The arrest of Indian fishermen by Sri Lankan coast guards, back and forth across diplomatic channels, and their eventual release is an oft played out scenario. Last week, thirty-seven fishermen along with their five mechanised boats, were detained by the Sri Lankan Navy on charges of poaching in their waters. What is it about the issue that it remains unresolved, despite having high political and media visibility? Tvara Misra explains.
A thorny bilateral issue, the fisherman issue is taken up at all bilateral meetings. Most recently, it was discussed during India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka, (the fourth high-level exchange in two months). Earlier, during his visit to India, President Maithripala Sirisena has affirmed that the matter would be resolved taking a “constructive and humanitarian” approach. However, the remarks by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe, saying that it would be acceptable to shoot Indian fishermen if they strayed into the Sri Lankan waters, just ahead of Mr Modi’s visit, and Mr Sirisena’s recent instructions to arrest boats or trawler waters breaching Sri Lanka’s territorial waters, points toward a deeper malaise- while the need for political dialogue is mouthed at high level meetings, political will to bring it to a meaningful conclusion seems weak given the conflict of interests. Local Sri Lankan fishermen need a stringent regulation of Indian vessels. Indian fishermen need to venture into Sri Lankan waters, since fisheries on Tamil Nadu coast have depleted. The Sri Lanka government needs to maintain good ties with India while affirming sufficient nationalist credo. Also, there may be ample political mileage in keeping it unclear since it helps sustain an anti-India image in the Tamil majority Northern Province.
The crisis at hand
Searching for catch, Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen frequently cross International Maritime Boundaries unknowingly (and knowingly) and end up languishing in jail, often on trumped-up charges of smuggling, poaching and narco-trafficking. Innumerable cases of the Sri Lankan navy arresting Indian fishermen, confiscating of boats and equipment and even shooting at them make the headlines as does the ritual release of jailed fishermen on either side before high level visits as a solid good will gesture. The problem is multi-dimensional, given the disputes over sovereignty of waters, blurry (and contested) boundary demarcation, questions of traditional rights of fisherman communities, economic disparities of fishermen on either side and bottom trawling by commercial vessels and related environmental concerns. All are exacerbated by its signalling value – a hardline on it is considered a nationalist move on both sides.
The irony of the situation is that the Tamil government decries the poor treatment of Sri Lankan Tamilians in the Northern Province, but remains mute when Indian mechanised trawlers affect the catch of the Sri Lankan fisher folk who are overwhelmingly of Tamil ethnicity. The fishermen issue is a big ticket issue for Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka, and support from the Tamil lobby in India is often sought.
The Indian fishermen cloak their argument for being granted access to Sri Lankan waters in the emotive appeal of traditional rights. The reality is that the Indian fishing stocks are depleted, the fishing fleet capacity is increasing, as is the demand for fishing stocks, and the Sri Lankan waters offer more fertile grounds. There have been studies which show that the Indian fishing fleet in Palk Bay is ‘over capitalized’ (catching capacity exceeds the carrying capacity of the Indian waters). Since the Palk Bay area came under the heavy security zone during the three decade long civil war, Sri Lankan fishermen were not allowed into it but Indian fishermen would often venture in (despite dire threats). Post war, Sri Lanka is trying to rebuild its fishing industry, and the issue is of sufficient economic importance. According to the Alliance for Release of Innocent Fishermen (a lobbying interest group), last month 86 fishermen were arrested along with their 10 boats. Last year over 1,600 persons were arrested along with about 100 boats. Most are subsequently released but lapse to the same activities.
Sri Lankan’s position
The northern Sri Lankan fishing communities were internally displaced during the war and are today trying to resettle their lives after three decades of conflict. They find their livelihoods being destroyed by destruction of catch, sea beds (bottom trawling methods strip the shallow shelf bare), and fishing equipment, by commercial fishing vehicles of Indian fishermen. Though the fishing associations reached an agreement on banning trawlers in 2010, it is not effective. Given the damage to fishing nets on the days Indian trawlers come in, the fishing communities fund it unviable to fish these days. Having their fishing days halved, several fishermen find the profession unviable and are moving to alternative unskilled occupations as construction workers, moving into cycles of debt and poverty.
While ceding Kachchativu to Sri Lanka (amidst massive protests of the DMK at the time; even today the legality of the ceding remains in question), the governments made provisions to for Indian fishing communities, allowing the tiny island to remain open for Indian fishermen to rest and dry their fishing nets. Under the 1976 agreement, fishing vessels could be allowed in sovereign waters of other country only with prior permission. This provision led to the practice of ‘licensing’ fishing, limited by number of vessels and catch in the other country’s sovereign waters. Fisheries cooperative societies (FCS) function as the primary representatives of the communities in northern Sri Lanka. Rounds of government dialogues (through the Joint Working Committee established for the purpose) and NGO mediated fishermen led talks in 2004 and 2010 have failed to resolve the problem. The need for resumption of dialogue has been iterated days ahead of Mr. Modi’s visit, which may be a beginning to once again resolve this issue, acting on which the third round fishermen level talks were held in Chennai a fortnight ago.
The way forward
With the post-war reconstruction, the northern fisheries, crucial to traditional society, earlier contributed to a third of the total fishing in Sri Lanka need to be rejuvenated, alongside new factories for employment generation. They should not be written off as collateral damage in trying to resolve ‘bigger’ issues of power devolution and demilitarization and amicable relations with India. To take the issue forward, firstly, there is need to revive Indo-Lanka fisheries talks between the fishing communities. Secondly, methods of fishing harmful for environmental sustainability should be done away with, possibly with government supports and incentives, to protect the intergenerational rights of fishing communities on both sides. To ensure dialogue and suitable monitoring, a joint fisheries management regime should be put in place.
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