By V. Suryanarayan
The Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi organized an international Conference on “Fisheries Issues” between India and Sri Lanka in New Delhi on July 18-19, 2011. The participants included not only specialists from India and Sri Lanka, but also from Netherlands, Denmark, Japan and Australia. The idea behind inviting foreign scholars was to encourage India and Sri Lanka to meaningfully learn from the experiences of others who also face similar problems. The free and frank discussions, within and outside the Conference, enabled the delegates to have a better appreciation of the complex issues.
The Conference was inaugurated by Amb Nirupama Rao, Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs who placed the bilateral problem in a global perspective. Over fishing has depleted vast quantity of fish resources around the world. Competition for scarce resources and over fishing has created innumerable problems. Referring to India= Sri Lanka relations, Amb Rao added that when she visited Sri Lanka recently the Sri Lankan authorities emphasised that their consistent policy was to treat the Indian fishermen in a “humane manner”.
Of particular interest were the two excellent papers presented by the two Sri Lankan scholars. Dr. Soosai of the University of Jaffna, who hails from the fishermen community in the north, highlighted the manifold problems faced by Tamil fishermen. During the protracted ethnic conflict, fishing operations, which is one of the important mainstays of the Tamil areas, came to a stand still because of the ban imposed by the Sri Lankan Government. With the end of the war, Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen have resumed fishing, but they find poaching by Indian fishermen to be a major hindrance to their livelihood. The Indian fishermen use fishing equipments like bottom trawl nets and monofilament nets (which are banned in Sri Lanka) which play havoc to marine ecology. If this practice continues unabated, Soosai added, there will be no fish in the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Bay.
Prof. Oscar Amarasinghe of the University of Ruhuna, in his lucid presentation, pointed out that it is not the Indian fishermen alone who are the “bad boys”. Sri Lankan multi-day boats have started poaching in other country’s waters – Andhra coast, Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Lakshadweep in India, Maldives, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Somalia and Madagascar. The senior officials of the Indian Coast Guard told the author that poaching by Sri Lankan fishermen in Indian waters have increased manifold during last year. What is more, since off shore fishing bring lots of profit; it is gaining immense popularity in Sri Lanka. Prof. Amarasinghe posed the question – why do these crafts poach? Is it the question of “need or greed?”
The Conference provided me an opportunity to exchange views with Amb Prasad Kariawasam, Sri Lankan High Commissioner, on the subject. From my conversation with the Ambassador I was left with the impression that during recent months Colombo has hardened its stance and is not willing to look into proposals which it was willing to consider favourably in an earlier period. I was also fascinated by the comments made by Prof. Soosai, that the Tamil fishermen in Sri Lanka are not opposed to poaching by Indian fishermen, but what they are opposed to is large scale bottom trawling. If the situation is allowed to drift, it may lead not only to strains in bilateral relations, but also to Centre – State relations in India.
The issue of Kachchatheevu, which according to the AIADMK Government, is the root cause of the problem did not figure at all in Conference deliberations. The reasons are two fold, first, Tamil Nadu has failed in its attempts to reopen the question of ownership of the island, and, what is more, New Delhi considers it as a “closed chapter”. The issue is also “Sub Judice”; one does not know when the appeal filed by Jayalalitha will come up for hearing in the Supreme Court.
The suggestion that following the precedent of the 1976 Agreement, licensed Indian fishermen should be permitted to fish in Sri Lankan waters up to five nautical miles and in return licensed Sri Lankan fishermen should be permitted to fish in the Indian Exclusive Zone does not find favour with Colombo now. It may be recalled that in Foreign Secretary Level consultations held in July 2003, Sri Lanka wanted New Delhi to submit proposals for licensed fishing for its “considered examination”. Unfortunately this opportunity was not availed of by New Delhi and Chennai. Amb Kariavasam was categorical that Colombo will not consider proposals for licensed fishing because it will be extremely difficult to enforce the provisions.
Equally negative was Amb. Kariavasam’s stance on the current relevance of the joint statement issued on October 26, 2008 at the end of National Security Advisor MK Narayanan’s visit to Colombo. Sri Lanka agreed that it will not resort to firing on Indian fishermen. Indian fishermen can fish in Sri Lankan waters, but they should not enter into high security zones. They should also carry with them valid identity cards. The joint statement was made during the height of the Fourth Eelam War, when Colombo was very keen to prevent any adverse fallout in Tamil Nadu consequent to likely incidents of firing on Indian fishermen. Amb. Kariawasam made it absolutely clear that the 2008 statement is “not an agreement” between the two countries. Moreover the security situation has radically altered in favour of Sri Lankan Government.
In the context of the hardened stance of Colombo where do we go from here? The ball is in Tamil Nadu’s court. Four suggestions are in order. The Government of Tamil Nadu should persuade/pressurize our fishermen not to go deep into Sri Lankan waters and pose a threat to the Tamil fishermen’s livelihood. After all Palk Bay is the common heritage of Tamils on both sides. Second, while immediate decommissioning of trawlers may pose serious problems, serious attempts should be made to withdraw the trawlers in a phased manner. Third, New Delhi and Chennai should encourage the ongoing dialogue among fishermen of both countries, for an agreement arrived at from “below” has greater chances of success than one imposed from “above” by New Delhi and Colombo. Fourth, the Government of Tamil Nadu should suggest starting of joint ventures by Tamil fishermen of both countries. Multi-day boats should be commissioned for deep sea fishing. Such a course of action will not only be profitable, it will also show the Tamils of Sri Lanka that we in Tamil Nadu are sincerely committed to their welfare and prosperity. Deep sea fishing in Sri Lanka is a subject which comes under the jurisdiction of central government and whether Colombo will encourage such joint ventures is a moot question. Many worthwhile proposals put forward by the Government of India for rehabilitation of the north and the east, like the construction of 50,000 houses, are gathering dust due to the obstructionist policies of the Sri Lankan government. The Sinhalese chauvinists would like the Tamils of both countries to fight it out in the Palk Bay. But we must not allow the Palk Bay to be spilled with Tamil blood.
(Dr. V. Suryanarayan, former Director and Senior Professor, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, is currently Senior Research Fellow, Center for Asia Studies, Chennai)