by R.Swaminathan and Dr. V. Suryanarayan
The fishing imbroglio in Palk Bay had taken a favourable turn, with the fishing communities on both sides engaging each other in a dialogue, to further mutual interests.
This significant event at the end of August 2010 went largely unreported in the Indian and Sri Lankan media. This was the decision, among others, jointly taken by the fishermen of southern India and northern Sri Lanka to stop bottom trawling in the Palk Bay within one year.
Bottom trawling has done irreparable damage to marine ecology on both sides of the Bay; on the Indian side, the fishing grounds have been denuded of fish; and, on the Sri Lankan side, it has been threatening the very livelihood of hundreds of Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen, who have only recently resumed fishing operations that had been interrupted during many years of fratricidal ethnic conflict. The initiative for the constructive dialogue was taken by Dr. Vivekanandan, the highly respected leader of the Alliance for Release of Innocent Fishermen (ARIF) and the South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies. Dr. Vivekanandan is of the firm view that a “solution from below” arrived at as a result of dialogue among fishermen, has greater chances of success than a solution imposed by New Delhi and Colombo.
It is necessary to remember that historically, the Palk Bay had never been a barrier but had been a bridge which linked the Tamils on both sides. These links were reinforced through common ethnicity, language and inter-marriages. The maritime boundary in the Palk Bay was delimited in 1974, but the ground reality was that fishermen continued their centuries-old practice of fishing without any notion of a border. Furthermore, the Sri Lankan fishermen do remember with gratitude that when they were subjected to savage reprisals by the Sri Lankan armed forces during the long years of ethnic strife, they could always find safe sanctuary and succour in Tamil Nadu.
The people of Tamil Nadu welcomed them with open arms. The Sri Lankan refugee fishermen used to work closely with their Indian counterparts accompanied them in their fishing voyages and used to show them the rich fishing grounds. Since the Sri Lankan Government (SLG), for security reasons, had imposed a ban on fishing, the fishing grounds on the Sri Lankan side used to be frequented by Indian fishermen. The trawler fleet multiplied and, what is more, occasionally Indian fishermen used to get killed in incidents of firing by the Sri Lankan security forces; some of them were detained and frequently their catch was dumped into the sea. Even when some got killed and some got detained, many more fishermen returned with rich harvests.
What complicated the controversy surrounding the maritime boundary in the Palk Bay was the ceding of the Island of Kachchatheevu to Sri Lanka in 1974. The fishermen in Tamil Nadu, so also various regional political parties, believe and affirm that the island had for long been a part of the Zamindari of the Raja of Ramnad. The Government of India unfortunately ignored these historical claims and ceded the island to Sri Lanka. However, Article 5 of the Maritime Boundary Agreement protected the traditional fishing rights of Indian fishermen to fish in and around Kachchatheevu. These reserved rights were also bartered away in 1976 by the agreement delimiting the boundaries in the Gulf of Mannar and the Bay of Bengal. What makes Kachchatheevu significant for Indian fishermen is the fact that the surrounding seas are very rich in prawn. The Indian fishermen allege that they get caught or killed while fishing near the island. This is only partly true, as many Indian fishermen venture deep into Sri Lankan waters, and are found fishing near Mannar and the Delft island.
The travails of the Indian fishermen during the ethnic strife from 1983 stemmed mainly from their clashes with the Sri Lankan Navy. The Sri Lankan Navy suspected that the Indian fishermen were fuelling the LTTE war machine. The scenario changed after the end of the armed conflict. The Sri Lankan fishermen, when they resumed their vocation, found poaching by Indian fishermen to be a major hindrance to their livelihood. From 2003 onwards, there were occasional conflicts between (Tamil) fishermen of the two countries. In July 2010, the fishermen from Mannar took the law into their hands and attacked Indian trawlers with petrol bombs, sinking one of them. The Sri Lankan fishermen are naturally very bitter about the “inhuman” activities of the Tamil Nadu fishermen. When Prof. Suryanarayan visited Mannar in 2004 and talked to the fishermen, they were very angry and were not prepared to make any concessions to Indian fishermen. During this period, the authors had floated the idea of licensed fishing by Indian fishermen in the Sri Lankan waters and reciprocally licensed fishing by the Sri Lankan fishermen in the Indian waters, especially in the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone (which is rich in Tuna, a variety of fish which is a delicacy in Sri Lanka).
With a commitment to find an amicable solution, unbounded idealism and missionary zeal, Dr. Vivekanandan entered the scene. He is immensely popular amongst the fisher folk in Sri Lanka because his organization ARIF has rendered yeoman service to Sri Lankan fishermen detained in India. Dr. Vivekanandan told the authors that, initially, the Sri Lankan fishermen took the hard line that the Indian fishermen have no legal right to enter another country’s waters and that they should desist from poaching in Sri Lankan waters. A few leaders even pleaded with the Sri Lankan Government to take strong action against Indian fishermen. However, their attitude mellowed gradually. This process was further facilitated when a team of Sri Lankan fishermen visited Tamil Nadu in August 2010, went around fishing villages dotting the Palk Bay and held free and frank discussions with their Indian counterparts.
