Fishing In Palk Bay: Unresolved Issues Continue To Haunt India And Sri Lanka – Analysis


By Commodore R. S. Vasan

It was no surprise that the visit of the Foreign Secretary Rajan Mathai to the Island that ended on 11th October 2011, did not bring about any new solutions to the vexed issues of fishing in the troubled waters of Palk bay. All that happened was that new office bearers revisited an age old issue that remains unresolved and continued to struggle to find long lasting solutions. The visit of the Foreign Secretary came in the wake of continued accusation about harassment of Indian Tamil fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy. The Chief Minister also had written to the Prime Minister a strongly worded letter in which she said, “I would also like to emphasise that the harassment of the fishermen of Tamil Nadu should be viewed as an act of provocation and aggression against India by Sri Lanka, similar to acts of firing across the borders of India by neighbours such as Pakistan and China.” She added, “The attack on the fishermen belonging to Tamil Nadu should be viewed as a national issue and not as an isolated problem of Tamil Nadu alone,”

India - Sri Lanka Relations
India - Sri Lanka Relations

Ranjan Mathai who wanted to understand the issue and discuss the issue with Colombo during his visit was briefed by the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu when he called on her enroute to Colombo. His visit to the Island concluded on 11th October 2011. TN Government has been insisting that the Centre should intervene and put an end to the miseries of the fishermen by proactive measures vis-à-vis Sri Lanka. Close on the heels of the visit of the FS to the Island, the Madurai High court issued orders for the Central Government on 14th October 2011 to deploy Navy/CG assets for protection of the fishermen. The court in its orders while acting on a seven month old PIL said “This court is inclined to grant interim directions to the Union of India to protect the interest of the Indian fishermen against the alleged atrocities by the Sri Lankan Navy. It is needless to state that unless the Indian fishermen, particularly, Tamil fishermen are able to exercise their right to fishing, it is inherently impossible for them to survive, as they are solely depending only on the avocation of fishing and therefore, any threat to their life and security in exercising their right of fishing would ultimately infringe their fundamental right to livelihood enshrined in the constitution of India.” While the observations of the court and the implications at the central and state levels, could themselves form part of a separate discussion, this paper is an attempt to examine the related issues to highlight the merits, demerits and implications of some of the measures discussed and a few proposals mooted. Just a search of SAAG website itself would bring up writings by many analysts that have dealt in detail about the past, present and future issues related to fishing in Pak bay.

Joint Initiatives for Deep Sea fishing. Though not a new idea, the proposal for the fishermen on both sides of the IMBL to take up deep sea fishing projects on the face of it is a good one. The SL fisheries minister Rajitha Senaratne while expressing his disagreement suggested that India can go alone and help its fishermen to avoid the troubled waters which in any case belong to Sri Lanka. He has been quoted as “The call to go for deep sea fishing is very good, but it should apply only to Indian fishermen,” “Fishermen from North West Lanka are fishing only in Lankan waters. It is the Indian fishermen who are intruding into Lankan waters. Therefore, it is the Indian fishermen who should move away from here and fish elsewhere.” It is clear that he has asked India to take a walk alone while Sri Lanka would fend for itself. The response from the Sri Lankan Minster clearly illustrates that there is lot of ground to be covered before any such proposals can be received favourably without reservations.

The fishermen who are fighting over the living resources are again Tamil fishermen from Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. SL Minister expressed a view that while Sri Lanka engaged in responsible fishing on its side (by not using mechanized trawlers) has no need to share its wealth with aggressive TN fishermen who have not respected the maritime boundaries. By using mechanized trawlers, the greedy owners have been compelling the daily wage earning fishermen to resort to unfair practices and indulging in fishing in Sri Lankan waters. Indian fishermen are not only fishing around the disputed Kacchativu Islands quoting historical rights, but also venturing close to the Sri Lankan coasts thus inviting the wrath of the SL fishermen and the Navy. It may be recalled that on 21st February 2011, over 400 Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen protested in front of the Indian Consulate Office in Jaffna about intrusion by Indian fishermen.

The TN Government does have a defunct Fisheries Development Corporation. With some imaginative programmes and long term commitment, TNFDC which has existed for over 37 years, itself could have enabled the deep sea fisheries programme. While the website vide indicates that TNFDC has just three deep sea fishing vessels. First hand sources indicate that even these are nonexistent clearly demonstrating the lack of initiatives by this state run corporation. The Chief Minister who has shown a lot of concern about the welfare and safety of the fishers just needs to crack the whip to get the TNFDC to put its act together and deliver. For this to happen, obviously, there is a need for revamping of the TNFDC, work out long term/ short term plans and ensure availability of sufficient funds on a sustained basis for TNFDC to take up deep sea fishing with the seriousness that it deserves.

