The question of fishing in the Palk Straits is beset with problems, with no end in sight. The ministerial level talks held in New Delhi on January 15, between the Sri Lankan Minister of Fishing and Aquatic Resources Rajitha Senarathne and Indian Minister of Agriculture Sharad Pawar ended on a happy note with the decision to release all the fishermen held by the two countries along with their boats/trawlers. However those accused of crimes other than violating the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL), were to be tried by the courts where they were held as accused. The ministerial talks were triggered by the arrest of 140 Indian fishermen and seizure of their 23 boats by the Sri Lankan Navy in December last year and the arrest of 98 Sri Lankan fishermen in the same month by the Indian security forces.
Their release from both sides started immediately after the talks on January 16, to set the stage for a meeting by a newly formed six-member joint committee to resolve other fishing related issues, which will be followed by discussions between the foreign ministers of the two countries in due course. But within a week, on January 22, the Sri Lankan Navy made a fresh arrest of 25 Indian fishermen and took them to Kankesanthurai, the harbour town of Jaffna district. They were accused of fishing in the Sri Lankan waters, the same old story.
Despite this spanner, the scheduled talks between the fishermen organisation of the two countries were held in Chennai on January 27. Though no official statement was issued on the talks, according to media report, Sri Lankan side advised the Indian fishermen to stay away from fishing in the Sri Lankan Waters for some time until the matter has been resolved otherwise. Another contentious issue was the use of high-powered trawlers by the Indian fishermen, which are banned in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan side complained that “trawling nets are responsible for depletion of marine resource and destruction of small nets used by the Sri Lankan fishermen”. Another round of talks are likely to take place after a month.
At the root of the problem is the Maritime Boundary Agreement of 1974, demarcating the maritime boundary in the Palk Straits and the 1976 Agreement setting the boundary in the Gulf of Manaar and Bay of Bengal. The first Agreement placed the marine rich area around the Katchatheevu Island on the Sri Lankan side thus depriving the Indian fishermen of a lucrative catch. The two Dravadian parties in Tamil Nadu have moved the Supreme Court for annulment of the Agreements and redeem the Katchatheevu island since it was not backed by the Parliamentary approval. The Government of India, however, has maintained that demarcation of the maritime boundary did not involve cession since both the countries had claimed the area backed up by their own historical records.
The confusion that the Indian fisherman could fish around Katchatheevu island was created by the statements of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike in the Sri Lankan National Assembly on July 23, 1974 and External Affairs Minister Swaran Singh in the Lok Sabha the next day on July 24. While she said “fishermen of both countries visit the island during the fishing season and pilgrims during the festival in March. Indian fishermen and pilgrims will not be required to have passports or visas to visit the island”. The next day Swaran Singh said “in concluding this Agreement the rights of fishing, pilgrimage and navigation, which both sides have enjoyed in the past, have been fully safeguarded for the future”.
It was the March 23, 1976 Agreement which set the boundary in the Gulf of Manaar and the Bay of Bengal, which explicitly said “each party shall have sovereign rights and exclusive jurisdiction over the continental shelf and the exclusive economic zone as well as over their resources, whether living or non-living falling on its side of the aforesaid boundary”. The Letters exchanged the same day were much more specific: “India and Sri Lanka will exercise sovereign rights over the living and non-living resources of their respective zones, the fishing vessels and fishermen of India shall not engage in fishing in the historic waters, the territorial sea and the exclusive zone of Sri Lanka”. Similar restrictions were imposed on the Sri Lankan fishermen on the Indian side.
Besides the two petitions filed by the DMK and the AIADMK and pending before the Supreme Court on the validity of the Agreements, in responding to a fresh PIL filed before the Madras High Court asking for the annulment of the two agreements, and asserting the right of Indian fishermen to fish in those waters, the Central Government on January 23, in an affidavit said that under the two agreements “traditional rights allowed are access for our fishermen and pilgrimage to visit Katchatheevu for drying nets and the annual St. Antony Festival. The right of access is not understood to cover fishing rights around the island and to the Indian fishermen” and hence they should not fish there.
Apart from the petitions before the Supreme Court, the Tamilnadu Legislative Assembly has passed resolutions asking the Centre to retrieve the Island. The Centre had on August 30th, 2013 submitted before the Apex Court that “the island belonged to neither side during the British rule and went to Sri Lanka when the international boundary lines were drawn”, and there was no going back.
In recent years, a new dimension has been added to the existing problem. While the Sri Lanka Government has banned the use of high-powered trawlers for fishing, since it depletes the stock for the traditional fishermen, on the Indian side, the traditional fishermen with their modest fishing equipment have now to contend with new competition from big fishing trawlers promoted by big money due to the export potential of the marine catch. The trawlers indulge in shoal fishing and take away bulk of the available stocks leaving little for the fishing communities, for whom fishing is the sole source of livelihood.
To fight the new menace, the Indian fishermen from Tamilnadu are agitating for a Tribal status, which they believe would protect their ‘traditional rights’ and thereby exclude big business indulging in shoal fishing and depriving them of their livelihood. They believe that with their Tribal status, the Government of India was duty bound to replenish shoals and stocks to ensure their sustainable livelihood. Unfortunately the civil society activism on behalf of the tribals and court judgements are confined to non-traditional and mostly urban issues such as ‘Coastal Regulation Zone’ etc., and not extended to marine resources and sea food.
Given the potential of the problem to affect the relations between the two countries, particularly the backing they receive from the Tamil parties, the problem of Tamil fishermen receives attention at the highest level in New Delhi. It is on the agenda of any dignitary visiting to or from Sri Lanka at any level. To look into technical aspect of the problem there is a Joint Woking Group which periodically meets and discusses their problems.
The problem of fishermen was last discussed at the Joint Commission meeting presided over by the foreign ministers of India and Sri Lanka on January 22, 2013. The Commission reiterated that the two countries are committed to “decrease incidents on the IMBL” and not to resort to use of force since it “could not be justified under any circumstances and therefore agreed to “extend humane treatment to all fishermen”. This was not the first time that such a commitment was made. It may be recalled in October 2008 during the visit of Basil Rajapaksa, brother of the Lankan President and Senior Advisor to him it was agreed that “following the designation by the Government of Sri Lanka of sensitive areas along the Sri Lankan coastline, and their intimation to the Government of India, Indian fishing vessels will not venture into these identified sensitive areas” and in return there would “ne no firing on Indian vessels”.
The real issue is the frequently committed breach by the Indian fishermen of the IMBL since across the line the catch is rewarding and remunerative. This fact was implicitly accepted by the External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid in his statement made in the Rajya Sabha on August 22, 2013, when he said:”The need for creating greater awareness among our fishermen to avoid crossing over into Sri Lankan waters for their own safety and security has been felt. In this context and the Government is working with the concerned State Governments on the need to sensitize Indian fishermen to respect the International Maritime Boundary Line”. It is the transgression of the IMBL at the bottom of the problem which the State Government of Tamilnadu and the Central Government have found it difficult to enforce. That the question of fishermen figure constantly on the agenda of any India-Sri Lanka dialogue is attributable to the sensitivity of the issue in the competitive internal politics of Tamil Nadu.
By Avtar Singh Bhasin
(The author is a retired diplomat)