Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 11, 2020
Kachchativu: TN wanting to have the cake and eat it too?

Responding to a member’s query in the Tamil Nadu Assembly recently, Fisheries Minister D Jayakumar declared that ‘retrieval’ of Kachchativu islet (from southern Sri Lankan neighbour) was the ‘only solution’ to the fishermen’s issue between the two countries. In the same vein, the Minister also said that the Government has been ‘implementing the scheme to roll out tuna long-liners cum gillnetter fishing-vessels’ (to replace the ‘destructive bottom-trawlers’, that are at the bottom of the fishers’ issue in the first place).

Participating in a public function in southern Tamil Nadu, where the fishers’ issue affects lives and livelihood of Indian fishers, Chief Minister Edappadi K Palanisami too referred to the ‘retrieval of Kachchativu. In the Assembly, Minister Jayakumar added that the State Government was taking legal steps in phases, to this end. He did not elaborate.

Therein in lies the hitch, if it may be called so – or, a few of them punched together. The Centre had proposed a phased switch-over from bottom trawlers and accompanying purine nets, with long liners, to make it economically viable for the southern Tamil Nadu fishers, who were at the receiving end of the Sri Lankan Tamil brethren and more so the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN).

The Centre’s intention seemed aimed at avoiding the continual SLN arrest of Indian fishers and capture of their boats. Minister Jayakumar said that no scheme of the kind could be implemented in a day, but the Sri Lankan authorities were not giving enough time. At the same time, his ministerial colleague O S Manian told another questioner that the number of attacks has come down.

A recent report in The Hindu from Colombo, quoting Sri Lankan Tamil fishers said that there was a ‘respite’ to the fishing conflict. The reference is also to fewer Indian trawlers wading into the Sri Lankan waters, especially closer to the northern and eastern coasts, way beyond the international boundary. As Minister Jayakumar told the Tamil Nadu Assembly, identifying the international maritime boundary line (IMBL) may be difficult for the Indian fishers that they end up crossing the same, inadvertently and innocently. But not when they sight the Sri Lankan northern coastline with the naked eye, and they are sighted likewise from the coast.

Cooperative fishing

Minister Jayakumar told the House that talks were continuing for commencing cooperative fishing in the shared seas of India and Sri Lanka by (Tamil) fishers from the two countries. He referred to the all-but-forgotten three rounds of talks between the fisherfolks between the two countries, which were conducted when late M Karunanidhi (DMK) and  Jayalalithaa (AIADMK) were Chief Ministers. The last of them, held in Chennai, did not produce any substantive result, over the past nearly seven years.

Some hopes on cooperative fishing has been kindled at least on the Tamil Nadu Government side, after visiting Sri Lankan Fisheries Minister, Douglas Devananda, submitted a note on the subject to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi earlier this year. A clearer picture on the Sri Lankan official position will emerge only after the parliamentary elections scheduled for 25 April. It is not unlikely to be postponed, owing to the dreaded ‘Covid-19’ pandemic on the island-nation. The Indian Government as also the Tamil Nadu counterpart are yet to react in public to Minister Devananda’s proposal – which has been on the Indian cards for a long time since.

After the official-level meetings, Minister Devananda said that PM Modi’s response to his proposal for creating a joint authority was ‘positive’. The Indian fishers go into Sri Lankan waters for catching shrimp, which has ceased to be present on this side of the Palk Strait. Shrimp is available only in shallow waters closer to the shores. For catching shrimp in Sri Lankan waters, the Indian fishers should have permission to travel closer to the coast in that country. Getting closer to the Sri Lankan coast could mean that Indian fishers could get into unavoidable clashes with their Tamil brethren in that country, for inevitable reasons and causes of business rivalry. If and when a joint authority is to be created, there is little chance that Sri Lanka’s Sinhala fishers could be kept out of the shared waters.

Yet, it is commendable that Sri Lankan Minister Devananda has since climbed down from his earlier position of not letting Indian fishers into the Sri Lankan seas. However, the mainline Tamil National Alliance (TNA), opposed to the Rajapaksas’ regime in Sri Lanka, would matter even more after a point. The party passed two resolutions in quick succession at its conferences, urging the Colombo dispensation to ensure that no foreign fishing vessels entered the nation’s waters.

With a friendly Government in power under predecessor Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, senior TNA parliamentarian also moved a bill in Parliament for handing down severe punishment to Indian violators. The Government itself adopted the bill, following which Sri Lankan courts now impose still penalties for such violations.

Territorial integrity

Prime Minister Rajapaksa, as also his brother and Sri Lankan President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, have full knowledge of the ground realities from their long innings, respectively as President and Defence Secretary, from 2005-15. While Mahinda R was known to adopt a politically realistic human approach to the problem, present-day President Gota Rajapaksa stood by the Sri Lanka Navy, whose task it was to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country.

In the light of the liquidated LTTE’s ‘Sea Tigers’ presence in the past, the Sri Lankan security apparatus continues to remain conscious and alert to the possibilities on their waters. Even otherwise, for the SLN, to shoo away foreign vessels, including those from neighbouring India, is a mandated task – of protecting the nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Independent of occasional allegations of over-doing the task by targeting Indian fishers, they cannot be faulted if they arrest the Indian fishers and also their boats.

Unique accord

On the attendant issue of Kachchativu, the Tamil Nadu Government’s promised legal initiatives, even if in a phased manner, has multiple backgrounds and consequences. First , like along the rest of the Tamil Nadu coast, shrimps do not grow closer to the islet, either. Nor would any permission for Indian fishers to fish in the Kachchativu waters, going to end the squabbles, as it would be intra-fishers issue of a local and localised nature.

The Tamil Nadu Government entered a private petition filed by late Jayalaltihaa in the Supreme Court for retrieval of Kachchativu after she had become Chief Minister for a third time. Kraunanidhi for the DMK too filed a private petition in the Supreme Court. While Karunanidhi’s petition might have become infructuous following his death, by joining the pleading, the Tamil Nadu Government may be keeping the Jayalalithaa plea alive, to a limited extent.

Independent of political parties and leaders in power, the Centre has always held onto the 1974 agreement that Kachchativu was a part of Sri Lanka, ab initio. Both nations reported their agreement to UNCLOS-I under the UN auspices, and there is no way one of the parties could unilaterally back out after long. The accord, in its present form, is unique as it forecloses all third-party usage of and intervention in the shared waters.

The alternative to the existing scheme in the present context could well be for the Indian Supreme Court to pronounce a verdict in favour of the pending petition(s) or on any new petition that it may entertain. In turn, this could be controversial under the international scheme. Another possibility is for an affected party outside of the Indian Government to move the International Court of Justice.

With Sri Lanka’s LTTE war long behind the nation and region, the annual St Anthony’s Church festival on Kachchativu islet has begun attracting regulated yet more crowds from both nations. This year’s festivities passed off in February, without even much media coverage, as if it was like any other. It is this waters and tranquillity that too may come under stress if and when Tamil Nadu politicians and responsible State Ministers start talking otherwise.

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