The fishing row between India and Sri Lanka is not only effecting bilateral relations between the two countries but taking its toll on the poor who have no alternate means of livelihood. Finding a long term solution that benefits all has to address the humanitarian aspect of the issue soon
Fishing is a popular means of livelihood in parts of India and Sri Lanka due to rampant poverty and lack of other available skills. But many fishermen have also inherited the profession from their forefathers and proudly claim it as being in their blood and an essential part of their identity. Hence, anything that is perceived as a threat to either their survival or to their sense of self is naturally deemed personal.
This fishing dispute between India and Sri Lanka in the deep sea area has been highly charged for the past many years due to a number of factors. The main reason revolves around the ownership status of the small island in the Palk Bay area, called Katchatheevu. According to some reports, through the 1974 agreement India and Sri Lanka had agreed on a maritime boundary in which India had ceded the Island’s rights to Sri Lanka and negotiated away fishing rights for their own fishermen. However, the Indian side argues that the wording of the agreement has been manipulated by the Sri Lankan authorities and their fishermen are being denied even their legitimate rights of fishing in the area.
Historically, Indian Tamil fishermen had faced no issues fishing near the island, and many times they would go into the Sri Lankan waters. That wasn’t appreciated by the Sri Lankan side, but no serious repercussions followed except issuance of warnings. However, when the civil war began in 1983, it complicated things for the Sri Lankan Navy trying to keep up with the demands of the fight against the insurgents, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Any connection between the Indian Tamils and the LTTE was vehemently denied by the Indian side, but the fact that ethnically Tamils of India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu have close ethnic and cultural ties to Tamils in Sri Lanka, it was easy to suspect they had a hand in providing material support and fuelling the insurgency.
It became increasingly hard for the Sri Lankan Navy to distinguish between regular fishing boats and those boats that were being used for smuggling weapons and other goods for Sri Lankan Tamil militants, and they ended up putting complete fishing restrictions on their own fishermen. The Indian boats however continued to fish in the area, and were often caught in the cross fire resulting in serious rifts and tension between the two countries. Despite humanitarian crisis rising from this situation, the Indian boats were blamed for bringing it upon themselves by illegally crossing the international boundary. A New York Times article quoted Sugeeswara Senadhira, consul general at the Sri Lankan Embassy in New Delhi, asserting that it was inevitable because “They cannot fish around the island.”
According to some media reports, over a period of 25 to 30 years, some 100 Indian fishermen have died and many beaten and their boats and catch confiscated. However, according to the version given by the Sri Lankan side, when the numbers of those hurt are placed against those that continue to venture out to the Sri Lankan waters, the percentage remains small as the Indian trawlers have used the waters exclusively for years. The anger though has built among the Indian Tamils, and they have attacked Sri Lankan pilgrims in retaliation.
When the Sri Lankan fishermen finally resumed some fishing activities during the ceasefire from 2002-2004, they resented the threat to their livelihood from over fishing of Indian trawlers which had caused reduction of fish supply. For years the Indian side had exploited the lack of competition and opportunity to cross over and fish deep into the Lankan waters with an expanded fleet. Then, after the end of civil war in 2009, again as the small Sri Lankan fishermen returned in large numbers they found the Indian trawlers to be a hindrance to their survival.
On the other hand a similar dilemma and humanitarian crisis unfolded on the Indian side. Sri Lankan multi-day fishing boats had been fishing deep into the Indian waters and causing similar danger to fish population, while small fishermen son the Indian side uffered. A New York Times article reported the plight of fishermen in Vellapallam, the eastern state of Tamil Nadu, India. Fishing is practically the only livelihood available to the locals and fishermen complain of harassment by the Sri Lankan Navy and struggle with finding alternate means of livelihood. Nearly all of the village fishermen use small boats and not the big trawlers.
The previous unofficial arrangement of letting small boats go unharmed seems to have changed now and if caught, these small boat fishermen from both sides receive harsh treatment with their equipment and catch confiscated by the Indian or Sri Lankan Forces and sometimes fishermen are even kidnapped. A bilateral agreement between the two countries prohibits such treatment, but as things tense up, the small boats are not spared and face grim fates.
It is clear that grievances exist on both sides. Finding a long term solution that benefits all concerned has to be based on recognizing the humanitarian aspect of it than simply settling scores. Now that the LTTE insurgency is over and the security issue is no more, small boats managed by poor fishermen who only want to fulfill needs of their families must be given their livelihood back. What needs to be seriously looked into is the issue of trawlers and multi-day fishing boats that are depleting fish populations in the area.
It would be a good idea for the two countries to start genuine dialogue with some kind of resolution to the boundary issue in mind, and leading to a workable joint arrangement with mutual consultation for small fishermen based on managing fishing populations. A process aimed at finding a solution and not merely a political victory for either country can go a long way towards peace in the region.
SouthAsia Magazine, October, 2012.