Although India-Sri Lanka relations are presently at an all time high, shooting and harassment of Indian fishermen allegedly by the Sri Lankan Navy is a potential irritant to these ties. With the Assembly polls in the state of Tamil Nadu around the corner, the issue is expected to get further politicized. There is immense pressure from Tamil Nadu on New Delhi to act decisively.
Although the ‘Eelam War IV’ in Sri Lanka has ended with the defeat of the LTTE, the fishermen issue continues. When the ethnic war was on, the Sri Lankan Navy was focussed on ‘Sea Tigers’ and the movement of LTTE boats around the island. The straying of Indian fishermen was overlooked. After the war, the Sri Lankan Navy is back to its primary task of patrolling the island’s maritime borders. They are now more concerned of a possible return of LTTE cadres, who fled from the island during the height of the conflict in 2009, to revive the conflict all over again. Security concerns still persist in Sri Lanka. Its Navy, therefore, has not let the guard down. Relaxation of fishing restrictions along Sri Lankan coasts has led Sri Lankan fishermen to venture into the sea. Indian fishermen, who thus far enjoyed a monopoly of resource-rich waters, have now got competitors in the form of their Sri Lankan counterparts. At times, this leads to confrontations between the two fishing communities and in turn draws the intervention of either of the two naval forces. Straying also takes place inadvertently due to ignorance of imaginary marine boundaries, engine failure or even due to sudden turbulence at seas. The issue, therefore, is complex.
What is hence urgently required is a comprehensive and humane approach leading to pragmatic solutions. It is surprising that despite the existence of certain practical arrangements to deal with the issue of bonafide fishermen of either side crossing the international maritime boundary line, firings on fishermen continue. The Joint Working Group that met in January 2006 agreed to
(i) Examine the possibility of not arresting straying fishermen within five nautical miles of the maritime boundary on either side;
(ii) Consider releasing the small fishing boats along with the fishermen on humanitarian grounds; and
(iii) Enhance coordination between the two Navies to curb illegal activities.
However, whether this agreement is being followed in letter and spirit is a big question. At the outset, the right to life of fishermen should be respected, followed by the livelihood issue. It should be noted that the use of force against Indian fishermen who cross over, advertently or inadvertently, into another country’s marine borders leading to their death does not happen even at marine boundaries with countries like Pakistan. This happens only at India-Sri Lanka borders. The Sri Lankan Navy, therefore, should take greater care in handling straying Indian fishermen.
To avoid shooting incidents due to ‘mistaken identity’, ‘coordinated patrolling’ between the navies of both countries can be considered. Additionally, developing fish farming extensively in Indian waters would prevent its fishermen from venturing into other waters in search of a ‘big catch’. India can also consider leasing fishing blocks, especially those identified as ‘surplus total available catch’, from Sri Lanka. Through this, Sri Lanka could also earn much required foreign exchange. India also can consider taking on the controversial Katchchativu island on lease. As an additional safety measure, the Indian Navy's proposal of fitting Global Positioning System (GPS) in every boat should be implemented. GPS provides the fastest and most accurate method for fishermen to navigate, measure speed and determine locations. Costs of installation could be shared by the governments of India and Tamil Nadu, with a token contribution from the concerned fishermen. Apart from training the fishermen of its usage, the local administration should sensitize them on the dos and don’ts in international waters. In addition to respecting the rights of their Sri Lankan counterparts, the Indian fishermen should try and avoid using trawlers and motorboats that damage plankton and in turn make the seabed unfavourable for breeding new fish and prawns. Arranging frequent meetings between fishing communities of both countries could be explored so as to develop a friendlier atmosphere at mid-seas during fishing.