mid-1980s. Increased vigilance by the Sri Lankan Navy to check the intermittent flow of Tamil refugees into India and the flow of arms and supplies to Tamil militant groups made fishing difficult and risky. With the LTTE emerging as a dominant militant group, with a naval wing of its own (‘Sea Tigers’), things changed for worse to fishermen on both sides. They were caught in the crossfire between the Sri Lankan Navy and the ‘Sea Tigers’.

Logically speaking, after the Eelam War IV, the fishermen issue should have come to an end. In reality, it has not. When the ethnic war was on, the Sri Lankan Navy focussed principally on the ‘Sea Tigers’ and overlooked the straying of Indian fishermen into Sri Lankan waters. After the war, fishing restrictions along Sri Lankan coasts were lifted resulting in its fishermen venturing into the seas freely. The Indian fishermen, who until then enjoyed a monopoly of resource-rich waters, have now got large competitors. At times, this leads to confrontations between the two fishing communities, in turn drawing intervention of either of the naval forces.

The main complaint of the Sri Lankan fishermen has been against Indian mechanised trawlers that indulge in pair, mid-water, pelagic, and bottom trawling severely damaging marine resources and the sea bed. Ironically, most of the trawlers from Tamil Nadu are owned by merchant capitalists from non-fishing and other social backgrounds. The entry of ‘outsiders’ has not only threatened the local customary laws of fishing communities but also turned several traditional fishermen from owners to labourers. The trawler sector in Tamil Nadu is also politically influential and financially sound making it more obdurate to solutions.

Straying of fishermen also takes place inadvertently due to ignorance of imaginary marine boundaries, engine failure, or even due to sudden turbulence at seas. But, to be fair to Sri Lanka, not all Indian fishermen who stray into Sri Lankan waters are arrested or shot. Most of the time, they are warned and shooed away. At times, boats and fishes were seized and fishermen tried in the local courts. Invariably they were usually let off after intervention by the Indian High Commission in Colombo or NGOs.

The road ahead with five solutions

First, the right to life of fishermen should be respected; then comes the livelihood issue. To avoid shooting incidents due to “mistaken identity”, ‘coordinated patrolling’ between marine forces (Sri Lankan Navy and Indian Coast Guards) of both countries can be considered. Additionally, developing fish farming extensively in Indian waters would prevent its fishermen from venturing into other waters in search of a ‘big catch’. India can also consider leasing fishing blocks, especially those identified as ‘surplus total available catch’, from Sri Lanka. Through this, Sri Lanka could also earn much required foreign exchange. To preserve marine resources and to provide enough sustenance to the traditional marginal fishermen of both countries, it is important to impose a strict and complete ban on mechanised trawlers. However, given the dependency, immediate phasing out of mechanised trawlers from coastal fishing may be difficult. But it has to be done sooner than later. As an alternative, these large trawlers could be encouraged to venture into the high seas in India’s exclusive economic zones (EEZs).

Second, reinventing sustainable fisheries is vital for solving many issues. The issue ultimately lies in proper fisheries management. If an adequate fish population is maintained in Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar areas, most of the fishermen would not find the need to venture into other’s ‘territories’. India also can consider taking on Katchchativu Island that has been the centre of controversy, on a long-term lease.

Third, as another safety measure, the Indian Navy's proposal of fitting the Global Positioning System (GPS) in every Indian fishing boat should be implemented. GPS provides the fastest and most accurate method for fishermen to navigate, measure speed, and determine locations. Costs of the installation could be shared by the governments of India and Tamil Nadu, with a token contribution from the concerned fishermen.

Fourth, the local administration should sensitise fishermen on the dos and don’ts in the international waters. Apart from respecting the rights of their Sri Lankan counterparts, the Indian fishermen should voluntarily try and avoid using trawlers that damage plankton and in turn make the seabed unfavourable for the breeding new fishes and prawns. There is already an agreement between the fishermen of two countries on this, but it is not abided by.

Fifth, frequent interactions between fishing communities of both countries could be explored to develop a friendlier atmosphere at mid-seas during fishing.‘Solution from below’ has greater chances of success than a ‘solution imposed from above’ by the governments. There have indeed been meetings between fishing communities since 2003, but erratic and not so fruitful in terms of tangible results. If they are systematised and institutionalised, one can expect them to be more successful. It is important that whatever agreements reached by the fishing communities amongst themselves receive strong backing from the governments and their marine forces. Otherwise, all these agreements would be futile.


Dr N Manoharan is an Associate Professor and Drorima Chatterjee is a Masters Scholar at the Department of International Studies, Political Science and History, CHIRST (Deemed to be University)

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