- GS-2: India and its neighbourhood
Fishermen issue between India and Sri Lanka
Context: The recovery of bodies washed ashore in Sri Lanka has triggered protests in Tamil Nadu as they are believed to be of the four fishermen reported missing from the state.
Demanding to hand over bodies back to India, they allege that the Sri Lankan Navy had beaten them to death. They also demand jobs for family members of the dead, Rs 15 lakh compensation and murder charges against the Sri Lankan navy.
The latest incident has once again brought to fore the long-standing conflict between Indian fishermen and the Sri Lankan navy
What is the conflict between Lankan navy and Indian fishermen?
1. Conflict of Katchatheevu island:
- Tamil fishermen had traditional fishing rights of uninhabited Katchatheevu island for centuries.
- However, in 1974, the island was ceded to Sri Lanka after an agreement was signed by Indira Gandhi between the two countries without consulting the Tamil Nadu government.
- The agreement allows Indian fishermen “access to Katchatheevu for rest, for drying of nests and for the annual St Anthony’s festival” but it did not ensure the traditional fishing rights.
- The agreement forced Indian fishermen to restrict themselves to a meagre area in their fishing forays.
2. Depleting Resources in Indian region:
- As in the past, fishermen from Rameswaram and nearby coasts continue to sail towards Talaimannar and Katchatheevu coasts (now a part of Sri Lanka), a region famous for rich maritime resources in Sri Lanka.
- Indian fishermen continued to enter Lankan waters because of depletion of marine resources on the Indian side.
3. Proliferation of trawlers in Indian coast
- Plenty of catch in this oceanic region had triggered a proliferation of fishing trawlers in Tamil Nadu coast in the past three decades.
- Trawlers are mechanised boats with highly exploitative fishing nets unlike most of the poor fishermen in Sri Lankan coast who use traditional fishing methods.
- At times fishermen have employed bottom trawling that is banned in Sri Lanka.
- Bottom trawling, an ecologically destructive practice, involves trawlers dragging weighted nets along the sea-floor, causing great depletion of aquatic resources.
4. Threats to Livelihoods
- Hoping for a better profit, too many people started buying trawlers in Rameswaram and nearby Tamil Nadu coasts.
- Smaller coastal stretches like Rameswaram, Mandapam, Pamban areas alone have about 2,500 trawlers; which means at least two dozen families depending on each trawler through various means such as about six people who work on board, fish, prawn, dry fish merchants, supporting staff for loading etc.
- But the post war scenario in the Indian ocean derailed businesses and livelihoods in Tamil Nadu coast.
- The Sri Lankan Navy arrested over 450 Indian fishermen in 2017 and 156 in 2018 on charges of poaching. A total of 210 arrests were made in 2019. This has impacted the livelihoods of considerable sections of fishermen population living along Rameswaran coast.
5. Enhanced monitoring of maritime border by Sri Lankan Navy:
- Access to Sri Lankan waters by Indian fishermen was easier at the time of Sri Lankan civil war where it was preoccupied with its war against the LTTE.
- As a result, its northern province and maritime boundaries nearby were never tightly guarded.
- But that changed in 2009 with the end of civil war. There is now enhanced monitoring of maritime border by Sri Lankan Navy leading to increased number of arrests of Indian fishermen crossing international maritime borders.
6. Politicization of Issue
- It has been often a sensitive political issue in Tamil Nadu in the past one decade. Tamil regional parties had been often fighting with the Union governments for their indifference to the issue.
- This has prevented the issue to linger upon thus derailing the consensus based long lasting solution to the issue.
- Mutual recognition of each other’s concerns and interests can improve the relationship between both countries.
- India needs to focus more on its traditional and cultural ties to improve relations with Sri Lanka.
- Starting ferry services between India and Sri Lanka can improve people to people linkages.