Earning livelihood at the stake of life: Tamil Nadu fishermen v. Sri Lankan Navy

Reading time: 6-8 minutes.

A 22-year-old Indian fisherman was shot dead, on March 7, allegedly by the Sri Lankan navy, while he was fishing in a mechanised boat at a short distance off Katchatheevu islet. Previously, more than 2,000 fishermen from Tamil Nadu within Indian waters had been taken by surprise when the Sri Lankan naval personnel attacked them for “trespassing”.

In another, separate incident, four fishermen were arrested by the Lankan navy for allegedly poaching near Neduntheevu off the Lankan coast.

What is Tamil Nadu Fisheries Department?

The maritime state of Tamil Nadu is blessed with 1,076 km long coast line and 41,412 km2 continental shelf area with an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 1.9 lakh sq. km, contributing 4.97 lakh tons of marine fish production.

This supports the livelihood of 10.07 lakh marine fishers through 5,893 mechanised and 38,779 traditional fishing crafts which are actively engaged in fishing.[1]

India being the second largest producer of fish in the world and occupying the second position in inland fish production, Tamil Nadu ranks 4th in total fish production of the country.

What are some fundamental facts of the fishermen issue?

Firstly, the southern part of Tamil Nadu and the northern part of Sri Lanka lies at the same latitude. They fall between 10̊ N and 8̊ N, which means the Latitudinal Biodiversity Gradient (LBG) remains the same. Secondly, absence of strong currents in the area should also be taken note of.

These geographical conditions make fishermen on both sides chase the same variety of marine life using similar kinds of boats. When there is a depletion of marine resources on the one side, there is a temptation to cross boundaries in search of similar depleted variety.

Thirdly, the fishermen on either side of Palk Bay are Tamil speaking and there has been close contacts between them for centuries in terms of inter-marriages, religion, migration and literature. At one point, the Chola Kingdom (eleventh century) included northeastern Sri Lanka with Polonnaruwa as the local capital.

Lastly, there has also been a free movement of goods across the Bay before independence, which did not completely stop after independence. Even today, 40 per cent of India’s trade with Sri Lanka takes place through Tamil Nadu.

Interestingly, the informal trade through the state is estimated to be nearly double the formal one. The main reason being, during the colonial period, both countries were under the administration of the British, and this ensured that the free commercial intercourse that existed prior to colonization was not disrupted, which acts as a source of conflict now.

What is the public reaction?

People have expressed their deep anguish over the years on this issue and there have been instances in the past where it has shaped state politics. In fact, when a 21-year-old fisherman was killed the public reaction was so sharp, it forced chief minister Palaniswamy to write a letter to the central government demanding action.

At the same time, the people and the government of Sri Lanka wish to protect and create a sustainable environment for their maritime resources, and have claimed that Indian fishermen are primarily responsible for the declining ocean condition and the depletion of resourses.

What were the attempts in finding a sustainable resolution to the fishermen issue?

The first major move at the governments’ level came in the form of a Joint Working Group on Fisheries (JWG) between India and Sri Lanka.

It was constituted in November 2004 with the aim to deal with issues relating to the straying fishermen, working out modalities for the prevention of use of force against them and the early release of confiscated boats, and exploring possibilities of working towards bilateral arrangements for licensed fishing in Palk Bay and the associated area of the Bay of Bengal and the Gulf of Mannar. The Group was mandated to meet once a year alternatively in India and Sri Lanka to evaluate the situation and make recommendations to the respective countries. The first meeting took place on 21 April 2005 in New Delhi.

But, it was only in the second meeting that took place in January 2006 (Colombo) that some concrete proposals came about. Both sides agreed to:

  • 1. Examine the possibility of not arresting straying fishermen within five nautical miles of the maritime boundary on either side;
  • 2. Consider releasing the small fishing boats along with the fishermen on humanitarian grounds; and
  • 3. Enhance coordination between the two Navies to curb illegal activities (Government of Sri Lanka, 2006).

In addition to this, India and Sri Lanka have ‘agreed to put in place practical arrangements to deal with bona fide Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL)’ (Government of India,2008). The practical arrangements agreed upon include:

• Upon the designation by the Government of Sri Lanka of sensitive areas along the Sri Lankan coastline and their intimation to the Government of India, Indian fishing vessels will not venture into these identified sensitive areas.

• There will be no firing on Indian fishing vessels.

• Indian fishing vessels would carry valid registration/permit and the fishermen would have on-person valid identity cards issued by the Government of Tamil Nadu (Government of India, 2012).

Farmed Fishing is another option. In 2010, a project on Integrated Mangrove Fishery Farming Systems (IMFFS) was implemented by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) India in partnership with the M.S.

Swaminathan Research Foundation. IMFFS was first piloted in the state of Tamil Nadu, India, in abandoned shrimp farms on privately owned land. The process involves the building of local infrastructure such as bunds and embankments for mangrove plantation.

The farm is fed with mangrove-based fishery seeds and organic inputs for their development. Sea bass and other organisms are grown on smaller fish and plankton conveyed by tidal influx, in replacement of synthetic feed and at no cost to the farmer.

The tidal water replaces saline pond water on a periodic basis, a self-cleansing and energy-efficient method of production. The Coastal Aquaculture Authority of India can consider this ecosystem-based model as a green alternative to the fishermen in the area (IUCN, 2016).

The IUCN World Declaration on the Environmental Rule of Law outlines 13 principles for developing and implementing solutions for ecologically sustainable development.

Road ahead…

In the matter of fulfilling livelihood on one hand and protecting the sovereignty of mother land on the other hand, arbitrariness should not win. What has been done by the Sri Lankan Navy in the name of national interest is whimsical. Executions must be carried out on proof beyond reasonable doubt which in toto has not been followed by the navy.

Central government inclusive of Colombo and New Delhi should look for comprehensive and humane approach leading to pragmatic solutions on an urgent basis to forestall the future conflict that may arise between the two countries.

Shifting the focal point on developing and making resources sustainable can brace the relationship between both the countries. An authoritative advisory board can be formed who will keep a check on ongoing activities in Palk Bay. Making new guidelines, rules or laws might attract legal pluralism but that law has to balance equality and justice for people of both the sides.

-This article is brought to you in collaboration with Pratika Agarwal from ICFAI Law School, ICFAI University, Dehradun and Adya Aditi Samal from Xavier Law School, Xavier University, Bhubaneswar.

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