An escalation of fisheries related incidents in the Palk Bay area is threatening to undermine the bilateral Indo-Sri Lanka relations. It is important that this matter is given urgent attention. The current ad hoc approaches adopted by both countries are not providing an adequate framework to resolve the issues concerned with wide scale poaching by Indian fisherman in Sri Lankan waters.
There are some fundamental facts that should be clearly understood in addressing this issue. Indian fishers have almost exhausted stocks in their waters in the Palk Bay area. This is due, partly at least, to the use of destructive and illegal trawling methods and use of too many trawlers that cannot be sustainably deployed within the Indian side of the Palk Bay.
During the armed conflict in Sri Lanka, South Indian fishers had a field day in Sri Lankan waters, due to restrictions imposed for security reasons. Even after the end of the armed conflict, they continued their illegal practice of intruding into Sri Lankan waters, thereby adversely affecting the livelihoods of predominantly Tamil fishers from the North and the East of the country; many of whom are war weary and extremely poor. To justify their illegal activities, Tamil Nadu fishers even to this day continue to justify their illegal activities by alluding to ‘traditional fishing rights” they had enjoyed prior to reaching an agreement on the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL).
No legal/traditional grounds
There are no legal and certainly no traditional grounds for crossing the IMBL for fishing by fishers of either country. The Sri Lankan fishers of the North and the East have the right to earn a living from the fish stock available in Sri Lankan waters, without intrusion from anybody.
The failure to address this problem effectively is largely due to parochial political compulsions in Tamil Nadu. Political leaders of Tamil Nadu and those in the opposition should recognize that they have responsibilities toward their people, who make a living by venturing in to the Palk Bay. The problem of depleted fish stocks in the Indian side of the Palk Bay cannot be solved by intruding in to Sri Lankan waters and engaging in bottom trawling thereby adversely affecting the livelihood of the predominantly Tamil fishers in the Sri Lankan side. Rather than encourage poaching in Sri Lankan waters, as has been acknowledged by Indian Coast Guard (The Hindu, 14 December 2012), Tamil Nadu fishers should be assisted to find alternative means of livelihood. The current tensions over the fisheries issue have made it necessary to attach the highest priority to resolving the matter amicably through negotiations. The opportunity costs for both Sri Lanka and India are high in allowing this issue to fester.
The Pathfinder Foundation (PF) has already covered this ground in previous articles. We are returning to this issue again given the urgency of the problem and the failure of our previous efforts to stimulate discussion and debate on an issue of vital national importance that is arguably one of the most crucial foreign policy challenges for the country today.
The Indo – Lanka Joint Study Group Report sponsored by the Pathfinder Foundation and Manipal Global Education (available at www.pathfinderfoundation.org) has provided specific recommendations for addressing this issue. The report contains an annexure, (which sets out a comprehensive and structured mechanism to address all aspects of this multifaceted problem.
Joint study group members:
Sri Lankan Members: Bernard Goonetilleke (former Foreign Secretary), Nihal Rodrigo (former Foreign Secretary), H.M.G.S. Palihakkara (former Foreign Secretary), Dr. Rohan Perera (former Legal Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Dr. Vethody Kumaran Valsan (former Ambassador) and Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy,
Indian Members: P. K. H. Tharakan (former Indian Police Service), A. Gopinathan (former Indian Foreign Service), Vijay Singh (former Indian Administrative Service and Former Defense Secretary), General Deepak Kapoor PVSM, AVSM, SM, VSM (former Chief of Staff) and Prof. V. Suryanarayanan,
The problem of depleted fish stocks in the Indian side of the Palk Bay cannot be solved by intruding in to Sri Lankan waters and engaging in bottom trawling thereby adversely affecting the livelihood of the predominantly Tamil fishers in the Sri Lankan side
The most significant proposal made by the Joint Study Group relates to the establishment of a two-tiered Joint Mechanism for the conservation and sustainable management of fisheries and other marine resources in the Palk Bay area. The first tier will constitute a committee comprising representatives of the two governments, headed by the respective Ministries of External Affairs. At the second tier, a group will be established which would consists of representatives of Fishermen’s Associations, Fishermen’s Cooperatives, academics, experts in international law,
scientific and research establishments and other stakeholders in each country. While some members would be permanent invitees, others will be co-opted or invited depending on the topics to be considered, and for specific durations or tasks.
The report also makes several recommendations relating to actions to be taken individually by the two governments as well measures to be introduced jointly.
Urgent action should be taken to ensure that this volatile issue does not escalate any further. This is a complex matter with ecological, humanitarian, economic and political dimensions, with both national and bilateral implications. This Indo – Lanka Study Group Report has sought to address the multifaceted aspects of the problem and made specific recommendations for addressing it. It should receive attention at high levels of both governments.
(This is the Thirty-First Economic Flash published by the Pathfinder Foundation. Readers’Comments are welcome at www.pathfinderfoundation.org)