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Palk Bay – Deepening Crisis

Paper No. 5926                                      Dated 06-May-2015

Guest Column by Prof. V. Suryanarayan

Storm clouds are gathering over Palk Bay region, which divides Tamil Nadu from the northern parts of Sri Lanka, threatening the livelihood of thousands of Tamil fishermen on both sides.

It is unfortunate because the Sirisena-Ranil administration is very keen to develop and foster friendly relations with New Delhi. Unlike Mahinda Rajapaksa who was getting closer to Beijing and Islamabad to “cut India to size” the present government is committed to remove the distortions in foreign policy, come out of international isolation and bring about ethnic reconciliation.

The latest phase in the long standing dispute began when Prime Minister Ranil Wikramasinghe, in the course of an interview with Tamil TV channel, Thanti TV, declared that he had ordered the Sri Lankan Navy to resort to firing if Tamil Nadu fishermen continued to poach into Sri Lankan side of the Palk Bay. Ranil’s statement was justified by DM Swaminathan, Minister for Resettlement. In an informal chat with journalists in Chennai, Swaminathan remarked that “any country can fire at infiltrators”.  Compounding the complex situation is the bill introduced recently in Parliament by Sumanthiran, the leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), asking the government to confiscate all trawlers poaching into Sri Lankan waters. The reaction on the Indian side was equally unfortunate. Political parties in Tamil Nadu naturally opposed the Sri Lankan statements. What is more, before proceeding to New Delhi to meet Smt. Sushma Swaraj, Minister for External Affairs, sections of Indian fishermen demanded that the Government of India should ensure their “unrestricted entry” into Sri Lankan waters.

Due to unrestricted and extensive trawling there is no fish on the Indian side of the Palk Bay. Therefore the Indian fishermen go deep into Sri Lankan waters, which is relatively rich in marine endowments. The long years of ethnic conflict, when fishing was banned by the Sri Lankan government, was God send for Indian fishermen. During this period, there was indiscriminate firing by the Sri Lankan Navy, who could not distinguish between a fisherman and a Tiger guerrilla leading to loss of lives, serious injuries, destruction of fishing boats and loss of fish worth crores of rupees. When the war ended and the Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen wanted to resume fishing they found the presence of Indian trawlers to be a major impediment to their livelihood. But nobody cared for them, including the leaders of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The statements of Ranil and Swaminathan are an illustration of Sri Lankan “brinkmanship” to compel New Delhi to arrive at an amicable solution to the problem.

New Delhi’s policy on the issue so far can be characterized as a “fire fighting exercise”. When there is a fire, extinguish the fire. Thus the Ministry of External Affairs became very active when Indian fishermen were detained by the Sri Lankan Navy and their boats confiscated. New Delhi used its good offices and the fishermen and the boats were released. The very next day Indian fishermen once again entered into Sri Lankan waters. What is required is not a fire fighting exercise, but a determination to remove the causes of fire once and for all. This can be done only when the two governments address the problems relating to livelihood of thousands of not only Indian fishermen, but also Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen

The one sided approach of Indian fishermen was evident in the meeting they had with the BJP leadership in New Delhi last week. The meeting was arranged by Honourable Minister Pon Radhakrishnan where the fishermen expressed their problems freely and frankly. I had the opportunity to attend the meeting. The fishermen stated that the sea and the sea coast belong to them and their interests should be safeguarded by the Government of India. Unfortunately not even one of them referred to the livelihood issues of the Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen. In my intervention I submitted that the Palk Bay belongs to both Indian Tamil fishermen and Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen and an amicable solution can be found only when we focus on the livelihood issues of Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen also.

Fishermen throughout the world are no respecters of maritime boundaries. Just as Tamil Nadu fishermen enter into Sri Lankan waters, Sri Lankan fishermen every day enter into Maldivian and Indian waters.  According to YS Yadava, a leading specialist on fisheries, Sri Lankan fishermen are more adept and active than Indian fishermen. The deep sea fishing vessels of Sri Lanka regularly poach into Maldives, India and Bangladesh.        

The statements made by Ranil and Swaminathan, it must be pointed out, are violations of the UN Law of the Sea. Crossing the international maritime boundary and fishing in another country’s waters is a civilian economic offence. Article 145 of the UN Law of the Sea stipulates, “Measures will be taken to ensure effective protection of the human life”. Article 73 mentions that a coastal state can take measures “including boarding, inspection, arrest and judicial proceedings to ensure compliance with the laws and regulations”. Shooting and killing of fishermen violate all canons of natural justice. In this connection it must be pointed out that the Indian Coast Guard regularly detains foreign fishermen who enter into Indian waters, but there had been no occasion when fishermen have been shot. They are tried according to the law of the land.

The Sri Lankan Tamil Fishermen are the worst victims of prolonged ethnic conflict. In the pre-1983 period, the Northern Province accounted for 38 per cent of the total fish production of Sri Lanka. When the conflict began their personal security and livelihood were adversely affected. They had to come to India as refugees not once, but three times. The National Fisheries Solidarity in a report stated that 1, 50,000 fishermen of the north and the east lost their principal source of income. Fishing harbours were converted into high security zones. 90 per cent of their fishing nets, gears and engines were rendered unusable. Equally important, while in recent years the southern part of the island has made rapid strides in deep sea fishing, the Tamil fishermen still remain backward.

A solution can be found only when Indian fishermen accept the reality that the Palk Bay belongs to both Indian Tamil and Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen. Depriving the livelihood of Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen is an unpardonable crime. Where is Tamil solidarity, which the Tamil politicians shout from house tops every day?

The ball is in New Delhi’s court. In the meeting with fishermen last week Smt. Sushma Swaraj asked the Indian fishermen not to cross the international maritime boundary line. In order to dissuade Indian fishermen from getting into Sri Lankan waters, New Delhi should announce immediately that the trawlers will be withdrawn from the Palk Bay region within six months. Fortunately the number of trawlers has been coming down, because the trawler owners are realizing that it no longer profitable to use trawlers. In my conversation with fishermen they told me that they are not opposed to withdrawal of trawlers. What is more, these trawlers, with certain modifications, can be used in the deep sea as subsidiary boats attached to a big mother ship. And as a stop gap arrangement, livelihood allowance could be paid to the fishermen until they get trained in deep sea fishing.

Fishermen and the sea are inseparable. But at the same time the fishermen do not have such an attachment to the land. Majority of fishermen in Rameshwaram have come from villages in the Gulf of Mannar. Since the Palk Bay is self-enclosed, the fishing harbours for deep sea fishing have to be located in the Gulf of Mannar, Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean.  With incentives and persuasion on the part of Central and State Governments fishermen can relocate themselves to new fishing harbours. It should be pointed out that deep sea fishing is also one of the main objectives of central and state government.

The success of diplomacy consists in converting a crisis into an opportunity. With trawlers out of the scene the Palk Bay region will become a tranquil area. A Palk Bay authority should be constituted, consisting of representatives of both countries, to manage, modernize and enrich fishing. The Palk Bay authority can determine what is the ideal sustainable catch, what type of fishing equipments can be used, how many days can Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen fish and how to enrich the sea. From being a contested territory the Palk Bay will become common heritage, which it was for several centuries. Such an imaginative step will also give a fillip to bilateral and regional co-operation in South Asia.

(Dr. V. Suryanarayan is Nelson Mandela Professor for Afro-Asian Studies in Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam. His e mail id: