By N Sathiya Moorthy
The death of an Indian fisherman off the UAE coast in a firing incident involving the US naval vessel, ’USNS Raapahannock’, is only the most recent of such incidents. Earlier, the Italian tanker, ’Enrica Lexie’ with anti-piracy guards on board had fired at Indian fishermen off the Kerala coast, killing two. These are isolated incidents in their own way, yet overall there is an emerging pattern of nations feeling insecure even at the sight of innocent fishermen, paranoid as they are over the possibilities of Sudanese pirates, if not sea-borne terrorists targeting their maritime/naval assets. India has had its own experience with the 26/11 serial blasts, in which sea-borne terrorists targeted the nation’s business capital of Mumbai, and with that the nation’s sovereignty and pride.
The victims in the UAE attack by the US Navy, including the injured, were all from the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu. Of the two dead in the ’Enrica Lexie episode’, one was from southern Tamil Nadu. As coincidence would have it, fishers from the State have been at the receiving end of Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) from time to time, and were detained by the Maldivian Coast Guard earlier this year. While the incidents in Sri Lankan and Maldivian waters have a long history and are often related to livelihood issues, the same cannot be said of those involving western vessels, including the mighty American navy. The Indian fishers on those occasions were in legitimate waters, according to local authorities. It may have become fashionable for western powers to contest such source claims, insisting that the incidents had occurred in international waters, instead.
The technicality involved in such arguments deviates from the value for human life, particularly that of a Third World fisher and his unending livelihood concerns. Independent of these are episodes of Taiwanese fishers, among others, in bulk fishing vessels, exploiting untested Indian waters, for a long time now. If there are not many incidents involving them in Indian waters or Indian fishers, it owes to the lack of enterprise in the latter. Yet, the emerging realities along the Indian coast would stipulate that the local fishers too take to the deep seas, though not immediately. It is then that their legitimate claims would be contested by poachers and encroachers, who have had a head-start, already. Depending on when Indian fishers take to those seas, and depending on how large the Indian EEZ spreads and when, those alien fishers could claim ’traditional rights’ in Indian seas. Mid-sea clashes that are not alien to Indian fishers in some sensitive areas, both inland and in shared seas, could become a pattern at the time.
The recent incidents on the fishing front, including those involving India and Sri Lanka, flag a few issues for active consideration. One is that maritime security concerns of nations, big and small, are for real. What is thus applicable to the US in the UAE waters are equally relevant to Sri Lanka or Maldives in their territorial waters. Two, livelihood issues too are for real. Neither can be compromised in the face of the other. The UAE incident has shown how possible shortage of fishers locally has encouraged fishing corporates to hire talent from outside the region, as in any other field. It thus becomes the responsibility of the host nation to ensure the safety and security of the immigrant fishers in their seas as they have to ensure the safety of western travellers and immigrant workers or others on their lands.
Nations need to think in terms of working closely to avoid incidents of the kind, without stopping with settlement of compensation, claimed or otherwise. Such an impersonal approach to issues and lives involved could have consequences for Governments back home. Constituencies that had not been known to the West, or the rest, could thus pressure Governments back home to take up policy issues and policy decisions that may be at variance with the so-called ’international best practices’. When human lives are involved, and livelihood concerns are not addressed adequately, commercial values and trade practices would have no resonance where it hurts.
Problems in the Palk Bay
In the India-Sri Lanka context, for instance, the two Governments are working towards finding a negotiated settlement. The fishers issue in this case has multifarious components and consequent impacts. It is closely tied to the larger ’ethnic issue’ in Sri Lanka with the ’Tamil Nadu factor’ purportedly having a large say in the approach of the polity and Government in the State. In turn, this has impacted on the Centre’s approach towards Sri Lanka, including the ethnic issue, differently at different times.
The ethnic issue per se is an internal affair of Sri Lanka, where too Indian concerns are involved. The fishers issue is very much a concern of the Tamil Nadu Government, and by extension that of the Government of India. Interpretations differ, though, both on the rights of the Tamil Nadu fishers to access Sri Lankan waters, and the liability of the SLN in allegedly targeting the former. Eerie peace has prevailed after every episode mid-sea, but it has social, political, economic and security consequences for all Governments that are involved. Elections to the Tamil-exclusive Northern Provincial Council in Sri Lanka, now promised in November next year, could throw up additional problems. Shared ethnicity between the Tamil fishers in the two countries could be completely replaced by competitive concerns pertaining to livelihood issues. The signs are already out there.
