Maritime Policy, Raisina Debates, Palk Bay, Maritime Fishing, Sri Lanka, Fisherman

Many thousands of fishing vessels work the narrow expanse of water that separates India and Sri Lanka, putting the area’s marine resources under immense strain

Come 15 June, fishermen in Tamil Nadu will be embarking on a new fishing season. As in past years, there had been a moratorium on fishing activities in the State – 61-day fishing ban to facilitate fish breeding and is expected to increase production. Anxieties still await Tamil fisher folk in Rameswaram and other coastal areas, as they venture back into the troubled waters of the Palk Bay.

Their concern isn’t misplaced. Three instances of Indian fishermen’s arrests in January this year and seven other detentions by the Sri Lankan navy in the month following has created unease in Tamil Nadu’s coastal community.

While Sri Lankan law enforcement agencies have resorted to heavy-handed tactics, Indian fishermen question the former’s right to carry out arrests in a contested sea-space on the pretext of national and maritime security.

Indeed, the Palk Bay, a narrow strip of water separating the State of Tamil Nadu from the Northern Province of Sri Lanka – a rich fishing ground for both countries – continues to be the disputed space. The major issue is the ongoing disagreement over the territorial rights of the island of Katchatheevu. Sri Lanka has accused Indian fishermen of frequent poaching in the island nation’s waters, and damaging the marine environment through frequent trawling.

Earlier this year, the Sri Lankan Parliament increased fines on foreign vessels found poaching in the country’s waters, by passing an amendment to the Fisheries (Regulation of Foreign Fishing Boats) Act, 1979. The new legislation, which slaps a minimum and maximum fine of 6 million SLR and 175 million SLR – obsessively to deter foreign vessels from fishing in its territorial waters – has been deemed protectionist by Indian fishermen.

While the conflict is multilayered, its political dimension has tended to overshadow other important factors. In particular, Indian analysts say, the trauma faced by the families of fishermen detained in foreign jails hasn’t received much attention. It is pertinent that in most cases, the arrested fisher-folk have been the sole earners for their families. Their incarceration in Sri Lankan jails has inflicted trauma and suffering on their families. Sadly, the Indian agencies have failed to protect the human rights of their fishermen, resulting in the rising anger in Tamil Nadu.

The frequent arrests and boat confiscations have strained India-Sri Lanka relations. Even though Colombo has attempted to placate New Delhi and repair the damaged relations, its gestures haven’t been fully convincing.

Bottom trawling – A marine hazard

But Delhi too isn’t blameless in the matter. Indian policymakers have been far from diligent in enacting a legislation to discourage the practice of bottom trawling by Tamil Nadu’s fishermen, wreaking havoc on the marine ecology of the Palk Bay. The single most detrimental activity for the health of the marine ecosystem, bottom trawling has resulted in severe depletion of marine resources in the Bay's shallow littorals. Rameswaram has been a critical hotspot. With over a 1,000 mechanised trawlers and a few hundred country boats, many of them motorised, fishermen from the Southern Indian province have been poaching in Sri Lankan waters, devastating the region’s marine ecology.

Sri Lankan observers say India’s inability to enact and enforce a law banning  bottom trawling is the main reason things are remaining in a state of crisis. In July 2017, Sri Lanka became the first Asian country to ban the aggressive method of fishing and declared it an offence by unanimously passing an amendment to the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act, attracting a fine of LKR 50,000 with two years of imprisonment. Driven perhaps by the Sri Lankan criticism, Indian officials have introduced a scheme to make 2,000 trawlers switch over to deep-sea tuna long liner-cum-gill-netter boats. The deep-sea fishing project, launched under the ‘Blue Revolution’ Scheme, has led to a considerable investment of funds, but without much result on the ground.

The problem, apparently, is the competitive nature of Tamil Nadu politics, where the fisheries’ dispute with Sri Lanka has become an electoral plank for regional political parties.

Local leaders call for a unilateral abrogation of the maritime boundary agreement, even instigating Tamil Nadu fishermen to fish in Sri Lankan waters. With the Central and State governments working at cross-purposes, there has been little consensus on adopting a coherent and lawful stand on the matter.

The incongruity between the Union and State government is a major deferent towards a resolution.  Leasing Katchatheevu to Indian fishermen in perpetuity while letting the Sri Lankan counterparts maintain firm ownership of it, was suggested by policymakers, but it only convoluted the dispute surrounding the principal rights over the island. The other proposal where licensed Indian fishermen were permitted to fish in Sri Lankan waters for five nautical miles from the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL), was bolstered by the Tamil Nadu government, but could never be enforced owing to non-conformity by the Central Government.

For Indian law enforcement agencies, the focus understandably has also been on the repatriation process, which has not only been delayed, but also actively subverted. The rights of Indian fishermen, some say, are being violated by foreign authorities with the growing instances of false charges of spying and espionage for inadvertent crossing over of the IMBL. Despite many ministerial meetings involving Indian and Sri Lankan officials, the problem is nowhere near resolution.

Even then, there is hope that the matter is moving towards an acceptable solution. The Joint Working Group (JWG) on fisheries and Standard Operation Procedures (SOPs) have been working towards expediting the repatriation of the detained fishermen. The Coast Guards of India and Sri Lanka have set up a hotline for better coordination among the maritime forces. Both sides are trying to accommodate each other’s concerns and adopt a holistic approach.

New Delhi, it seems, is giving some thought to joint patrolling and surveillance in the Palk Bay, as also the possibility of an immediate compensation for affected families.

Yet, no measures are likely to be effective unless India and Sri Lanka recognise the need to sensitise the fishing communities about the rights of the ‘other’, and the sanctity of international and bilateral agreements. New Delhi and Colombo need to recognise that it is only through empathy, understanding and lawful conduct that conflicts such as the one in Pak Bay can be comprehensively resolved.


The writer is a Research Intern with the Maritime Policy Initiative of Observer Research Foundation, Delhi

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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