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Water, Water, Everywhere Why No Fish To Fish?

By N. Sathiya Moorthy

None should – and would expect the 27 January talks between Sri Lanka and India (read: Tamil Nadu) on the issue of fishermen to produce instant results. It is not like instant coffee. Fish and fishing fields take generations to form, but only years to vanish – and vanquished in their fight for survival against man!

In a way, the talks are aimed at preserving and rejuvenating the remaining fish in the Palk Bay – on the Sri Lankan side. This has added to the complexities of what essentially should have been a livelihood issue between fishermen on the two sides of the Palk Strait. Sovereignty, territorial waters, the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) and the mutual arrests of violators (being called ‘poachers’ in one case, but not in the reverse) have added additional dimensions, but the basic issue needs to be delineated if one has to find a lasting solution.

True, the Tamil Nadu fishermen are fishing in Sri Lankan waters, or waters abutting the habitats of Tamil-speaking fishermen on the other side – and the livelihood of both communities have been based on the fish in those waters, shared or otherwise. By inserting extraneous issues and concerns, the basic premise has been lost to the seas. The situation needs to be retrieved if any solution is to be found possible.

Left to themselves, the fishermen on the two sides may still be able to sort out the problem.  Or, they may have fought it out between themselves, as many fishing communities do elsewhere too – including Tamil Nadu itself. There are ‘kangaroo courts’ of village elders who order the arrest of ‘poachers’, and levy hefty fines that make it unattractive for the latter to cross what is essentially the shared waters of the same nation. The political problem today and the diplomatic intervention hence, is that Sri Lanka’s Navy arrests and their courts detain Tamil Nadu fishermen in larger numbers than their Sri Lankan counterparts are, by the Indian authorities. Reciprocity is not only in releases, but also in arrests – or, so it seems. Considering that at any given point, the numbers work against India/Tamil Nadu, reciprocity comes with its own limitations, and the consequent balance of inconvenience, so to speak.

What has been totally forgotten by the Tamil Nadu polity, and possibly the local fishermen, too, is that at the height of the Sri Lankan ceasefire (2002-06), the LTTE which was running a parallel administration in Sri Lanka’s North and East, too had ‘arrested’ Tamil Nadu fishermen, held them ‘captive’ and ‘punished’ them through their own ‘kangaroo courts’. Thankfully, it did not deploy its better-known and worst-feared punishments for the errant Indian fishermen, until a facilitated truce of some kind was agreed upon.

Internal waters, external fishing?

If traditional methods were to have been applied to the traditional waters of traditional fishermen in the Palk Strait, that too in the traditional ways without reference to modern methods of defining sovereignty and identity, then the shared waters may have been bloodied long ago, with the blood of ‘umbilical cord’ relations.  If anything, sovereignty and the IMBL may have stalled that process, thankfully – though issues do remain about mutual arrests, detention and later-day release, all of which have become routine and rather predictable!

Even as the Governments of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu were seemingly engaged in a ‘who’ll-blink-first’ contest in freeing the arrested fishermen, there were others who entered Sri Lankan waters, to get arrested all over again. The tendency thus has been to go back to the old days, and go back to the old ways of getting arrested and getting freed. Though numbers may vary vastly, and the damage to the shoals and fishing communities may differ, there is a mutuality and complementarity to the whole affair.

Unlike in most other cases elsewhere, the two agreements of 1974 and 1976 have conferred on the shared Palk Bay the unique distinction of being the ‘demarcated internal waters’ of the two countries. Translated, it means that third nations cannot access these waters. It is the enforcement of the IMBL, based on the baseline links, that is evidence to the acceptance of the ‘internal waters’ as they are. ‘External fishing’, as in the case of Tamil Nadu fishermen in Sri Lankan waters, or vice versa, has consequences, not only for the fish and fishermen, but also for the continued sanctity of the ‘internal waters’. It would then become a free-for-all, as in the high seas beyond the EEZ of the two nations, the Tamil Nadu fishermen, or even the Sri Lankan fishermen, could complain to none, in case of poaching by well-known South-East Asian neighbours.

The IMBL has not stopped ‘poaching’ elsewhere in the world, but the problem with the Palk Bay fishing is also about the unsustainable damage to the ecosystem, at times irretrievably so. Even for those ecosystems to be restored through artificial yet scientific methods, so that shoals return in large numbers, a ‘trawling-holiday’ becomes essential. But the problem itself is about ‘bottom-trawling’, by Tamil Nadu fishermen, using gear that has added to the woes of not only fishermen in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, but more so the sea and the fish.

