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Co-Written by Punsara Amarasinghe & Eshan Jayawardena

The Palk Bay, a narrow strip of water separating the state of Tamil Nadu in India from the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, has historically provided rich fishing grounds for both countries. However, the region has become a highly contested site in recent decades, with the conflict taking on a new dimension since the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2009. Multiple issues have compounded to bring tensions to a near crisis point, with serious ramifications for internal and bilateral relations. These issues include ongoing disagreement over the territorial rights to the island of Kachchatheevu, frequent poaching by Indian fisherman in Sri Lankan waters, and the damaging economic and environmental effects of trawling. However, with the governments of both countries recently affirming their commitment “to find a permanent solution to the fisherman issue,” there is an opportunity to create a win-win scenario, in which the bay becomes a common heritage of mutual benefit.The bay, which is 137 kilometers in length and varies from 64 to 137 kilometers (roughly 40 to 85 miles) in width, is divided by the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL). Bordering it are five Indian districts and three Sri Lankan districts. In 2004, there were approximately 262,562 fishermen on the Indian side and 119,000 on the Sri Lankan side.

The intimate ties between fishermen and the sea have affected the history, economy, and culture of both countries. Historically, the shallow waters of the Palk Bay and geographical contiguity between India and Sri Lanka facilitated the movement of ideas, goods, and men. Sri Lanka, according to many well-known historians, is essentially an extension of the Indian subcontinent, and its rich cultural heritage is the product of benign cross-cultural interaction. This relationship is borne from the intimate ties and commonality of culture. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, thousands of Indian Tamil laborers were ferried across to provide much needed labor for the development of tea plantations. When ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka escalated in July 1983, thousands of refugees came to Tamil Nadu through the Palk Bay.

The bonds of ethnicity, language, and religion helped fishermen lead lives of harmonious coexistence for several centuries. Frequent migrations between India and Sri Lanka through the Palk Bay took place. Intermarriages were common. However, over the last several decades, internal and bilateral relations have suffered from a range of issues from coastal insecurity to overfishing.

Fishing is more important economically for the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. According to Sri Lankan academic AhilanKadiragamar, the province “contributed to over a third of the total catch of the country” when normalcy prevailed in Sri Lanka. Fish production dipped markedly during the protracted ethnic conflict. According to the government agent in Jaffna, the Jaffna District went from producing 48,776 metric tons of fish in 1983 to 2,211 metric tons in 2000. In Mannar District, production went from 11,798 metric tons in 1983 to 3,614 metric tons in 2002.

During the height of the civil war, as a security measure, the government of Sri Lanka banned fishing on the Sri Lankan side of the IMBL. Fearing persecution, Tamil militants and Tamil fishermen took refuge in India. The Sri Lankan navy occasionally harassed Tamil fishermen, dumped their catch into the sea, detained some fishermen, and targeted others in incidents of firing. The vacuum was filled by the Indian Tamil fishermen. During this period, there was perfect camaraderie among Indian Tamil and Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen. Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen who came to India as refugees were often employed by Indian trawler (mechanized boat) owners.

However, since the conflict’s end in 2009, tensions have risen around the livelihood of Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen. They want to resume fishing, but the Sri Lankan navy has expanded and become more vigilant. Many fishing villages, converted into high-security zones during the civil war, continue to be under army control. Further, while Tamil fishermen find the current presence of Indian trawlers to be a major hindrance, the navy has not handled the poaching consistently, causing significant frustration. For a few weeks, during the presidency of MahindaRajapaksa, the navy detained the trawlers but released the Indian fishermen. The current government, to avoid tensions in bilateral relations, releases the fishermen first and then later the trawlers. The trawlers are back in Sri Lankan waters the very next day.

In India, the fisheries dispute chiefly began with an internal debate about sovereignty related to ceding of the island of Kachchatheevu to Sri Lanka—a situation that proceeded to exacerbate the tension between fishermen practicing traditional fishing and those using trawlers. To prevent conflicts between the two, the government of Tamil Nadu enacted the Tamil Nadu Marine Fisheries Regulation Act in 1983, which stipulated that mechanized fishing boats should not fish within three nautical miles from the coast; the area was exclusively reserved for artisanal fishermen. However, artisanal fishermen claim that the government has made no effort to enforce the three nautical mile stipulation. Internal relations and perspectives in both countries are having a marked impact on bilateral relations. The livelihoods of their populations and the bay’s marine ecology are being threatened, evident by the ongoing disagreement over Kachchatheevu and the economic and environmental effects of increased trawling on both sides of the IMBL.

The success of diplomacy lies in converting a crisis into an opportunity. If New Delhi and Tamil Nadu are determined, they can create a win-win scenario in the Palk Bay. The immediate decommissioning of trawlers is an important prerequisite for this unconventional solution.35 with sincerity and goodwill, the suspicions Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen have about their counterparts’ intentions can be assuaged. Seeing Palk Bay region as a common heritage of mankind could be an idealistic solution, but the fact is it raises the question whether Sri Lanka would agree to see the disputed area as a common heritage. On the other hand the delimitation mechanism has been properly set up in 1976 agreement between the two states and Sri Lankan authorities are pretty reluctant to change the regulations of the 1976 negotiations. But as under the present circumstances both the states should be flexible to abide by a common bilateral solution. In fact there is no need to take the fishery issue any further up to the SARRC to meddle with a third party mechanism, because still there is a greater chance for both the states to find a sustainable solution through a bilateral negotiation.

 

Punsara Amarasinghe is a PhD Candidate in International Law at National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow. After having studied at University of Colombo, Faculty of Law, he went on to study his LL.M at South Asian University, New Delhi. He can be reached at punsaraprint10@gmail.com

Eshan Mandara Jayawardana is a visiting lecturer at Open University Sri Lanka. He obtained BA in Sociology from Delhi University and holds MA in International Relations from JNU New Delhi. He can be reached at eshan.jayawardana@gmail.com

2 Comments

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    If both nations try to resolve fisherfolk problems peacefully through negotiations, the tensions will be greatly reduced