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CWA # 5, 18 May 2018

India-Sri Lanka
The Fishermen Issue between India and Sri Lanka

  Dhruv Ashok

The capacity of Indian trawlers, the use of synthetic nets and their extended areas of operations has adversely affected the livelihoods of nearly 30,000 fishermen of Mannar, Kilionochi, Mullaitivu and Jaffna districts of Northern Sri Lanka. 

The use of mechanised trawlers by Indian fishermen

The main concern of the Sri Lankan government has been against Indian mechanised trawlers that indulge in bottom trawling that severely damages marine resources. In July 2016, the Sri Lankan Parliament unanimously passed an amendment – Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act which made bottom trawling an offence. The amendment aimed at curbing local Sri Lankan trawlers as well as deterring Indian trawlers from Tamil Nadu.

Bottom trawling is an ecologically destructive practice which involves trawlers dragging weighted nets along the sea-floor causing great depletion of aquatic resources.

The capacity of Indian trawlers, the use of synthetic nets and their extended areas of operations has adversely affected the livelihoods of nearly 30,000 fishermen of Mannar, Kilionochi, Mullaitivu and Jaffna districts of Northern Sri Lanka. According to the amended act, a violation can lead to a possible two-year sentence in prison and a fine of Rs 50,000.

The issue of Katchatheevu Island

For centuries, Indian fishermen had a free run, fishing in the waters of the Bay of Bengal, Palk bay and the Gulf of Mannar. During 1974 and 1976 India and Sri Lanka signed treaties demarcating the IMBL.

These treaties failed to factor in the hardships of Indian fishermen who were forced to restrict their fishing activities to a meagre area. The Indian central government ceded Katchatheevu island under the 1974 agreement to Sri Lanka. Indian Tamil fishermen, Tamil Nadu`s political fraternity and the central government are embroiled in a disagreement.

In 1991 the Tamil Nadu state assembly sought the retrieval of Katchatheevu island and restoration of the fishing rights of Tamil fishermen. As long as Sri Lanka was engaged with its civil war with the LTTTE the issue did not arise.  Northern Sri Lanka and maritime borders were not guarded tightly by the Sri Lankan navy due to the threat posed by naval wing of the LTTE the Sea Tigers as result Indian trawlers routinely entered Sri Lankan waters.

In 2003 the Sri Lankan government announced that it would consider allowing licensed fishing by Indian fishermen however neither the Tamil Nadu nor central government came up with a proposal. Following the defeat of the LTTE in 2009, the Sri Lankan government beefed up its maritime defences.  When Indian fishermen facing a depletion of marine resources on their side stray across the IMBL they have been arrested and their nets and boats have either been destroyed or confiscated by the Sri Lankan navy which led to fresh demands in Tamil Nadu for the restoration of Katchatheevu to it.

Joint working group agreement

At present around 120 fishermen from the districts of Nagapattinam, Thanjavur, Ramanathapuram are in Sri Lankan prisons, with their boats- 177 in all – confiscated after they were arrested on the charge of trespassing into Sri Lankan territorial waters.

Initially the Sri Lankan navy used to release arrested fishermen along with their vessels but has now started detaining the trawlers, each worth about rupees 50 lakh. In November 2016 India and Sri Lanka agreed to set up a Joint Working Group (JWG) on fisheries and a hotline to deal with the issue of Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu being detained by the Sri Lankan navy. It was also decided that the JWG would meet every six months beginning in January 2017 along with the Coast Guard and Naval representatives to discuss the fishermen issue. The terms of reference of the JWG includesexpediting the transition towards ending the practice of bottom trawling at the earliest as well as framing procedures for the returning fishermen arrested by both sides and the possibility of joint patrolling. The issue of seized boats remains an emotive issue in Tamil Nadu with the state government writing to the central government on several occasions to negotiate for the release of detained fishermen. Arranging meetings between the fishing communities are major components of the agreement.

Dhruv Ashok is currently pursuing Masters in International Sudies in Christ ( deemed to be University), Bengaluru

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