The detention of 40 Indian fishermen last week by the Sri Lankan Navy has created anger and indignation among coastal people in Tamil Nadu. Fishermen have struck work, chief minister Jayalalithaa has accused New Delhi of indifference, the Indian High Commission has taken up the matter with Colombo and it is very likely that the Indian fishermen will be released and handed over to the Indian Coast Guard in the international maritime boundary line.
Incidents like these have become a regular phenomenon. Indian fishermen, in search of livelihood, get into Sri Lankan waters, the unfortunate few among them get detained and after a few days they are released. While fishermen are released, Colombo nowadays retains the trawlers, adding a new dimension to the thorny issue. I have characterised this phenomenon as a firefighting exercise. Once there is a fire, try to extinguish the fire. What is required is to remove the cause of fire once and for all.
Fishermen across the world are no respecters of maritime boundaries. Sri Lankan fishermen enter into Indian and Maldivian waters; Indian fishermen into Pakistani and Sri Lankan waters; Bangladeshis poach into Myanmar and Japanese and Taiwanese multi-day fishing boats roam around the world. The restrictions imposed by states on cross-order intrusion by fishermen have led to strains in bilateral relations, loss of human lives and destruction of fishing crafts.
How can we reconcile the two conflicting postures? Can New Delhi and Colombo work out an arrangement that takes into consideration the livelihood of fishermen, preserve and enrich the marine ecology and pave the way for harmonious bilateral relations? If this objective is to be accomplished, it is essential that we recognise the fisher folk as primary stakeholders and make them the focus of our policies.
According to the Tamil Nadu government, the root cause of the present conflict is the maritime boundary agreements of 1974 and 1976, which ceded the island of Kachchatheevu to Sri Lanka and bartered away traditional fishing rights enjoyed by Indian fishermen to fish in and around Kachchatheevu. Tamil Nadu politicians turn a blind eye to the reality that Indian fishermen go far beyond Kachchatheevu, get deep into Sri Lankan waters and deprive Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen of their livelihood. Compounding the situation is the unhelpful attitude of a few Sinhalese leaders, who would like to see the Palk Bay spilled with Tamil blood.
The genesis of the problem can be traced to mid-1960 when New Delhi embarked on a policy of transforming fishing operations in order to give a boost to exports. The introduction of mechanised trawlers and consequent bottom trawling definitely increased exports; at the same time, it brought about destruction of marine ecology. Today, the Indian side of the Palk Bay is completely devoid of fish. What is more, vallams, traditional fishing crafts, are also motorised; they also have started entering Sri Lankan waters.
The prolonged ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Indian fishermen. For security reasons, the Sri Lankan government banned fishing in the Palk Bay. The rich fishing grounds on the Sri Lankan side became the favourite haunt of Indian fishermen. The Sri Lankan Navy could not distinguish between a fisherman and a Tamil Tiger and, as a result, there were frequent incidents of firing in which innocent Indian fishermen lost their lives, leading to strains in India’s federal fabric as well as a downturn in India-Sri Lanka ties. In order to get crucial Indian support for the Fourth Eelam War, Colombo adopted a more conciliatory approach. Sri Lanka declared that Indian fishermen could fish in Sri Lankan waters, but they should avoid entering high-security zones. After the victory in the war, Colombo has reverted to its earlier stance and maintains that Indian fishermen have no right to fish in Sri Lankan waters.
Sri Lankan fishermen are the worst-affected. Thirty years of ethnic conflict have led to a great divide between the south and the north. Southern Sri Lanka has made rapid strides in fishing operations, while the north has lagged behind. What is more, fishermen of the Northern Province find poaching by Indian fishermen to be a major hindrance to their livelihood. During my field work in Sri Lanka a few years ago, fishermen in Pesalai and Delft island told me that on three days when Indian fishermen entered Sri Lankan waters, they didn’t venture into the sea, as they were scared that their fishing nets will be cut by Indian trawlers. They also rightly complained that if bottom trawling continued unabated, there will be no fish on the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Bay also.
The success of diplomacy is in converting the crisis into an opportunity. Given the statesmanship and vision, India and Sri Lanka can use the present predicament to open a new chapter in bilateral relations. A silver lining is the attempt being made by non-governmental organisations for initiating dialogue among fishermen of both countries. A solution from below has greater chance of success than one imposed from above by Colombo and New Delhi. Other stakeholders–governments of Sri Lanka and India and of Tamil Nadu and Northern Province —should extend whole-hearted support to fishermen’s initiatives. In particular, the government of Tamil Nadu should recognise the reality that the problem has gone far beyond ownership claims to Kachchatheevu.
We must start viewing the Palk Bay not as a contested territory, but as common heritage. Historically, the bay has been a bridge, not a barrier. A Palk Bay Authority should be set up, comprising representatives of both nations, including experts in fisheries and marine ecologists. The authority should determine the annual sustainable catch, the type of equipments to be used and number of days that Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen could fish. What is more, joint efforts should be undertaken to enrich marine resources. New Delhi and Chennai should also encourage joint ventures among fishermen of the two countries to embark on deep sea fishing in multi-day boats. Such initiatives alone can promote a win-win situation. A few years ago, inaugurating the bus service between Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, prime minister Manmohan Singh declared that “I cannot do anything about the borders, but I can try to make the borders irrelevant”. Such a vision alone can give a fillip to bilateral and regional co-operation in South Asia.
The writer is former senior professor, the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras.