The Prime Minister told the Indian press he would shoot the poachers. The President told Northern fishermen and the TNA that he would arrest them. Despite threats and assurances, an armada of Tamil Nadu trawlers continues to fish freely off the northern coast of Sri Lanka.
According to a Mannar fisherman whom I spoke to last week, more than a thousand Tamil Nadu trawlers are still fishing illegally in Sri Lankan waters on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturday evenings. The RADAR image (right) was taken off the coast of Pesali on July 14, it clearly shows around 300 or so South Indian trawlers fishing illegally in the Sri Lankan waters. They come as close as 250m from the shore. When I asked about the Sri Lankan Navy, the fisherman said that fishing communities had been told that they (the navy) have been instructed not to arrest the trawlers.
"The RADAR image (right) was taken off the coast of Pesali on July 14, it clearly shows around 300 or so South Indian trawlers fishing illegally in the Sri Lankan waters. "
Recent statements by the Central Government of India and Sri Lanka have repeatedly upheld the bilateral agreements signed between the two States in 1974 and 1976. These agreements delineate the International Maritime Boundary Line between India and Sri Lanka in the Gulf of Mannar and the Bay of Bengal. The first paragraph of a letter exchanged between Kewal Singh, the Indian Foreign Secretary and W. T. Jayasinghe, the Secretary to Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence and Foreign Affairs on March 23, 1976, reads: “With the establishment of the exclusive economic zones by the two countries, India and Sri Lanka will exercise sovereign rights over the living and non-living resources of their respective zone. The fishing vessels and fishermen of India shall not engage in fishing in the historic waters, the territorial sea and the exclusive economic zone of Sri Lanka, nor shall the fishing vessels and fishermen of Sri Lanka engage in fishing in the historic waters, the territorial sea and the exclusive economic zone of India, without the express permission of Sri Lanka or India, as the case may be”.
Article 27, Sub Section 3 of the Constitution says that “‘the State shall safeguard the independence, sovereignty, unity and the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka’. Given the foregoing, why is the Sri Lankan State unwilling to uphold the Constitution and protect the sovereignty of Sri Lanka? When I posed this question to a constitution expert last week, he said that the answer is most likely political.
"To make matters worse, politicians in Tamil Nadu, some civil society groups and even some academics, actively support the right of Tamil Nadu trawlers to fish illegally in Sri Lankan waters."
The State Government of Tamil Nadu disputes the validity of both bilateral agreements. To make matters worse, politicians in Tamil Nadu, some civil society groups and even some academics, actively support the right of Tamil Nadu trawlers to fish illegally in Sri Lankan waters. Although Premier Modi’s government has a majority in the ‘Lok Sabha’, the BJP needs the support of Tamil Nadu politicians in the Rajya Sabha. President Maithripala Sirisena needs the support of India to geo-politically reposition Sri Lanka, equidistant from China, the US, the EU and the UN. So here’s the bind. If the Sri Lankan President were to uphold the Constitution and instruct the navy to arrest the Tamil Nadu trawlers, his counterpart in New Delhi would face problems in the Rajya Sabha from dissenting Tamil Nadu politicians.
The TNA’s silence on the issue is rooted in a not-too-dissimilar political quagmire. For decades, the TNA has depended on the support of Tamil Nadu politicians, and more recently those in New Delhi, to pursue its political aspirations on behalf of the Tamil people. The TNA’s stance appears to be that the immediate economic aspirations of 25,000 Tamil fishermen must be sacrificed to the demands of 500 or so Tamil Nadu trawler owners, in order for the TNA to achieve its political goals. In short, the TNA is reluctant to speak up for the rights of Tamil fishermen to fish freely in Sri Lankan waters, because the TNA fears losing Tamil Nadu and or New Delhi politicians’ support for the TNA’s political aspirations on behalf of the Tamil people.
Every week, hundreds of metric tons of Sri Lankan seafood is being illegally harvested from the Sri Lankan waters and landed in India by Tamil Nadu trawlers. Every month, thousands of Sri Lankan fishermen are being deprived of tens of thousands of rupees of household income. Every year, Sri Lankan seafood companies are losing millions of dollars of potential export revenue.
If you are reading this on Monday morning, you can be sure that an armada of trawlers are now getting ready to leave Rameshwaram, Thondi, Kodikari and Nagapatinam. This evening they would fish freely and illegally in the Sri Lankan waters. Tomorrow they would return home with their ill-gotten catch, and there is nothing that can be done to stop them?
Steve Creech is a freelance fishery consultant. He can be contacted at [email protected]