An attitudinal change took place and the Sri Lankan fishermen realized that a number of Indian fishermen were dependant on trawler fishing and it will be a difficult for them to switch over to other forms of fishing overnight. The two sides have now agreed to a process of phasing out trawler fishing. The Indian fishermen have given the “firm assurance” that they will stop mechanised trawling in Sri Lankan waters within a period of one year. The dialogue has also resulted in a number of other agreements. Use of paired trawls is to be completely avoided. The number of fishing days in a year is to be restricted to 70 days. The ban on fishing has been extended from six weeks in April-May to another 30 days in September. Fishing days per week has been reduced from three days to two (Mondays and Saturdays). And 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 initiative would largely depend upon scrupulous adherence to the agreement by Indian fishermen. It is essential that this dialogue among the representatives of fishermen of the two countries is held regularly, to resolve a number of related issues.
If the agreement is violated and if the Indian fishermen are found to be fishing beyond the agreed and stipulated territorial limits, what action should and could be taken against them? It is suggested that a small monitoring committee consisting of representatives of the Fisheries Departments and fishermen’s associations of the two countries should be constituted immediately. The committee can be empowered to identify the culprits and make almost-binding recommendations to the concerned Fisheries Department to suspend or cancel the registration of the vessel and the fishing license of the guilty. In closely knit societies like those of fishermen, social ostracism can also become a powerful deterrent.
A major question relates to the phasing out of mechanized trawlers from the Palk Bay area. According to a study undertaken by the South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies, there are 2000 trawler boats, 28 to 50 feet length, with inboard engine capacity ranging from 68 to 120 horsepower. The Government of Tamil Nadu can make a significant contribution to tackle this issue. It could help the owners of the trawlers to convert and use some of them for deep sea trawling (without damage to the sea bed) in India’s Exclusive Economic Zone adjoining Tamil Nadu. It could also examine the feasibility of modifying some of these trawlers, to be used as patrolling vessels by the Marine Police and Coast Guard, which are understood to be desperately short of such vessels. Both these options would also reduce the unemployment of skilled workers that may result from the decommissioning of the trawlers in the Palk Bay area. Some of these trawlers could be sold to states like Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Gujarat and Andaman and Nicobar islands where they can be used for deep sea fishing. An in-depth study needs urgently to be commissioned by the state government, to be undertaken by specialists.
Despite their great maritime traditions, the fishermen of Tamil Nadu and the Tamil fishermen in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka are yet to embark upon deep sea fishing in multi-day boats. It is high time that the Government of Tamil Nadir starts thinking of starting a dialogue with the regional governments in the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka to start joint ventures for deep sea fishing. Deep sea fishing offers tremendous potential for sub-regional cooperation and will go a long way in raising the standard of living in these less developed parts of South Asia. Such an initiative on the part of Tamil Nadu will be a welcome step in reducing regional differences in the Island Republic and will be a practical demonstration of our concern for the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
During the long years of ethnic conflict the Sinhalese dominated southern parts of Sri Lanka, with solid government support, have advanced in deep sea fishing. India, especially Tamil Nadu, can play a catalytic role in reducing these regional disparities by embarking upon the suggested joint ventures for deep sea fishing. Such a step would also help in removing any apprehensions among the Sri Lankan fishermen that the present situation benefits Tamil Nadu fishermen more than their Tamil counterparts in Sri Lanka.
For effective implementation of the agreement, in letter and spirit, it needs to be backed strongly by various agencies in India and Sri Lanka. The Indian Coast Guard, the Indian Navy, Fisheries Department, Customs Department and Marine Police immediately come to mind on the Indian side; and the Department of Fisheries and the Sri Lankan Navy on the Sri Lankan side. These agencies have to work in close cooperation with the representative organizations of the fishermen.
While the dialogue among the fishermen was going on in August, representatives of the Fisheries Department of the Sri Lankan Government and of the Fisheries Department of Tamil Nadu were present as observers. Unfortunately, the Indian Coast Guard, the Sri Lankan Navy and the Ministries of External Affairs of both countries did not evince any interest in these meetings. We call upon them immediately to give up their negative attitude and start supporting the grassroots efforts of the fishermen. The authors have always projected the view that the Palk Bay should not be viewed as a contested territory but as a common heritage. They have pleaded for the immediate constitution of a Palk Bay Authority, consisting of representatives of the two countries along with specialists in the area of fisheries and marine ecology. The Palk Bay Authority can be vested with the tasks of determining the ideal sustainable catch, the number of fishing days, equitable distribution of marine resources and enrichment of marine resources. Such an imaginative and innovative step will give a tremendous boost to regional co-operation in South Asia.
The need of the hour is to think boldly, shedding old baggage and projecting a vision of a common future. All stakeholders need to be involved in the slow and steady work towards that end. Will India, especially Tamil Nadu, rise to the occasion and work for a win-win situation instead of harking back to past mistakes and undoing historical wrongs? The authors believe that Tamil Nadu has enough visionaries in government and politics for the answer to this question to be a resounding “yes”.
(R. Swaminathan is Special Secretary (Retd), Government of India. Prof. V. Suryanarayan, formerly Senior Professor in the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras is currently Senior Research Fellow in the Center for Asia Studies, Chennai.This article appeared as the Guest Column of South Asia Analysis Group)