By Dr. Steve Creech
What is going on? First China wants a chunk of Sri Lankan land, now India has proposed to take over Sri Lanka’s seas! The Sri Lankans are familiar with Sri Lanka being the ‘Miracle of Asia’. At this rate, it would be a miracle if there was anything left in the country; after Sri Lanka’s Asian neighbours have finished dividing it up among them.
Last week’s proposal to annex an unspecified area of Sri Lankan waters for the Tamil Nadu fishermen, for a period of 84 days-a-year for three years, was made by Tamil Nadu trawler owners at a meeting between the Indian and Sri Lankan fishing community leaders held in Chennai. The meeting was organized by representatives of the respective governments in response to a request made by Prime Minister Modi during his recent visit to Sri Lanka. The meeting was the fourth or fifth in a series of inconclusive dialogues between representatives of Indian and Sri Lankan fishing communities.
"The Sri Lankan government was quick to quash reports that Sri Lankan fishermen had agreed to Indian trawlers fishing in Sri Lankan waters. It added for safe measure that no such provision or concession would be entertained in the future"
The Indian government’s supposition that foreign policy decisions between India and Sri Lanka, over fishing rights, are best left to self-interested members of the fishing communities may finally have run its course. The Sri Lankan government was quick to quash reports that Sri Lankan fishermen had agreed to Indian trawlers fishing in Sri Lankan waters. It added for safe measure that no such provision or concession would be entertained in the future.
In view of which, one has to wonder what - beyond a public relations exercise - is the point of any further ‘fishermen to fishermen’ dialogues? It is evident from the fallout from last week’s meeting that the position of the Sri Lankan government on Indian fishermen’s rights is at odds with that of Indian trawler owners. It is also reasonable to conclude that sending Sri Lankan fishermen to mediate on behalf of the Sri Lankan state is unwise.
Indian and Sri Lankan access to Marine Resources
India has a coastline of 8,041 km and an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal encompassing over 2.02 million square km of marine resources. Sri Lanka, in comparison, has a coastline of 1,770 km and jurisdiction over marine resources roughly a quarter of that of India’s EEZ (517,000 km2). 190,000 km2 of India’s marine resources are located off the coast of the Southern State of Tamil Nadu, which has a coastline of 1,076 km.
It is well known that marine resources are not equally distributed throughout the world’s oceans. The most productive area of an EEZ is located from the shoreline up to a depth of around 150m: an area of the sea known as the continental shelf. The topography of Sri Lanka and its location at the tip of the Indian subcontinent means that Sri Lanka’s continental shelf is relatively narrow. On average, it extends for only 17 km from the shore. As a consequence, the total area of Sri Lanka continental shelf is only 27,800 km2. Tamil Nadu, with its broad sweep of coastline running a quarter of the length of the Bay of Bengal, has a continental shelf one and a half times that of Sri Lanka (41,412 km2).
"On this side of the Palk Strait, all what the Sri Lankan fishermen could do would be to watch and wait forlornly. Patiently repeating that Indian fishermen have neither the right nor the need to fish in Sri Lankan waters"
These observations beg the question “why are the Indian fishermen requesting access to Sri Lanka’s marine resources when India has jurisdiction over almost four times more marine resources (than Sri Lanka) and the State of Tamil Nadu alone has one- and-a-half times more productive continental shelf fisheries than Sri Lanka?”
Something has gone horribly wrong with the management of fisheries in India; if the only solution to unsustainable fishing practices in Tamil Nadu is to lobby relentlessly and aggressively for the right of Indian fishermen to fish in Sri Lankan waters. What is needed is an Alliance for Responsible Indian Fisheries (ARIF), bringing together trawler owners, State and Central Government Agencies, activists and researchers to formulate a plausible, pragmatic programme, through which to rapidly resolve the historical mismanagement of fisheries in Tamil Nadu.
On this side of the Palk Strait, all what the Sri Lankan fishermen could do would be to watch and wait forlornly. Patiently repeating that Indian fishermen have neither the right nor the need to fish in Sri Lankan waters.
(Dr. Steve Creech is a freelance fishery consultant who has worked with northern fishermen affected by the Indian Sri Lankan fishery dispute since 1997)