The recent death sentences issued by a Sri Lankan court to five Indian fishermen on drug-trafficking charges has once again highlighted the urgent need for finding a durable solution to the fishermen issue between India and Sri Lanka.
The various dimensions of the problem can be encapsulated in several ways. One, there is a depletion of fisheries on the Indian side, leading to Indian fishermen crossing into Sri Lankan waters, thus denying livelihood to their counterparts. In the process, they get arrested or shot by the Sri Lankan Navy. Two, due to concerns about the revival of militancy on its soil, Sri Lanka has stepped up monitoring of coasts especially those that are proximate to India. Third, the depletion of fisheries is mainly due to use of bottom trawlers by the Indian fishermen. The trawler sector in Tamil Nadu is politically influential, making it more obdurate to solutions. Finally, Sri Lankan fishermen also venture into Indian waters; they are arrested but not shot.
Given these dimensions, it is difficult to say that the fishermen problem will wither away with the retrieval of Kachchathivu or by the abrogation of the maritime agreements of 1974 and 1976. Assuming that the IMBL (International Maritime Boundary Line) runs one mile east of Kachchathivu, would the Indian fishermen not venture into Sri Lankan territorial waters? There are no figures to support that waters around Kachchathivu have enough fish to cater to the fishing trawlers of Tamil Nadu. Most importantly, abrogating international agreements will pose numerous other problems to India. Therefore, the solution lies elsewhere.
The existing arrangements/understanding between New Delhi and Colombo to deal with the issue of bona fide fishermen (such as no seizure of small boats, no firing, identity cards for fishermen, permits for fishing boats) need to be followed in letter and spirit. The issue is the infrequent meetings of the Joint Working Group (JWG). Its last meeting was in January 2012, although it was agreed that the Group should meet at least once a year. In the last ten years since its inception, the JWG has met only four times (2005, 2006, 2011, and 2012). The meetings should be regularised.
If fish farming is encouraged in the Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar, most fishermen would not find the need to venture into other’s ‘territories’ in search of a ‘big catch’. India may also consider leasing from Sri Lanka fishing blocks, especially those identified as ‘surplus total available catch’.
There is already a 45-day annual ban imposed on fishing during the breeding season so as to enrich marine resources. To further preserve marine resources and to provide sustenance to the traditional marginal fishermen from both countries, it is important to impose a strict and complete ban on mechanised trawlers in the territorial waters, a practice followed by other countries. A mutually acceptable phase-out time needs to be negotiated among the fishing communities under the guidance of both governments. Alternatively, large trawlers could be encouraged to venture into the high seas.
As a safety measure, vessel tracking devices could be installed in all fishing boats to navigate and determine locations. The costs of installation may be borne by the respective governments with a token contribution from the concerned fishermen.
To be fair to the critics, the 1974 and 1976 Agreements have missed having an in-built provision for the peaceful resolution of any dispute that might arise in the future. It is therefore not too late for both India and Sri Lanka to go in for a supplementary agreement to incorporate resolution mechanisms by taking into consideration the current dynamics and future trajectory of the fishermen issue.
It would be useful if the Sri Lankan Navy takes greater care in handling straying Indian fishermen. Indian maritime security forces do not indulge in shooting at straying Sri Lankan fishermen; instead they apprehend and hand the trespassers to the local police for prosecution. Both sides need to take a humane approach and avoid arrests and detention of fishermen for the purpose of ‘reciprocal release’.
To avoid shooting incidents due to mistaken identity, ‘coordinated patrolling’ by security forces of both countries can be considered. Apart from patrolling, the Indian Coast Guard, with the support of the Tamil Nadu government, may be tasked to create ‘awareness’ among the fishermen on the adverse implications of illegal entry into Sri Lankan territorial waters. Urging them not to cross the borders or distances agreed upon by both countries (5 nm cushion distance is under consideration) can be added to the scope of the ongoing ‘Operation Tasha’.
A ‘solution from below’ has a greater chance of success than a solution imposed by the governments. Arranging frequent meetings between fishing communities of both countries could be explored. It is important that any agreement reached by the fishing communities amongst themselves should receive strong support from the governments and the security forces. Provincial governments can play a major role in facilitating such engagements on a regular basis.
The role of NGOs and think-tanks in providing legal and humanitarian assistance to jailed fishermen in each other’s countries needs to be recognised. The media, especially the vernacular media, could play two roles: (a) to create awareness among the fishermen on the adverse consequences of venturing into each other’s territorial waters; and (b) avoid sensational reporting of shooting or arrests.