The Sunday Leader

For Peaceful Fishing In Palk Bay

by N. Sathiya Moorthy

If anyone thought that the new parliamentary legislation banning bottom-trawling by Sri Lankan fishers will end the continuing consternation of, and conflict with Indian counterparts in the Palk Bay especially, it is not to be. With or without the new law, what the Governments in India, at the Centre and in the southern State of Tamil Nadu, require, instead, is time for putting their on-going plans for deep-sea fishing work on the ground.

To be precise, the real problem is between Indian fishers and the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN), who are tasked to end ‘poaching in Sri Lankan seas’ and end ‘violation of Sri Lankan territorial waters, and thus sovereignty’. Whether it could be achieved by replacing an existing Executive order of decades with a parliamentary legislation, is the question.

Bilateral fishers’ issues are episodic and are addressed by governmental intervention, especially from the Indian side. Every time the SLN arrests Indian fishers and their trawlers, the former especially are freed after a time, at the insistence of Indian Government. There is nothing to suggest that the new law is going to change this ground reality, which is governed by larger bilateral interests and concerns, rather than immediate issues that agitate the northern Tamil fishers in Sri Lanka and a section of their polity – and for obvious reasons.

The Sri Lankan fishers are really apprehensive that all their future stocks could be trawled out if the Indian fisher-intervention of the kind continues unabated. They cite the Indian experience on the other side of the Palk Bay to argue their case – a fact readily conceded in India, but used as the compulsion and vicarious justification for extending their fishing area into Sri Lankan waters.



The Indian fishers’ arguments are based on conventional global arguments that fish no political borders in the seas and fishers go wherever fish go. Their more relevant argument derives from the bilateral Maritime Boundary Accords of 1974 and 1976, under which the tiny islet of Katchchativu fell on the Sri Lankan side of the IMBL (International Maritime Boundary Line), drawn for the first time and notified under the UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Laws of the Seas).

UNCLOS is an international obligation from which India cannot walk away at will. Independent of political-changes in India over the past decades and poll-eve promises made by contending parties ahead of periodic elections involving Tamil Nadu, no Government at the Centre has even remotely indicated any change in the Indian stance on the IMBL and Katchchativu. Inside and outside Indian Parliament, the Government of India has only held on to its commitments from the Seventies, and without yielding on this one bilateral issue, whatever be the political and electoral pressure from and in the crucial south Indian State.

Under the Indian constitutional scheme, the Union of India, or the Centre, alone is mandated and authorised to change and/or challenge international boundaries. States, including Tamil Nadu as in this case, do not have a stake, even if it involved IMBL. As far as Kachchativu is concerned, the Union of India has repeatedly reiterated the position that the IMBL was demarcated for the first time only in 1974 and extended further and involving common neighbour Maldives, two years later.

The question of the Sri Lankan State, thus, thus having to be apprehensive about the Indian counterpart changing tack will arise if and only if there is any sign whatsoever of it happening. Hence, the misplaced anticipation and misconstrued posturing by some in the country on matters of sovereignty and territorial integrity are even more misplaced than those flagging the issue across the Palk Bay.


Traditional rights 

Yes, there are real issues faced by fishers on both sides, and more so by those in Sri Lanka. It pertains to livelihood concerns, as any fast-paced depletion of fish population and stocks in the shared seas is bad for both. One having exhausted the stock and other retaining its stocks is a tempting proposition, especially in terms of livelihood issues and concerns.

Ever since the 1974 and 1976 accords were signed, Tamil Nadu fishers and politicos and also the State Government have asserted their ‘traditional rights’ in ‘historic waters’. Some alter the phraseology to say it is ‘historic rights’ in ‘traditional waters’. Both mean one and the same, but Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan fishers and their associations say that it’s an untenable and non-maintainable argument.

Here again, the Government of India, whole-heartedly and without any change in position and tactic with change of political leadership at the Centre, has stood by the accords. Indian courts are also reluctant to review this position, one way or the other, despite the long-pending cases in the Supreme Court.

