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#4262, 16 January 2014
India-Sri Lanka: Conflict over Fishing Rights
Kuhan Madhan
Research Intern, IPCS
Email: kuhan.madhan@gmail.com

The conflict between the Sri Lankan and Indian Tamil fisher communities resonates with the larger ethnic struggles of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. The civil war which ran into three decades stifled Sri Lankan fishing activity, and this created a vacuum for the Indian side to fill. The conflict has now escalated into a larger bilateral problem with the political leaders of Tamil Nadu asking the Centre to tag Sri Lanka as an enemy state. The earlier parleys between the fisher communities resemble an interest-laden approach to the problem. However, with other spaces of engagement now, the modus operandi needs to be refashioned.

The once cordoned off areas, now accessible to both sides, pose a ‘tragedy of commons’ scenario. The neo-Malthusianist perspective argues that a process of diminishing natural resource stocks generally constitutes a significant source of strife. The entry of a merchant class in India with no historic roots in fishing has altered the fishing community. The drastic change in employer-employee relations and the absence of legal provisions defining acceptable working conditions has furthered the woes of the fishermen. The Sri Lankan Tamils have a more organised cooperative society, which addresses some of the asymmetries created by technology and capital. Capitalism brings in a diabolical significance; the more overwhelming the capital one side of the sea border, the more extensive its influence on the other side of the border. In this mode of expansion where competition is primary, capital often means the annihilation of ecological and social spaces. This has faded the once fluid and inherited identities of the Tamils on either side; leading to more geopolitical identities. The political leadership has to comprehend this anomaly of capitalism and bring about symmetries in livelihoods to achieve larger Tamil cultural rapprochement.

The previous negotiation kicked off with the basic underlying assumption that the space of dependency for both parties is the Palk Bay and that the fishers should collectively manage it. The negotiators at the table were members of civil society and leaders of the fishing community. The negotiations focused on the destructive elements, especially on the impact of Indian trawlers, and the restriction of their activity to 70 days a year with the proviso that trawling should end in a year. This grassroots approach, though commendable and interest-based, comes in the absence of foreign affairs and defence considerations. In this context the Joint Working Group (JWG) and leaders of the fishing community have never had a joint meeting. This working in isolation or single spaces of engagement needs to be revisited.

Laments by the political leadership in Tamil Nadu are superficial acts, aiming more at the ballot or earning brownie points. Trumpeting claims to the Kachchatheevu Island on the legal pluralistic stance of traditional rights has provided them space to avoid tougher questions and gain credibility from the audience. The plight of the artisanal fishers on both sides and sustainable water practices have long been ignored. The drastic depreciation on the other three coasts around Tamil Nadu points to unsustainable fishing and the compulsions of the merchant class. The claim of historical commonness of resources and identity denies the asymmetries between the two fishing communities. The fishermen are not just engaging within the community, but also at the national and supra-national scales. Therefore, conflict resolution that only focuses on their interests is counter-productive, and the political leadership should align this mechanism. The Sri Lankan Tamils are in a predicament when it comes to pivoting their political energy; while desirous of reducing Indian encroachment, they are weary of fuelling anti-Tamil strife, which the Sri Lankan government can capitalize on. The fact that Tamil Nadu has been a strong ally of Tamils in Sri Lanka during the wars, while now being the epicenter of their worries, creates a mental and political stalemate.

Fishermen should look at their communities as a form of social organisation rather than a form of shared understanding. Community as a social organisation encapsulates differences in identity, hierarchy and internal conflict. It gives the status of a political entity, providing space for voicing the concerns of the community and correct the anomalies caused by exogenous forces. The call for the larger Tamil cultural identity lies first in mending the bitter skirmishes in the high seas, which would lead to the reinvigoration of historic ties and assert Tamil Nadu’s stance as an unflinching ally in the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils. Tamil Nadu will host the next dialogue on 20 January, and it has a historic agenda cut out.

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