During the address by the Finance minister Panneer selvam on 04 August 2011, some of the problems of the fishermen have been sought to be remedied. By its own admission vide budge speech available at , the State has achieved a marine fish production of 4.04 lakh tonnes against the potential of 7 lakh tones (nearly 40 percent gap). Similarly, inland fish production is only 1.71 lakh tonnes against the potential of 4.5 lakh tonnes.(60 percent gap). Of the 56,000 fishing vessels only 6000 are mechanised. A total of 25 crores has been set aside to promote acquisition of deep sea fishing vessels. The State has announced that it would provide a subsidy of up to five lakhs for those procuring deep sea vessels and aims to add about 500 deep sea tuna liners to the capacity for deep sea fishing. While the initiative is laudable, it is clear that these projects would take considerable time before the benefits are felt by the community. The statement of Dr A S Soosai, an activist in the fishermen’s movement and a Professor of Geography at Jaffna University has observed that “Firstly, the deep seas are too far for them. Secondly, the fishermen here do not have multi-day boats with satellite communication equipment. To buy such a vessel they need around $91,000). They also need training and the port facilities. None of these is available now.” This statement is equally applicable to Indian fishermen who would need state support and sustained initiatives to get away from the coastal waters with depleting or near extinct fish stock.

The TN Government has also enhanced the relief amount during the period of fisheries ban to Rs 4000 and expects to incur an additional expense of 72 crores. The period of ban during which the fishermen lay off from work should in addition be used by the TNFDC to provide training that would equip the fishermen to take up the challenges of deep sea fishing.

Joint Patrol by the Indian and Sri Lankan Maritime forces. This is another issue that keeps surfacing every now and then without making much headway. The issue has also been discussed along with the genesis in an earlier analysis by this author vide As per news reports, the proposal for joint patrolling by Indian and Sri Lankan navies will be discussed at length during the next meeting of the joint working group on fisheries which is expected to be held soon. Sri Lanka during different phases of the Eelam war, was very keen to have this format that would serve to prevent LTTE from using Tamil support for supporting its war efforts. It is public knowledge that many fishermen did engage in smuggling essential goods to LTTE for commercial consideration. The Indian Government on its part has not been able to make up its mind due to the indirect pressure from TN Government based on fears that this would also imply total ban on our fishermen crossing over to the other side including areas around Kacchativu which is haunted by historical claims that clash with the IMBL agreement of 1974 which ceded this Island to Sri Lanka.

The Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard who patrol these areas are well aware that hundreds of boats cross over to the other side and indulge in fishing. Any force to prevent them from crossing would also result in back lash against the central forces and result in strained relations between the centre and the state. The joint patrolling is indeed a good idea; however, the Government of India and the TN Government must clearly understand that the maritime security agencies cannot prevent the arrest of our fishermen from SL Law enforcement authorities for entering their areas and vice versa. This is the practice that we follow in respect of offenders from other countries who enter the Exclusive Economic Zones of India. However, time and again it has been reiterated that such offenders anywhere in the world are tried under civil offences act and are not to be ill treated are shot at as alleged by fishermen. This also brings out another issue of joint investigation. There is no way of establishing the veracity of the statements of fishermen unless there is an impartial joint investigation with access to all records and evidence. The pattern thus far has been that the Indian fishermen complain that they were shot at or their fish catch looted while in Indian waters. The fishermen privately admit that they have no choice but to cross the boundaries and fish in Sri Lankan waters as they would not be paid their wages by the owners of the boat who insist on the boats bringing back fish from any part of the ocean including sovereign waters/EEZ of another country.

It would be wise on part of the Indian Government to agree to the joint patrol proposal as it would clearly bring out the facts in any reported cases of harassment or firing without bias. However, the ground situation today is such that unless the TN Government is in a position to provide the fishermen alternate means of livelihood including deep sea fishing, the starving fishermen (most of them are wage earners) driven by the need to engage in their vocation at whatever cost would not heed the advise of the navies to stop from crossing over in pursuit of fishing grounds. An ill planned, hasty implementation of the Joint patrol without first addressing the cores issues of low yields on our side and deep sea fishing avenues would not only incur the wrath of the fishermen but also would strain bilateral and navy to navy relations.

Joint Initiatives by fishermen/NGOs on either side. There have been both unofficial and official meetings that have tried to resolve the issues of fishing in an amicable manner. However as long as some of the core issues do not get addressed, suspicions would remain. Any concessions extended to the TN fishermen by the SL Government by way of perpetual leasing or multi day fishing would make the SL fishermen (majority of who are Tamils) feel that their interests are being compromised by the majority Sinhala Government. The Sri Lankan Government which is already being accused of a majority bias cannot afford to alienate its own fishermen on the issue. The dialogue between the fishing communities and the NGOs on both sides must continue as it would provide a platform for the two sides to appreciate the compulsions on either side and therefore could enable a meeting point aided by State support on the initiatives.

In conclusion, it is the considered opinion of the author that India and the TN Government have a lot more to do in comparison with its small neighbour . There is no need for looking at concessions from our southern neighbour to protect the fishermen particularly in the context of possession of an Exclusive Economic Zone that has blessed India with a sea area of 2.1 million square kilometers. There are many schemes that have been launched by the present Government in Tamil Nadu which need to be fast paced and supported. There has to be a time bound programme for weaning the small time fishermen from coastal fishing and provide them better opportunity for harvesting the fish catch in our own EEZ. While the fishermen on both sides are engaged in a dialogue, it can only gain meaning if there is parallel proactive action to address the shortcomings in our capacity and capability to fish in our own waters.

(The author is presently the Head, Strategy and Security Studies at the Center for Asia Studies at Chennai and can be contacted at [email protected] The views expressed by the author are his own)


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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