On security and livelihood issues, the Sri Lankan Government has its own views. The situation may have been further vitiated by the return of the Sri Lankan Tamil fishers back to their seas, after decades of ethnic war, when the Sri Lanka Navy had kept them out. The Sri Lankan fears that the local Tamil fishers extended cover, and provided assistance to the LTTE extends to their Tamil Nadu counterparts. The Sri Lankan State is duty-bound to ensure the livelihood of their fishers in the post-war period. To the SLN it has meant that they are responsible for the security of their fishers in their waters. The Sri Lanka Navy also seems wanting to minimise the fishers out in their seas, anxious as they are to check against any environment in which an LTTE-like militant group could emerge nearer home.
In October 2008, months ahead of the conclusion of ’Eelam War IV’, when the ’Sea Tigers’ were still a security threat, Colombo as much conceded the livelihood concerns of the Indian fishers, and declared that they could continue to fish in the Sri Lankan waters. More recently during the Colombo visit of India’s National Security Advisor Shivshanker Menon in May 2012, New Delhi indicated that this would continue until such time ’alternative arrangements’ were made. It is an acknowledgement of the ground situation by both sides. According to Menon’s statement issued at the end of his day-long visit, the two sides also agreed to keep the negotiations process between the fisher communities in the two countries going. Together, they have acknowledged the attendant complexities in the existing and evolving situation.
Industrialisation along the Indian coast
Independent of the Tamil Nadu situation, India has fishermen’s problem involving Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, to greater or lesser degrees. The Indian fishers complain of harassment at the hands of the Sri Lanka Navy in the South, at times alleging death as a consequence. If arrested, they are often freed without much loss of time, other than where specific criminal charges have been laid. In the Pakistani territorial waters, no episodes of harassment, and not certainly deaths, have been reported. Indian fishers arrested in those waters however undergo imprisonment without trial for 15-20 years, until they are released as part of some other political process unconnected to any negotiations on the fisheries front – which have seldom been held.
In the overall context, greater industrialisation of coastal India, flowing from the continuing processes of economic reforms could make adjacent waters murkier for fishing in the coming years and decades. Tamil Nadu’s is a typical case. Ten more new harbours have been planned in the State. This would feed industries along the coast discharging their treated/untreated effluents into the adjoining seas. This, as also the crowded coasts all across the State could make fishing difficult in more ways than one. Economic sense could drive coastal fishers to dispose of their land property to emerging industries in the region, and settle in the hinterland, tending to their hurt from the past and putting their children through professional education, as many of them have been doing already.
Proposals for deep-sea fishing, concluding in concepts such as ’mother-ships’, too would require greater commitment by the Centre and the State Governments all along the coast, in terms of equipping and educating the fishers in such technology. They would also require improved storage facilities and marketing skills. In the absence of both, middle-men have been exploiting the poor fishers in more ways than one, just as their counterparts have been doing to small and medium-size farmers on the landside. Facts and figures are known but there has not been much political will, other than in States like Kerala. There too, issues are limited to fishers using country craft and owning mechanised trawlers. Larger issues are not addressed as none has thought about them.
In the absence of an exclusive Fisheries Ministry at the Centre ? and effective mechanisms down the line in coastal States in particular ? those that are saddled with the additional responsibilities can only engage in fire-fighting. Even the Palk Strait fishers’ problems across Tamil Nadu’s coast with Sri Lanka, has only conferred a more frequent role for the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), which is the coordinating ministry, given the external angle involved. It has however not encouraged the Centre to bifurcate the Fisheries Department from the Agriculture Ministry, and confer on it a Cabinet rank. In States like Tamil Nadu, there is a Fisheries Minister, as if to accommodate political aspirants, but no independent Fisheries Ministry or Secretary.
The inevitable expansion of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) under UNCLOS III, when it happens, would mean that the nation’s maritime interests, wealth and concerns would expand. This in turn would demand greater attention at the political, policy-making and administrative levels. It is thus more than a security issue, more than shipping policy perspective. In a way, it has more to do with Shipping and/or Commerce in ministerial terms than with Agriculture, any more. Yet, it is not about Shipping or Commerce alone. It is also about livelihood, ecology and a whole slew of new generation concepts and ideas that have not sunk in as yet. Earlier is this understood, better would it be for the Indian States and the States in India.
Security concerns also remain. The bi-annual ’Dhosti 11’ naval exercise with Maldives, with the involvement of Sri Lanka this time round, for instance, is a step in the right direction. Yet, India and Sri Lanka, for instance, cannot be talking about shared security concerns in the shared seas without sharing the livelihood problems of their fishers, and finding a shared solution, as well. It is here that incidents involving the Italian ship off India’s coast, and the US naval vessel involving Indian fishers in foreign seas too assume greater significance than is acknowledged.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)