Passions are running high in Tamil Nadu after a fisherman from the state was found dead off the Rameswaram coast. State police has alleged that he was shot by Sri Lankan navy. Colombo denied the incident but has promised a probe. The Tamil Nadu chief minister has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking for the issue to be raised at the highest level with Sri Lanka. The urgency and concern shown by Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswamy is understandable, but India’s response ought not be driven by emotional pitch. India-Sri Lanka ties have been on the mend in recent years, but the fishermen issue remains a major irritant. Ministerial-level talks in November last year had led to the set up of a Joint Working Group on Fisheries and a hotline between the Coast Guards of India and Sri Lanka for speedy redress when fishermen are arrested. These institutional mechanisms should be strengthened and local populations sensitised to them: Fishing communities should be assured of due process and speedy redress in the event of arrests or even killing of fishermen.
Arrests and shootings in the Palk Straits are often the result of fishermen crossing national maritime boundaries in search of fish. The Palk Straits is now home to too many fishermen and vessels: It is one of the most over-fished seas. The fisheries economy in Rameswaram saw a rise in the number of vessels, especially trawlers, in the 1980s, which coincided with the the civil war in Sri Lanka that led to a collapse of fisheries there. When fishing operations resumed in Sri Lanka, the sea could not support the fleet of vessels and the catch started to fall. Desperate fishermen started to look for new grounds to spread their net, often transgressing the national boundaries leading to arrests. A long-term solution to the issue will need a scaling down of fishing operations in the region. The government could offer a voluntary buy-back scheme for trawlers and boats and offer a rehabilitation package to deck hands. This would also help to protect artisanal fishermen, whose livelihood is threatened by overfishing by trawlers.
While fishing rights, livelihood and safety issues of fishermen are matters of priority, the ecological factors underlining the crisis must not be ignored. More studies may be necessary to ascertain the number of vessels this region can support. This is necessary to build a sustainable fisheries economy in the Rameswaram region. Political and diplomatic action can only play a supportive role.