No fish after a decade?

Estimates vary, but it is agreed that at this rate of trawling, there will be no fish left in the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Bay for any fishermen to catch, and thereby there won’t be any problem to resolve after some time. Some Northern Province Tamil fishermen put the time-limit as low as one or two years. Whether it is 5, 10, 15 or 20 years is the question, but none, starting with the trawling fishermen has questioned the ultimate fate at this rate (of over-exploitation)!

What Governments (particularly in India) need to consider is if they would want to wait until that day to find re-employment and/or re-deployment of maritime labour and their employers after the deed had been done, or advance that deadline before it hits them all in the face. Rehabilitation of those fishermen so that that not-too-distant-day would be a political issue, and an electoral cause at that point in time, too – just as the fishing issue is a politico-electoral issue in Tamil Nadu, just now.

To bring in sovereignty on the one hand, and legitimacy of the IMBL on the other, are extraneous issues that seek to divert the problem, and thus delay the real solution. It has only complicated matters, delayed decision-making, denied government responsibilities, and disturbed bilateral peace and relations.

In the existing environment and circumstances, a few arrests here and a few telephone calls there alone seem to be the solution. They are also the ones that divert government energy and responsibilities – and hence alternative initiatives. Like the trawling-holiday, there needs to be an arrest-holiday, if things are to work thus on the ground.

Yet, considering the ecological deadlines for complete depletion of the wealth of the seas, on the Sri Lankan side, in particular, it may be that the licensing system needs to be strictly imposed in the interim. The fact that the licensing system comes with a political price-tag on IMBL and related issues should not be wished away or washed away either. The balance benefits for the affected fishermen should dictate decisions as the ‘balance of sovereignty’ had done on earlier occasions.

Unacknowledged initiatives

It is in this background that the Tamil Nadu Government’s initiatives on offering a 25 percent subsidy – since increased to 50 percent  – for conversion of  bottom-trawlers into long-line, multi-day fishing vessels, and the construction of two fishing boats, away from the Palk Strait coasts, for diverting the excessive trawler population elsewhere, needs to be acknowledged and appreciated. Such measures too take time to implement, hence the further need for an ‘arrest-holiday’.

It is sad that the Tamil Nadu Government’s initiatives have seldom found positive mention. It however owes this to the propaganda priorities of the State Government, which has focused near-exclusively and excessively on arrests and releases.

Some myths too need to be exploded. That the Tamil Nadu fishermen were ‘poaching’ in what is rightfully Sri Lankan waters only after destroying the fish shoals on their side and the attendant ecosystems through bottom-trawling, etc. Bottom-trawling may have fast-tracked the process, yes, but owing to ocean-currents and the like, historically, too, there were few fish in the Indian waters, then as it is now.

The argument that the Rameswaram fishermen, for instance, are incapable of adapting to multi-day fishing, and may also not be as law-abiding as they should be.

The ‘culture’ argument on the first question may become invalid after a point, as they had no problem shifting from artisanal fishing to mechanised boats, and later to trawlers. They need to be prepared, they need to be trained and equipped – a part of which the State Government is already doing! Only that more needs to be done and faster.

In this process, it may be worthwhile for the Government of Sri Lanka to consider if and how long would fish and fishermen last in their part of the Palk Strait, whether or not the Indian trawlers come after them! One can still want to blame it all on the Indians, but the fact remains that global consumption is going up owing to the ever-increasing population (particularly still in the Third World) against global production – just as is the case with farm-based food produce!

Over-exploitation too is not limited to the Palk Strait, or confined to the Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu. If the southern Sri Lankan fishermen are out in the long-line boats for multi-day fishing, they too are doing it in distant waters, which would expose the seas to over-exploitation, maybe not in years but definitely in decades! Sri Lanka that is talking about losing foreign exchange earnings from fishing to Indians and India and hopes to make more money, with or without Palk Strait fish, would need to review what essentially is a matter of medium and long-term concern.

Worse still, if Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan fishermen are pointing fingers at Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu (some vigorously and others not-so-vigorously, also for political reasons in some cases), there are also instances of Sri Lankan fishermen getting arrested not only in India, beginning with neighbouring Maldives, and extending almost across to the new-world. The European Union too keeps showing up the ‘Yellow Card’ to Sri Lanka, from time to time, with nothing being done to reverse the trend!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: (sathiyam54@gmail.com)

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