Contrast this with the Sri Lankan Supreme Court’s striking down of the North-East merger under the new Provincial Council Act, 1987, flowing from the broader Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, also of the same year, and the nuances stand out. It can be argued that the Sri Lankan Supreme Court verdict of 2006 did not refer to the indo-Sri Lanka Accord but only to the Provincial Council Act is legally sustainable, and just that.

It was sad that the Sri Lankan Government of the day did not seem to have cited the bilateral/international commitment, which would have been violated if the Supreme Court ruled the way it did. Better or worse still, the Rajapaksa Government, then in office, acted with unprecedented alacrity to execute the Supreme Court order.

Instead, the Government enforced the court-ordered de-merger of the two Provinces, rather than seek a possible review of the constitutional position and the nation’s commitment to bilateral commitments. Technically, yes, the possibility of the Indian Government enforcing a Supreme Court order of the kind on the ‘fishing issue’ and ‘Katchchativu ownership’ remains, as and when the long-pending case is finally disposed of, and an ‘adversarial order’ is passed.


Contrasting consensus 

The political consensus at the national-level in India has been to abide by bilateral commitments rather than finding ways out and for loopholes of the kind. This contrasts with the national mood and methods in Sri Lanka, whatever the issue or whatever the problem.

On the fishers’ row, thus, the Rajapaksa regime maintained relative balance in India relations. This was so even while making all the noises and arrests – at times ending in the death of Indian fishers in mid-sea firing, allegedly by SLN personnel. The incumbent Government of President Maithiripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been doing the exact opposite.

Even while professing greater friendship with the Indian neighbour than under Rajapaksa, the Ranil leadership especially has been adroit in getting the new legislation passed by Parliament. Obviously, no Sri Lankan MP or party can oppose such a law, nor can they sight smooth relations with India and Indian people. None wants to be branded as an ‘Indian stooge’.

The irony however is of TNA parliamentarians and other leaders who have been flagging the cause of the northern Tamil fishers, especially against the ‘incursions’ of their Indian brethren. Tamil Nadu fishers and their political leaders and the State Government are unable to ascertain the real reasons, if any, and are unwilling, as yet, to acknowledge that many in private concede is a ‘stab in the back’.


Competitive politics 

There is no denying that northern Tamil fishers have suffered, and continue to suffer, owing to indiscriminate bottom-trawling by Indian brethren in their waters. It drains away not only their catch for the present but also of the future. Bottom-trawling destroys fishlings and eggs, and also the centuries-old marine eco-system that future fish production and re-production are permanently destroyed.

It is also true that the Tamil polity in the North is afraid of ‘competitive politics’ at their own levels, a la the ‘competitive Dravidian politics’ across the Palk Strait, be it on Sri Lankan ethnic issue, fishers’ problems, or whatever concerning the southern neighbour or other policy and political issues nearer to their own home.

Like their Indian counterparts, they do know that the Sri Lankan Governmental initiatives to check Indian fishers is tempered also with larger aspects of bilateral relations, just as it has always been from the other side. Sri Lankan Government leaders, starting with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, have also allowed a sensitive aspect of bilateral relations bandied about inside Parliament and outside.

This contrasts with the conduct of predecessor Rajapaksa regime, where all such issues were handled exclusively at higher / highest levels lest it should cause avoidable concerns in New Delhi. It is the same way that the Government of India has continued to handle the fishers’ issue and all other matters of bilateral concern, including the ethnic issue, the ‘China factor’ and the ‘Hambantota port project’.

There can be no real justification for bottom-trawling in Sri Lankan waters when it is banned in the country and has been successfully enforced in the case of local fishers. Yet, coming at a time when the Government of India and the Tamil Nadu Government have begun working in the ground on an alternative deep-sea fishing solution, it is only politically correct to give them time to make it work.


