The Indian subcontinent is surrounded from the North by the central Asian steppe and the Persian Afghan plateau is a challenging landscape from the ancient history.
From the South of the subcontinent the Kaveri delta were the Dravidian life was centered such as the Ganges in the North for Hindi speaking populous is another terrain with separate culture in one subcontinent. At the southern tip from a narrow stretch of water where the seascape begins is another geopolitical hot spot.
The waters between India and Sri Lanka are rich in history and mythology. According to Valmiki Ramayana there is only one point of connection between the two nations. The man made bridge of Rama and Hanuman to reach Sri Lanka used to rescue Rama’s wife Sita from the demon King Ravana of Lanka. This Rama’s bridge was renamed as the Adams Bridge by British cartographers at the beginning of 20th century. The geographical stretch of waters at Palk straits is a rich fishing ground for fishermen from the early days.
Post war Indo-Lanka relations
A thirty-year war which devastated Sri Lanka ending in 2009 had many implications from the South Indian state. Sometimes the central government policy highly influences popular Tamil Nadu party politics which has threatened Indo-Lanka relations at many incidents. Post war Indo-Lanka relations is challenging and sometimes threatening the sovereignty of Sri Lanka with recent claim by Chief Minister Jayalalitha on acquisition of Kachchativu Island and establishment of a separate state “Eelam”.
Despite this, the most pressing issue remains sovereignty of nations and the fisherman’s disputes. Chief Minister Jayalalitha plays a pivotal role as a sympathizer of the Tamil Nadu fisherman who encroach Sri Lankan fishing grounds and also a protector of the fisheries business owners of mechanized industrial bottom trawlers. The bottom trawlers were used by Indian fisherman to rip out the rich sea bed a practice now banned globally. There are evidence of even few Sri Lankan fishing boats converted with this method has been identified as the authorities complain saying the fisherman is saying if Indians do it in our sea why can’t we do it? This is a practice which the authorities should take strict measures to confiscate as it destroys the rich biodiversity of the ocean a threat for the future generation.
Ignorant about IMBL
The fishermen claim they are ignorant about the existence of the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL). There are reports that more than 3000 Indian fishing boats engage in illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing in Sri Lankan waters. Both governments had met many times to resolve this dispute with arrests of fisherman from both sides. During the recent visit of President Sirisena, Prime Minister Modi stated the need to find a permanent solution to the issue of fishermen straying into each other waters.
A solution is on the making for issuing license to few Indian fishing trawlers with limited catch to minimize mass scale fisheries resource depletion by Tamil Nadu fisherman.
A technical proposal will be drawn up and submitted to Indian Government according to Secretary Defence of Sri Lanka. This method was not new as in 1976 maritime boundary agreement two countries was to issue up to 6 permits to Sri Lankan vessels with 2000 tons per year for three years at Wadge Bank south of Kanyakumari. The recent Sunday Times reports Sri Lankan fisheries Minister says “At present 2000 to 3000 Indian trawlers fish in our waters. The aim is to reduce it to 250 and to issue license to them”.
If the new scheme license is issued for the Indian mechanized bottom trawlers there will be objections from Sri Lankan fisherman. If it is for ordinary fishing vessels we could look at a system such as in New Zealand a very advanced approach of “Quota Management System (QMS)”. During the past when the fisheries resource in New Zealand was depleting the authorities setup a QMS to allocate fishing vessels to demarcated zones inside the EEZ with an annual quota which they could trade at an electronic trading market if a fisherman has stocks left you can trade with another. This was studied by fisheries officials of Sri Lanka back in 2008.
Sri Lankan fisheries association and the Indian could study a system such as a QMS to resolve this issue as the Sri Lankan fisheries association has reservations to grant license to Indian trawlers to fish in Sri Lankan waters. Customized QMS creating a joint fisheries association with registered database of fishing vessels is an option. However the existing GPS device with Indian fisherman which indicates from a beep when reaching the IMBL is of no use if the transponders are switched off to engage in illegal fishing. All this systems will fail if certain standards are not followed and punished the ones who do not follow the rules. In Malaysia if you switch off your transponders you are automatically fined by the authorities.
No legislature banning
There is still no legislature in Sri Lanka banning Bottom trawling a universal banned method which destroyed the entire sea bed. This should be taken up immediately as a serious environmental hazard to preserve the rich ocean ecology. The department of fisheries has stopped issuing license, this is not sufficient, introducing the laws is essential. The situation of bottom trawlers has worsened compared to last year with a serious increase of boats. More than 50,000 Sri Lankan fishing families in the North are affected and huge revenue loss everyday due to illegal fishing by Indian trawlers.
The central governments of India and Sri Lanka should find solutions understanding the challenging geographical space to prevent conflict and to preserve the rich biodiversity in this area. If left alone in the present state the issue could create a serious strain to the Indo-Lanka relationship.
(The writer is the former Executive Director of the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies)