The issue of fishermen arrests and fishing vessel seizures between Indian and Sri Lanka has dragged on for several years. In a latest incident, the Sri Lankan Navy allegedly fired at a group of Indian fishermen on Monday who had allegedly crossed over into Sri Lankan waters on the lookout for fresh catch. One fisherman was killed in the incident and three others were injured. The Sri Lankans opened fire on the fishermen who were apparently fishing off the coast of Tamil Nadu between Dhanushkodi and Katchatheevu.
Both countries are separated by the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL). Often, fishermen from both sides cross over to the other side for bottom trawling fishing expeditions and that results in arrests and, on many occasions, shootings. In 2013, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Mullappally Ramachandran informed Rajya Sabha that no separate data is maintained in respect of fishermen who are reported missing while fishing in Indian waters and high seas.
According to Joint Working Group on Fisheries (JWGF) data of December 2016, 111 boats of Tamil Nadu fishermen and 51 Indian fishermen were in arrest or detention in Sri Lanka’s northern Province.
On February 2 this year, Minister of State for External Affairs VK Singh informed parliament that in the past two years, 1,566 Indian fishermen have been released from Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It was also informed that 20 fisherman were still in Sri Lankan prison.
On March 5, 2017, 24 Indian fishermen were arrested by Sri Lankan Navy from areas between Katchathivu and Talaimannarand and at Neduntheevu. Their four fishing boats were also seized.
One of the major reasons complicating the issue is of Katchatheevu Island. India ceded the uninhabited island to its southern neighbour in 1974 under a conditional accord. In 2009, the Sri Lankan government declared Katchatheevu island as sacred land owing to a Catholic shrine’s presence on the piece of land.
The issue arises more out of a domestic tussle rather than the India-Sri Lanka view on the issue. The Central government of India, according to the 1974 accord, recognises Sri Lanka’s sovereignty over Katchatheevu. Now the Tamil fishermen, Tamil Nadu’s political fraternity and the Centre are embroiled in a disagreement. Tamil fishermen believe that Katchatheevu is traditionally their territory and so they have a right to fish there. The Sri Lankan authorities believe that this endangers the livelihood of Sri Lankan fishermen. After the Fourth Eelam War in 2009, the situation seems to have turned worse for Tamil fishermen in the northern province of Sri Lanka.
In May last year, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena met Prime Minister Narendra Modi to discuss the issue of arrests of fishermen in the high seas between India and Sri Lanka as well as the seizure of fishing vessels. In November 2016, an interministerial delegation of both countries discussed terms for a joint working group but the Sri Lankan delegation rejected India’s request for a three year grace period so that the government can assist fishermen to move from bottom trawling fishing method to another sustained and effective method.
However, fact is, due to a gradual drop in fish count in the Indian waters, Indian fishermen are forced to wander into Sri Lankan waters as the catch is insufficient here. Several reports quote Indian fishermen as saying catch is greater on the Sri Lankan side and if they stick to fishing inside Indian maritime borders, they may starve to death. Several observers have said that the Sri Lankan fishermen from the country’s northern province are not able to exploit the potential of available catch in their waters.
So what is the moot point of this everburning issue? There is a glaring need for institutionalisation of fishing in Indian waters by the government of India so that alternative means of livelihood are provided. Government will have to mark up a comprehensive plan to reduce the dependence of Indian fishermen on catch from Palk Bay. Only then will it be possible for Indian fishermen to overcome their natural, and at times desperate, impulse to wander into Sri Lankan waters. Blue economy is a rather ignored issue in India and that seems to have led to the current crisis. The Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Ocean Development are the nodal bodies responsible for giving technical assistance to states for the development of fisheries and blue economy.
Government recognised/registered or cooperatives of fishermen can institutionalise and govern organised fishing within a set framework.
The solution cannot be extra deployment of Navy and Coast Guard. The underlying cause needs to be addressed. If the dependence issue is addressed properly, the security angle can be concomitantly handled with naval patrols and coast guard deployments. More so, a resolution may be effective by both countries that if straying fishermen are apprehended, they may be returned to their country of origin. The move may give confidence to fishermen from both countries that the governments of the day in their country are willing to fight it out for their lives. Detentions of fishermen on both sides running for years seems unnecessary. Sri Lankan authorities reportedly feel that detentions have reduced poaching to a great extent but that has not reduced the intensity of the situation. Both countries need to put a stop to it for finding a peaceful amicable solution.