Time is of essence 

After all, it is not only about building deep-sea vessels and training the Palk Bay fishers on the Indian side in the vocation, which is much different from what they have been used to over the past half a century. It is worse if one considered the traditional fishing habits of fishers on either side.

Instead, it is a cultural shift and shock for them all, to stay away from the shore and at some distance for more than one night at a time. It also involves aspects of sea-sickness and the like. Not just as individuals, as a community, acclimatisation will take time.

Simultaneously, the Governments in India have to train them to store their catch for a longer period and also find the right markets and prices, so that they can make enough profits to be able to repay the bank-loan part of the vessel-funding. True, Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan fishers cannot be blamed if Tamil Nadu fishers do not know their storage and marketing strategies, but greater their knowledge, greater will be their temptation to go deep-sea fishing even in larger numbers than planned for now – and thus stay away from northern Sri Lankan waters, too.

They have estimated the average cost of a deep-sea vessel and fishing gear to be IR 80,00,000 (SLR 19 m). Independent of perceptions to the contrary in Sri Lanka, especially in Sinhala areas, the Government of India and also the Government of Tamil Nadu, have put greater premium on bilateral relations, and are thus providing maximum subsidies on their own.

What thus the Governments and fishers in India need is time, for making the transition from deep-sea fishing to bottom-trawling. Going by perceptions in Sri Lanka, time is also of essence to save the Sri Lankan fishing fields in the Palk Bay from total destruction. A via media has to be found, and it is of essence, for saving the Sri Lanka’s marine eco-system for fish population to thrive and fishers’ population to flourish. It cannot happen through new laws and more arrests. It can be achieved only through further talks and greater understanding – than already.


Informal trade… 

At the end of the day, the Palk Bay fishing conflict is as old as the end of the ethnic wars in Sri Lanka – which is just about eight years. There is no denying traditional fishing by fishers from both countries in common fishing grounds, and their taking shelter in each other’s shores, settling down for a time and even raising families.

Until war troubled these waters, Sri Lankan Tamil fishers, especially the youth, would venture out to interior Tamil Nadu cities through the otherwise ‘illegal sea-route’, to view the latest Tamil films on day one, in places like Madurai, a few hours’ drive from the Indian shores.

Informal trade in luxury goods and essentials, including medicines, facilitated by fishers on both sides too had remained at the time. What is now commonly dismissed as ‘bathroom slippers’ were sold as luxury brands of ‘Singapore slippers’ in southern Tamil Nadu in particular after fishers from either side had ‘smuggled’ them through Sri Lanka.

Yet, there were mid-sea clashes between fishers between the two countries, but they were not linked to sovereignty and territorial issues. They were only over fish-catch or personal issues, flowing out of equations on the shores where some of them had settled down on the other side of the Palk Bay. All of it changed with ethnic attacks on the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the consequent militancy, war and violence, and more so with the raising of ‘Sea Tigers’.

Today, the traditional rights of one are being challenged by the other. The traditional livelihood of the other has also been similarly challenged by the non-traditional fishing methods, introduced over the past 50-60 years, no questions asked. While the truth may lie somewhere in between, there is no denying now, the genuine efforts of Governments in India, to find a way out and away, through deep-sea fishing.

A problem of a decade or less cannot be seen as a centuries-old problem, nor can a solution be rammed down upon each other without consideration for time to look at practical options, arrangements and requirements. That is where the two nations and their fishers are placed just now. That is where from and how they all need to proceed, not through coercive ways. They can only be counter-productive in very many ways, as Sri Lankans have seen over the past decade and less!

1 Comment for “For Peaceful Fishing In Palk Bay”

  1. Fact, is that the over fishing and far too many boats navigating these waters adding to the destruction of an entire marine ecosystem with bottom trawling the worse offender, will not see these areas recovering for many, many years to come. Do these people know how long for a fingerling to grow to young adult,or an inch of coral polyp to develop? Even the supervision has been lapse for reason of deals been struck on the high seas.

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