Fisherman Crisis: India- Sri Lanka

  • IASbaba
  • October 26, 2021
  • 0
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  • GS-2: India and its neighbourhood
  • GS-2: Effect of policies and politics of developed and developing countries on India’s interests

Fisherman Crisis: India- Sri Lanka

Context: A fisherman from Tamil Nadu reportedly died after falling into the sea when his boat collided with a Sri Lankan naval vessel. Two other fishermen on the boat were detained by Sri Lankan naval personnel on the charge of crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL).

  • Tamil Nadu fishermen’s associations have accused the Sri Lankan Navy of brutally attacking the fisherman which led to his drowning & death, while Sri Lanka has denied the allegations. 

What is the reason for conflict between Indian Fishermen & Sri Lankan Navy?

  • Indian boats have been fishing in the troubled waters for centuries and had a free run of the Bay of Bengal, Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar until 1974 and 1976 when treaties were signed between the two countries to demarcate International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL).
  • Indian Fishermen often risk their lives and cross the IMBL for better fish catch, but the Sri Lankan Navy is on alert, and have either arrested or destroyed fishing nets and vessels of those who have crossed the line.

Unresolved Conflict

  • The problem has existed for more than a decade now, from the time Sri Lanka’s 30 year-long civil war ended in 2009.
  • That was when the Sri Lankan northern Tamil fishermen, who were displaced and barred access to the sea, began returning to their old homes & started to engage in fishing for their livelihood. 
  • This has spurred a competition between Indian & Sri Lankan fishermen for marine resources with Sri Lankan Navy safeguarding their waters & marine resources.
  • In Tamil Nadu, daily wage fishermen’s income depends on the catch they bring back. Using the bottom trawling fishing method, they drag large fishing nets along the seabed, scooping out a huge quantity of prawns, small fishes and virtually everything else at one go. 
  • Constant bottom trawling along the coast of Tamil Nadu over the years has meant that the fishermen are drawn to the relatively resource-rich Sri Lankan waters. Indian fishermen therefore take their mechanised trawlers further away from Indian waters often crossing IMBL & illegally entering into Sri Lankan waters.
  • The relentless trawling by Indian vessels has caused huge losses to northern Sri Lankan fishermen. Their catch has fallen drastically and they count vanishing varieties of fish.
  • The Sri Lankan state’s response to the problem has been largely a military and legal one, tasking its Navy with patrolling the seas and arresting “encroachers”, banning trawling (as it is ecologically destructive), and levying stiff fines on foreign (Indian) vessels engaged in illegal fishing in its territorial waters. 
  • At the heart of the conflict is a tale of competing livelihoods in a narrow stretch of the sea, amid a looming environmental threat, and a glaring asymmetry of power — be it in numbers, equipment, or political backing — between two Tamil-speaking fishing communities. 

Has there been an attempt at arriving at a solution?

  • India and Sri Lanka have held many rounds of bilateral talks in the last decade between government officials as well as fisher leaders. 
  • The outcomes have mostly ranged from deadlocks, with Tamil Nadu refusing to give up bottom trawling, with India seeking a “humanitarian response” from Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan authorities adopting legal & military means to solve the problem.
  • The Indian government’s attempt to divert fishermen to deep sea fishing has not taken off as was envisaged.

Way Ahead

  • As the first step, Tamil Nadu must consider a moratorium on bottom trawling in the Palk Strait. 
  • Such a move must be accompanied by both India & Sri Lanka substantially supporting their respective fishing communities to cope with the suspension of trawling on the Tamil Nadu side and the devastating impact of the pandemic on both sides. The time must be used for evolving a lasting solution. 

Connecting the dots:

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