ISSN 2330-717X

Fishing Should Not Be Allowed To Impact India-Sri Lanka Ties – Analysis


By N Sathiya Moorthy*

The Indian government has promised a Rs 1,500-crore funding for Tamil Nadu, spread over three years, to create infrastructure for deep-sea fishing. This decision was conveyed to a state government delegation when they called on External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi recently, Finance Minister D Jayakumar told the Tamil Nadu Assembly on Monday, March 20, 2017.

The meeting took place in the aftermath of the killing of fisherman K Bijto, 21, reportedly by Sri Lanka Navy, on the night of March 8. “One of the points we raised was financial support for deep-sea fishing. The Centre has promised to provide Rs 500 crore each year, for three years. The state has to contribute an equal amount,” the Times of India quoted the minister as saying.

The erstwhile Jayalalithaa government had mooted deep-sea fishing as an alternative to the ‘destructive’ bottom-trawling, which is banned in the two countries since 2001. It promised 25 per cent subsidy that year for the conversion of trawlers to deep-sea fishing vessels, and raised it to 50 per cent in Budget-2013.

Budget-2011 also proposed the construction of a chain of 20 cold-storage facilities along the Tamil Nadu coast, and marketing studies and support for the state’s fishermen to tap overseas markets. The state government was also believed to be looking at boat designs and models for the purpose. It was also said to be evaluating fishing and psychological training programmes, to help fishermen stay on in the seas for a longer period than they are customarily used to.

In her memorandum to the newly-elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in June 2014 sought Rs 1,640 crore central assistance for the purpose. She did so in her meeting with PM Modi after her re-election in May 2016. Every missive of hers to the Prime Minister in between on the fishermen’s issue and central funds covered the subject. More recently, incumbent Chief Minister Edappadi K Palanisamy’s memorandum to PM Modi at their first formal meeting in Delhi referred to the pending demand.

Though the local media had mostly overlooked this aspect of Minister Jayakumar’s assembly announcement, they have been covering the Brijto killing extensively. In a possible first in recent years, The Hindu reported that the police investigators were studying the mobile phones on board the six-man fishing boat, to fix its location in the sea, and check if they were in Sri Lankan waters. The New Indian Express reported that doctors have recovered an AK-47 bullet from Brijto’s body.

The agitating fishermen have since withdrawn their protests, based on Minister Sushma Swaraj’s promises in Delhi, and those of Union Ministers of State Nirmala Sitharaman and Pon Radhakrishnan at Thangachchimadam, from where Brijto came. Earlier, they reluctantly took back Brijto’s body a week after the incident. Chief Minister Palanisamy, DMK Leader of Opposition M.K. Stalin and other political party leaders also met them, promising to take up their plight for the Centre to intervene with the Sri Lankan government. MPs from Tamil Nadu have also raised the incident in Parliament.

The protesting fishermen have demanded the arrest of the SLN official(s) involved, for standing trial in India. The Sri Lankan authorities, starting with naval top-brass, have denied that their vessel or men were involved in the incident. At the intervention of the Indian government at the diplomatic-level, Sri Lanka promised to investigate the matter and revert. This could require India to share available evidence, including the post-mortem reports and forensic evidence, including the bullet recovered from the dead fisherman’s body and the GPS readings on the location of the ill-fated fishing boat.

Deep-sea fishing may not be the one-point solution to the fishermen’s issue between the two countries. However, it can be a starting-point. It can ease the pressures on fishing and fishermen in the shared Palk Bay region. Following the end of the 26-year-long civil war on the island nation, the Sri Lankan authorities were not unresponsive to the idea of easing naval pressure on Indian fishermen for a period until they stabilised on the deep-sea fishing front.

However, to expect a negotiated settlement for Indian fishermen (especially from Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and at times Kerala) to be able to fish in what the Tamil Nadu government and also the polity says is their ‘historic waters’ and ‘traditional rights’ is fraught with more problems than solutions. As is evident, a series of negotiations, both at the fishermen’s level and that of the governments, has not seen any positive movement forward. Despite promises and sincere efforts to the contrary by all stake-holders, no negotiated settlement is seen likely or possible.

Ground realities apart, the predecessor Mahinda Rajapakse leadership in Sri Lanka ensured that the issue did not trickle down, out of hand. Throughout, the issue did not reach the Sri Lankan Parliament. In contrast, the incumbent governments of Sri Lanka and the Tamil-majority Northern Province, and also their fishermen, are united in opposing not only bottom-trawling by Indian fishers but also their ‘fishing in Sri Lankan waters’.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has repeatedly mentioned about the bilateral fishermen’s issue in the Sri Lankan Parliament, and reiterated the government’s commitment not to allow Indian fishermen and bottom-trawling. Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran has moved a draft legislation to replace the existing Executive Order on the ban. Sri Lanka has strictly enforced the trawler-ban, and all initiatives, including TNA’s political resolutions, are all aimed only at their Tamil brethren from across the Palk Strait.

