The question of the livelihood of thousands of fishermen on both sides of the Palk Bay has been vitiating India-Sri Lanka relations for several years. The India-Sri Lanka Maritime Boundary Agreements of 1974 and 1976, which ceded to Sri Lanka the island of Kachchatheevu and bartered away traditional rights of Indian fishermen, had always been a matter of concern for the governments and people of Tamil Nadu.
During the protracted conflict on the island, the Palk Bay became a conduit for Tamil militants to move freely between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. Tamil Nadu was not only the sanctuary for Tamil guerrillas. The Palk Bay was used to fuel the war machine. The rich fishing grounds, especially lucrative on the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Bay, became a bone of contention between Tamil Nadu fishermen and the Sri Lankan Navy. The Indian fishermen were intimidated and harassed; their catch dumped into the sea. While some of them were detained by the Sri Lankan government, others were targeted in incidents of firing.
Since 1983, the AIADMK and the DMK governments have, on several occasions, put forward two suggestions to the Central government. The first was to get back the island of Kachchatheevu and the adjacent seas on "lease in perpetuity", which would enable people of Tamil Nadu to fish and carry on other legal activities without being obstructed by the Sri Lankan Navy. This was never accepted by the Central government. New Delhi had always maintained that the ceding of Kachchatheevu was a closed chapter.
The second suggestion was to permit licensed Indian fishermen to fish in Sri Lankan waters up to five nautical miles from the maritime boundary. As a quid pro quo, licensed Sri Lankan fishermen should be permitted to fish in the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone to catch tuna. Though Colombo had in
July 2003 agreed to consider the proposal for "licensed fishing", that window of opportunity has not been availed of by India.
According to sources, the governments of both Tamil Nadu and India have so far not finalised the proposals for licensed fishing.
Two recent developments should be mentioned in this connection. To get Indian support in the war against the Tigers, Colombo made a departure from its rigid stance on the question of poaching by Indian fishermen. Colombo agreed to consider it as a "humanitarian issue". On October 26, 2008, Colombo assured that "there will be no firing on Indian fishing vessels". In return, the government of India was asked to ensure that Indian fishing vessels did not enter the "high security zones".
Former chief minister J Jayalalithaa filed a petition in the Supreme Court pointing out that the constitutional provisions were not adhered to by the government of India in 1974 when the island of Kachchatheevu was ceded to Sri Lanka. The petition is still pending before the Supreme Court.
With the end of the ethnic conflict and the decimation of the Sea Tigers, a new situation has arisen on the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Bay. The Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen, who were banned from fishing because of security considerations, have resumed fishing operations. They find poaching by Indian fishermen is having a very negative impact on their livelihood. What is more, the fishing practices followed by Indians, such as bottom-trawling, is causing irreparable damage to marine ecology.
The silver lining on the horizon in recent years had been the ongoing dialogue among the fishermen of the two countries. The initiative for this was taken by Vivekanandan, the leader of the Alliance for Release of Innocent Fishermen and the South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies.
Vivekanandan is of the view that a "solution from below", arrived at as a result of dialogue among fishermen, has a greater chance of success than a solution imposed by New Delhi and Colombo.
Historically, the Palk Bay has never been a barrier; it has been a bridge to link the people of two countries. There also are bonds through marriage, language and ethnicity. Sri Lankan fishermen do remember that when they were subjected to vicious attacks by the Sri Lankan Navy, they could always find sanctuary and succour in Tamil Nadu. The Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen initially took an adamant stance, they were unwilling to make any concessions.
During 2004, when the author visited the fishing villages in Tamil areas in Sri Lanka, they were emphatic that the Indian fishermen should desist from fishing in Sri Lankan waters. But as a result of discussions, held in a friendly atmosphere and more so after their visit to Tamil Nadu fishing villages, the representatives of Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen realised that hundreds of Indian fishermen were dependent on trawler fishing and it will be difficult for them to switch to other forms of fishing overnight.
Now the two sides have agreed to phase out trawler fishing. The Indian fishermen have given the "firm assurance" that they will stop mechanised trawl fishing in Sri Lankan waters within a year.
The dialogue has resulted several other agreements. The number of fishing days in a year is restricted to 70.
The ban on fishing has been extended from six weeks in April-May to another 30 days in September. The number of fishing days per week has been reduced from three to two (Mondays and Saturdays). In the northern Jaffna coast and south of the Mannar island, the Indian fishermen can fish up to five nautical miles from the maritime boundary. These proposals will be submitted to the two governments for their consideration.
The success of this informal agreement would depend on its scrupulous adherence by Indian fishermen. The government of Tamil Nadu should extend full support to this initiative. The government should immediately chalk out proposals for buying back trawlers so that the fishermen are not put to too much difficulty. Can the trawlers be converted into multi-day fishing boats? This is one area that should be attended to by the government of Tamil Nadu.
The author has always maintained that a long-term solution to the travails of the fishermen is to look upon Palk Bay not as a contested territory but as common heritage. A Palk Bay Authority, consisting of representatives of both countries, including specialists in fisheries and marine environment, should be immediately constituted.
The authority can determine the quantum of annual sustainable catch, the type of fishing equipment that could be used and equitable fishing days to the fishermen of both countries. We should also take immediate steps to enrich the sea through joint programmes. What is more, the Tamil fishermen of two countries should enter into joint ventures for multi-day fishing in high seas. Such a dynamic initiative alone can lead to a „win-win‟ situation
(V Suryanarayan is Senior Research Fellow, Center for Asia Studies, Chennai)