Maritime Cooperation between India and Sri Lanka
N Manoharan ·       

At least on paper, India had settled maritime boundary issues with all its neighbours except Pakistan and Bangladesh. In reality, India has still issues to be settled with Sri Lanka, considered one of the friendliest of neighbours. The book under review, after analysing various contentious maritime issues between India and Sri Lanka, highlights availability of "reasonable options" for cooperation. Sri Lanka preferred "some kind of a strategic balance being established by the great powers to ensure that there was no hegemony of any single power in the Indian Ocean region." It was for this reason it initiated the concept of 'Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace' (IOZP). The authors, however, observe that Colombo "changed its stand because of its fears of a big neighbour and the proposal became a dead letter." The book fails to substantiate this observation. It was not because of the India factor, but because of practical difficulties in its implementation that led to the demise of the IOZP initiative.

Despite the existence of two maritime agreements of 1974 and 1976 there are certain irritants between the two neighbours. The main issue is the status of Katchchativu, a small barren island in the Palk Bay area. Through the 1974 agreement, India agreed to Sri Lanka's sovereignty over Katchchativu but with some safeguards to its Indian fishermen through Article 5. The article, however, was vague enough for the Sri Lankan government to argue, "[the] agreement did not give any fishing rights, but only the rights to dry their fishing nets, to rest, and to the right of pilgrims to visit the island for religious purposes." Until civil war broke out in Sri Lanka in 1983, the Indian fishermen did not find it difficult to operate near the islet for fishing. At times, attracted by good quality fish and prawns, the Indian fishing folk strayed into the Sri Lankan waters. In due course of time, however, the Sri Lankan Navy became unfriendly to Indian fishermen owing to their inability to distinguish between genuine fishing vessels and boats used for smuggling goods for Sri Lankan Tamil militants. Consequently, indiscriminate firing and killing of Indian fishermen became common. Despite various outcries, the humanitarian aspect of the problem was overlooked by both countries. Various options like issuing identity cards to Indian fishermen and letting the islet, in perpetuity, to India have been explored, but not converted into action.

Another maritime issue exists in the form of Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project undertaken by India to link Palk Bay with the Gulf of Mannar through a shipping canal. Apart from cutting short distances for Indian ships navigating between eastern and western coasts of India, the Canal is expected to further the underdeveloped coastal regions of Tamil Nadu. Environmentalists, however, feel all these come with a huge cost to the rich marine resources in the area. Sri Lanka has reservations on this venture as well, but chose to remain silent fearing strains in bilateral relations. Aside from environmental and livelihood concerns of its fishermen, Sri Lanka is more concerned about the loss of container traffic at its Colombo and Galle ports. Interestingly, the LTTE is also opposed to the project. Its naval activities might be hindered as and when the Canal becomes operational. It is also for this reason (vis-à-vis to counter the LTTE) that the government of Sri Lanka did not vehemently oppose the Canal project.

After highlighting existing bilateral maritime issues, the authors suggest that cooperation between India and Sri Lanka "may include measures such as joint naval patrolling, controlling of smuggling and piratical activities, and the strengthening of communication networks." Through cooperation, both can exploit living and non-living resources, ship-building, weather forecasting, prevention of pollution, and to combat maritime terrorism, which are the responsibilities of every country. In addition to such measures, there exists great potential for enhancing and institutionalizing economic cooperation in the exploration and exploitation of sea resources in the Indian Ocean. Yet another area of cooperation between the two countries could be in the form of a land bridge between Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu and Talaimannar in Northwestern Sri Lanka. This is still in the proposal stage and neither country has made efforts to advance the possibility.

There is a section on 'Sri Lankan Refugees in India', but one wonders how that issue is related to the larger theme of the book: 'Maritime Cooperation between India and Sri Lanka'. So is the case with the section on 'economic cooperation.' The table on page 33 is informative, but the authors should have made the effort to update it instead of reproducing it from another work. The main drawback, however, appears to be the conspicuous difference between the two authors especially on emotional issues like fishermen. The study, nevertheless, is a good attempt in promoting understanding between India and Sri Lanka on maritime issues.