Pakistan, on Sunday May 25, released 151 Indian prisoners, 59 of whom were released from Karachi and 92 from Hyderabad. The following day, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took off for India to be present at Narendra Modi’s swearing-in as prime minister of India.
They had been in jail for an average of six months. Their confiscated boats may not be returned. They had crossed the invisible “water border” into Pakistan. No one knows where the border is in the Indian Ocean because India and Pakistan are deadlocked on the issue. South Asia has unresolved maritime problems, with consequences for fishermen who go to the sea to catch fish and are caught because they have crossed lines they can’t see. The tragedy is that the people who catch them also don’t have a clue. Fishermen, therefore, have become a symbol of the immaturity of the nation state in South Asia. It is a shame that imprisoned fishermen are dramatically “exchanged” every now and then as reluctant CBMs with which to dupe the world.
Charu Gupta and Mukul Sharma, in Contested Coastlines: Fisherfolk, Nations and Borders in South Asia (2008), have written a very humane book. It contains the best account, in one place, of the three big maritime muddles that bring a bad name to the subcontinent. Sadly, nationalisms have become attached to the Sir Creek dispute between Pakistan and India, and if you ask a Pakistani or an Indian what the quarrel is all about, she doesn’t know.
India has a coastline 7,417 km long, out of which the Gujarat state has 1,663 km — one-third the entire coastline, which makes Gujarat the principal maritime state of India. Because of a rich delta, Gujarat has the best fishing, and the Gulf of Kutch has the best fish known in India. Next to Gujarat is Pakistan and there are no agreed maritime frontiers between the two. The Maritime Zones Act, 1976 and the Maritime Zones of India Act, 1981, under which the fishermen are caught and punished, don’t conform to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which India has signed. Pakistan is guilty of the same non-conformity.
The rival geographies of India and Pakistan are symbolised by the rival cartographies relating to Sir Creek, a 100-km long estuary in the marshes of the Rann of Kutch, between Gujarat and Sindh. Sir Creek is not a flowing creek but a tidal channel that has no officially demarcated boundary separating Pakistan and India. Till 1954, there was free movement across the Creek. Then came the issue of finding out where the border lay. And this border was also to decide where in the Arabian Sea the line would be drawn separating Indian waters from Pakistani waters.
Till these two issues are resolved, the two countries cannot set up their continental shelves up to 350 nautical miles and describe their economic zones up to 200 nautical miles. The deadline for doing so fell in 2009 and has passed. This is the area where the two could find oil and gas deposits. They can’t exploit these deposits without first sorting out the maritime boundary dispute. And the line that is drawn to describe the national frontier along Sir Creek will decide who gets how much of the sea off the Gulf of Kutch. That explains why there is no “give and take” in the bilateral negotiations.
The western side of Sir Creek is under Pakistani control and there are naval installations on the Indian side. Pakistan owns 16 creeks of Sindh and lays claim to the 17th, Sir Creek, by saying that the dividing line must run along the eastern bank of the Creek — somewhat like Saddam Hussein’s claim on the Shatt-al-Arab, rejecting the more internationally recognised “thalweg” claim of a line running in the middle of the Creek — on the basis of an old map that India no longer recognises, despite past records of an agreement of 1914 signed by the governments of Bombay, Sindh and the Raja of Kutch.
The Pakistani claim thus includes the left bank of the Creek, which means the maritime border too will have to run further east than where the Indians think it is right now. Indian lawyer A.G. Noorani thinks India has a better case because Pakistan, in 1958, had admitted that “this map was intended to be no more than an annexure to the Bombay government resolution”. And the said Bombay resolution recommends the boundary at the centre of the navigable current of Sir Creek. The Creek no longer flows and has shifted westwards, to Pakistan’s disadvantage. Pakistan wants the boundary established according to the historical maps; India wants that too, but according to “thalweg”. As both countries are deadlocked after 12 rounds of talks, the fisher folk suffer at the hands of their police and intelligence agencies.
India and Sri Lanka share a maritime border that is more than 400km long, cutting across three different seas: the Bay of Bengal in the north, the Palk Bay in the centre and the Gulf of Mannar in the south. In 1974 and 1976, the two countries signed agreements on how to sort out their boundaries in the sea and their territorial waters, extending 12 nautical miles from the coast. The second agreement barred fishing in each other’s side of the line demarcated in the Bay of Bengal and the Gulf of Mannar. But there are islands, given to one or the other country, that cause confusion among fishermen. The result is jailed fishermen in India and Sri Lanka.
With countries located close to one another, and in some ways opposite rather than alongside each other, there is bound to be trouble when demarcating long, 200 nautical miles of exclusive economic zones. And if the sands are shifting in the case of either Sir Creek or an island in the Bay of Bengal, the states are going to be selfish in the absence of statesmen among their politicians. The India-Bangladesh land border is 4,000 km long and there are reportedly 20 million illegal Bangla-deshis in India, which makes India rather nervous about the people it catches crossing over.
The Bay of Bengal is the crux of the problem. Bangladesh has a concave coast, reducing its continental shelf if the line is drawn from the coast; India has a convex coast and gets a larger share of the gulf as continental shelf. India and Myanmar both reject Bangladesh’s stance that its shelf be measured from where its coastline is navigable and not choked with riverine effluvium. To make things worse, India and Bangladesh claim a two sqaure miles island, two miles from India and five from Bangladesh, which has appeared in the Bay of Bengal, composed of drifting volcanic silt. The quarrel is based on the flow of the river Haribanga inside the bay.
When coastal states look at the sea with greed and refuse to demarcate their areas of control, their fishermen come in the crossfire. If India and Pakistan come closer through trade and investment, the first issue they must resolve is Sir Creek, so that poor fishermen stop paying the price for their cussedness. A Sir Creek accord, they say, is ready for signature. Modi should begin his tenure with an act of grace towards fishermen by signing it with Sharif.
The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’