Responding to Stalin’s calling-attention motion in the Assembly, Minister Jayakumar also said that it was difficult for Tamil Nadu fishermen to restrict themselves to Indian waters, as the sea was narrow and it was difficult for them to identify and stay within the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) as agreed upon by the central governments in the two countries. Stalin also reiterated the general political demand in the state for retrieving Katchatheevu Isle, saying that alone would resolve the fishing issue.

First, the Indian fishermen and their vessels could be spotted close to the shores of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province — and fishing for hours together. If they had strayed into Sri Lankan waters, they would have made the first possible attempt to return. Independent of whatever they might say in times of crises, Tamil Nadu fishermen from Rameswaram area have acknowledged in times of relative peace that retrieving Katchatheevu would not be a solution at all.

In the immediate context, for the first time since the revival of the annual feast at the St Anthony’s church on Katchatheevu after the conclusion of the ‘ethnic war’, Indian fishermen boycotted the same. In doing so, they defied their own claims to customs and tradition, protesting Brijto’s killing. Far from contributing to resolving the vexatious issue, this could set a precedent, for the Sri Lankan authorities deny permission for Indian pilgrims to visit for the March 12 festivities from next year on, creating additional problem for the Indian government to address.

Only days after TN Minister Jayakumar’s announcement, Union Minister Sushma Swaraj confirmed the funding decision to a fishermen’s delegation at Delhi. She also told the fishermen that the Centre had already cleared the first tranche of Rs 500 crore. Ahead of the 2014 parliamentary polls, when her name was already being talked about as prospective EAM, Sushma Swaraj had addressed Tamil Nadu BJP’s ‘Kadal Thaamarai’ rally in Rameswaram. Translated, the title meant ‘Sea Lotus’, a reference to the fishermen’s issue and also the party’s ‘Lotus’ symbol.

Post-poll, state BJP talk-show guests on Tamil TV channels would casually blame all fishermen’s issues with Sri Lanka — and even with other nations, wherever Tamil Nadu fishermen were victims — on the erstwhile Congress-UPA government at the Centre. That has, however, come to an end, and they are more circumspect now than most other political parties, while addressing the TN fishermen’s issue.

At times, they over-shoot sections of the regional and sub-regional parties in the state in their criticism of the Sri Lankan government, and also the Sri Lanka Navy. However, every section of the Tamil Nadu polity and the otherwise vociferous state government are conspicuous by their silence in criticism of the Tamil polity and fishermen in Sri Lanka, who are even more agitated and affected by their Tamil Nadu brethren’s bottom-trawling, purportedly in their seas.

For starters, the two governments should abide by the October 2008 agreement on naval personnel not firing upon innocent fishermen. They should also work out mechanisms for early return of arrested fishermen and their boats. Authorities in Sri Lanka are known to harbour wrong notions that the rich and powerful in Tamil Nadu own most of the trawlers, and their poorly-paid labourers alone get caught.

Deep-sea fishing along the southern Tamil Nadu coast could take off effectively only when work on the proposed fishing harbours in Mookaiyur and Poompuhar is fast-tracked. In the absence of a port of the kind, fishermen from the Rameswaram area, in particular, would have to circumnavigate the Pamban sea-bridge, costing time, diesel and storage-space on the deep-sea vessels.

The fishermen would also need physiological and psychological preparedness to stay out in the sea for a few days/weeks at a stretch. Mobile telephony and boat-based communication equipment would go a long way in their being able to stay in touch with their families on shore.

The Centre should also seek an early closure or appropriate disposal of the two pending Supreme Court cases on Katchatheevu. They were filed by AIADMK’s Jayalalithaa and DMK’s M Karunanidhi, reportedly in their personal capacities. The former is dead and the latter is seriously ill, and may not be able to advise his lawyers.

Independent of change of political leadership at the national-level, New Delhi has taken the principled stand that Katchatheevu belonged to Sri Lanka since the 1974 Accord and that the two nations have irrevocably notified the same as such under UNCLOS-I. The question thus arises whether India could at all unilaterally revoke the Accord, not that the Indian government under different regimes has even vaguely considered the possibility.

Such being the case, it should educate the Tamil Nadu government, polity and society on the legal realities and ground-level concerns. Such concerns on the part of the Rameswaram fishermen includes the fact that there is no fish in the Katchatheevu waters and holding on to any demand for the retrieval of the islet could have other consequences for a negotiated settlement on the fishermen’s issue.

*The author is Director, Chennai Chapter, of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]

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