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Sri Lanka: TN Initiative To De-Congest Palk Bay Fishing Takes Concrete Shape – Analysis

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By N Sathiya Moorthy*

In a meaningful follow-up to the budget initiative of 2011, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa recently distributed Rs 30 lakh as subsidy in a total estimated cost of Rs 60 lakhs to help enable the State’s fishermen to undertake deep-sea fishing in a big way. The immediate effect of the ‘first-of-its-kind initiative in the country’ is that it will help de-congest fishing in the Palk Bay, and thus indirectly help reduce tensions with counterparts along the Tamil-majority Northern and Eastern Provinces in Sri Lanka.

The original Budget proposal after Jayalalithaa returned to power in 2011 had provided for 25 percent subsidy for tuna long-liners. With the fishers and their associations demanding higher incentives for them to take to deep-sea fishing, the subsidy component was raised to 50 percent of the total budgeted cost. Accordingly, some 580 fishermen from 171 fishermen groups will get Rs 51.30 crores as subsidy towards buying the boats. Five fishermen received the subsidy cheque from Chief Minister Jayalalithaa at the State Secretariat on 15 July. As reports pointed out, “No other State has far provided such a high subsidy for fishermen”.

The scheme is applicable to fishers across the State’s 1,076-km coastline, which interestingly abuts the Bay of Bengal for most parts, the Indian Ocean and also the Arabian Sea, and accounts for 15 percent of the total coastline of the nation. The idea is to promote deep-sea fishing as an additional source of income for the fishing community, owing to inevitable stock-depletion caused by various factors, and also to recoup the marine ecology — which is facing near-extinction already — over the medium and long-terms.

Lesser temptation

However, in the short-term, greater focus on the Palk Bay region could also lessen the pressure on the Rameswaram fishers. This could mean that they would face lesser temptation to risk their lives and vessels by crossing the IMBL in the Sri Lankan waters, where again their brethren claim the fish-stock is depleting fast. Indications are that the new vessels would facilitate tuna-fishing during seasons or whenever the catch is good. On other occasions, the vessels could use the ‘gill net’ to increase the catch.

The plans also involve the creation of markets and guidance on pricing mechanisms, to make deep-sea fishing attractive for the State’s fishers, to take it as a profitable vocation, nearer home, without having to risk their lives either in the Sri Lankan waters or those elsewhere, be it Iran or the Gulf region, where too they have either lost their lives or had been detained by local authorities. However, fishers in the State alongside counterparts in other coastal regions of the country expect the Centre to review the Meenakumari report on deep-sea fishing in the nation’s EEZ, where the proposal seemed to favour foreign vessels rather than facilitating and promoting local trade and tradesmen.

Fast-tracking decision

In the case of Palk Bay fishing in the Rameswaram area, for instance, the fishers could/would be encouraged to use one of the fishing harbours, existing or proposed ones that are designated for deep-sea vessels, with additional berthing and storing facilities – expected to be completed in about three years’ time, when the deep-sea vessels hit the Tamil Nadu’s waters in a big way. Even otherwise, fishers are known to be a migrant work-force, shifting and changing their boats and bases to whichever part of the sea, where the catch is said to be good. Hence there is also the problem of Indian fishers crossing the IMBL into Sri Lankan waters. In between, training would also be imparted to the State’s fishers in deep-sea fishing, both in terms of techniques involved in catching and preserving the fish, and also in physical and psychological endurance. As is known, fishers from Thuthoor village in southern-most Kanyakumari district are known to have taken to deep-sea fishing for centuries. At present, fishers from other parts of the State are also known to take to deep-sea fishing, and their numbers could increase in the coming years and decades, owing to the pressure along the sea coast, caused by environmental degradation and ecological concerns, in turn resulting from large-scale industrialisation of the nation, requiring more and larger ports and coast-based industrial infrastructure, oil pipelines, etc.

A clearer picture on the pace and phases of the ‘vessel conversion’ work will be known only when the Centre decides on the State Government’s request for financial assistance for the purpose. In a memorandum submitted to Prime Minister Narendra Modi at their first meeting in Delhi after he had taken over power, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa sought close to Rs 1000 crores for creating deep-sea fishing facilities. Indications from the ground are that the Centre has been evaluating the request, with the seriousness it deserved. The current State Government initiative should encourage the Centre to fast-track the decision.

Traditional rights

For all the State Government initiatives that could help de-congest the pressure on Palk Bay fishing, particularly should the Centre adapt it as a policy priority, aimed at furthering the relations with a ‘friendly neighbour’, whose war-torn Tamil population too requires tranquil waters for their fishermen to re-launch their trade in a big and beneficial way, Tamil Nadu does not seem to be giving up on the traditional right of its fishers in the shared seas with Sri Lanka. With the end of the war in Sri Lanka, the protests over Indian fishing is as much from counterparts in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, over stock-depletion, as by Colombo, whose concerns are also over issues of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘territorial integrity’ – over Indian fishers crossing the IMBL.

Claims over the ownership of Katchchativu too remain. As may be recalled, Jayalalithaa – joined later and independently by DMK predecessor and political bête noire M Karunanidhi – has challenged in the Supreme Court the 1974 bilateral demarcation of the IMBL, causing the ownership and possession of the tiny islet to Sri Lanka. Incidentally, Palk Bay is among the few sea-lanes across the world which the UN Conference on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) confers exclusive yet divided ownership on the two riparian nations. It is also unclear if the Indian Governments or courts can unilaterally cancel the accord after publication under UNCLOS.

In between, fishers from the two nations, meeting in the Union Territory capital of Puducherry along with counterparts from other parts of the world, have revived calls for reopening talks between the fishers from India (read: Tamil Nadu) and Sri Lanka. There is a greater acknowledgement in both nations now about the ‘livelihood issues’ concerning the fishers from the two countries, but working out an all-acceptable solution can become difficult until after the 17 August parliamentary polls in Sri Lanka, followed by Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, due by May 2016.

Forgotten bridge

For now, the Indian Government has bifurcated ‘fishing-related issues’ with Sri Lanka, by bringing in the Fisheries Department in the Union Agriculture Ministry to address long-term livelihood requirements, leaving the detention of Tamil Nadu fishers in Sri Lankan waters to the continued care of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Indian High Commission in Colombo. For their part, BJP leaders in Tamil Nadu taking off from where they had left at the time of the ‘Sea Lotus’ campaign for fishers’ votes ahead of the 2014 parliamentary polls, began talking about Central aid for the State Government’s deep-sea vessels’ project, possibly little realising that the latter alone had the established machinery in place for implementing and supervising a medium-term scheme with a long-term policy orientation.

In between, ruling BJP leaders in and from Tamil Nadu and also senior Ministers at the Centre, including Nitin Gadkari, in charge Road Transport, have started talking about reviving the forgotten bridge-project across the Palk Bay, originally mooted by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, during his earlier innings over a decade ago. They have priced the project at Rs 23,000 crores and also talked about ADB funding-clearance. However, it is unclear if either the Tamil Nadu Government or that in Colombo has been sounded out on the proposal. Earlier when PM Wickremesinghe mooted the project at a seminar in Chennai, Jayalalithaa as the then Chief Minister, shot it down without trace, citing LTTE threats to a land-bridge of the kind.

*The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter

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ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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