SRI LANKA - In Deep Water

Written by Tahera Sajid  •  Region  •  October 2012 PDF Print E-mail

The fishing row between India and Sri Lanka is affecting bilateral relations and taking its toll on the poor who have no alternate means of livelihood.

Fishing is a popular means of livelihood in parts of India and Sri Lanka due to rampant poverty and lack of other available skills. Many fishermen have inherited the profession from their forefathers and proudly claim it as 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.

A highly charged fishing dispute between India and Sri Lanka has existed 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, the 1974 agreement saw India and Sri Lanka agree on a maritime boundary whereby India ceded the Island’s rights to Sri Lanka and negotiated away fishing rights for its own fishermen. However, the Indian side argues that the wording of the agreement has been manipulated by the Sri Lankan authorities and that Indian 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 would go into the Sri Lankan waters. Though the Sri Lankan side wasn’t supportive of the move, no serious repercussions followed except an issuance of warnings. However, when the civil war broke in 1983, it complicated things for the Sri Lankan Navy that was already trying to keep up with 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. However,  the fact that the Tamils of India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu have close ethnic and cultural ties to Tamils in Sri Lanka, led the Army to suspect that 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 boats that were being used for smuggling weapons and other goods for Sri Lankan Tamil militants. Most times, the Navy 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 the humanitarian crisis rising from this situation, 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, many have been 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 Indian trawlers have used the waters exclusively for years. The anger though has built among the Indian Tamils who have attacked Sri Lankan pilgrims in retaliation.

When Sri Lankan fishermen finally resumed their fishing activities during the ceasefire from 2002-2004, they resented the threat to their livelihood from the over fishing of Indian trawlers which had caused a reduction in 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. After the end of the civil war in 2009, when the small Sri Lankan fishermen returned in large numbers they found 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 fishing boats had been fishing deep in the Indian waters and causing a similar danger to the fish population, while smaller Indian fishermen suffered. Fishing is the only livelihood available to the locals and fishermen in Vellapallam, India who 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 big trawlers.

The previous unofficial arrangement of letting small boats go unharmed seems to have changed now. If caught, small boat fishermen from both sides receive harsh treatment with their equipment and catch confiscated by the Indian or Sri Lankan Forces. Reports suggest that 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 parties has to be based on recognizing the humanitarian aspect of the situation 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 fish solely to fulfill the 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.

Both countries must undertake a genuine dialogue that could lead 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. 

Tahera Sajid is a freelance journalist and lives in Massachusetts, USA.  She is a community builder and an active advocate for interfaith relations. 

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