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Mainstream, VOL LV No 24 New Delhi June 3, 2017

India-Sri Lanka Fishermen‘s Issues: Are Joint Cooperatives the Solution?

Thursday 8 June 2017

by Gautam Sen

The problem of Indian fishermen crossing the median boundary line in the Gulf of Mannar, Palk Straits and Palk Bay and intruding into Sri Lankan territorial waters, has been existing for a long time. In fact, there are accusations that, the Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu‘s southern districts have been indulging in predatory fishing in Sri Lankan territorial waters and exclusive economic zone and even bottom trawling there, thereby destroying the seabed ecology of that country and adversely affecting the livelihood of its northern province‘s fishermen. Some Sri Lankan sources have alleged that over the recent years, Sri Lanka has suffered a loss of nearly $ 40 million owing to Indian fishermen‘s poaching. This phenomenon has also been in violation of the India-Sri Lanka Agreements of 1974 and 1976 and the Exchange of Letters thereafter, between India‘s then Foreign Secretary, Kewal Singh, and W. T. Jayasinghe, Sri Lanka‘s Secretary of Defence and Foreign Affairs at that time, which prohibit such trespassing and fishing by fishing vessels and fishermen into each others historic waters, territorial sea and exclusive economic zone.

From time to time, the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) has been arresting Indian fishermen and impounding their boats, for trespassing and fishing in violation of the international sea boundary. Since Maithripala Sirisena‘s assumption of Sri Lanka‘s presidency in 2015, the problem of arrests of Indian fisher folk by the SLN has subsided though not totally over, but the contentious phenomenon has not been dealt with on a long-term basis. The widespread fishing activity of Indian fisher folk in the common waters across the agreed maritime boundary line, particularly post-Fourth Ealam War, was possible because the Sri Lankan fishermen were constrained in fishing in their own legitimate territory during the Ealam War, owing to strong surveillance measures mounted by the SLN in the area and restrictions on all sea movements.

At the behest of both the governments of India and Sri Lanka and with their facilitating efforts, dialogues had been conducted between the fishermen‘s associations of both the countries, but no long-term implementable solution has emerged. The former President of India, Abdul Kalam, had even suggested that Indian fishermen and their Sri Lankan counter-parts resort to fishing in the area on alternate days, which did not seem to find acceptance with the stakeholders concerned. Periodic discussions between the government authorities of both the countries have, nevertheless, been held on continuance of the fishing activities by fishermen of both the countries without transgressing the accepted maritime boundary line and without interference by naval authorities. Most of the Indian fishermen, arrested by SLN for fishing in violation of the maritime boundary agreement, have been released, though some of their boats remain impounded with the Lankan authorities.

To alleviate the problems of fishermen of both India and Sri Lanka and in the interest of amity, suggestions have also been given by interested parties at the grassroot level, to empower the district heads (Deputy Commissioners) of India‘s southern districts facing Sri Lanka, and the government agents (equivalent of India‘s Deputy Commissioners) of the northern provincial districts of Sri Lanka, and network them to function on a real-time basis to control deploy-ment of fisher folk of the respective countries in area, and also oversee that they do not cross the common demarcated sea boundary. Resources of a Government of India laboratory, National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS), Hyderabad, could also be leveraged to enable the network to demarcate areas for group or cluster-wise fishing.

The fact of the matter is that, Indian fishermen have already obtained the major portion of the obtainable catch in the area because of their larger complement of boats and fishermen deployed, their superior wherewithal, that is, advanced and larger boats, and relatively lesser presence of Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen. Now, it may be appropriate in the interest of welfare of the Sri Lankan fisher folk as well as amity between the Tamil people of both the countries, to wean away Indian fishermen from bottom trawling in the contentious area and instead, induce them to venture out for deep sea fishing in the exclusive economic zone of India in the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean. Furthermore, some long-term incentives are required at the state and union government levels in India, to provide alternative means of livelihood to the Indian fisher folk of Tamil Nadu‘s southern districts. These could be in the form of invest-ment to set up downstream processing units of marine products and training in requisite skills to the persons involved, apart from other ancillary activities. This will reduce their present level of dependence on traditional fishing, bottom trawling, etc., in the narrow sea zone of average width 32 km. between the two countries.

India-Sri Lanka bilateral relations are at an adequately positive level at present. This is the propitious time to promote joint cooperatives or societies of fishermen of both the countries to conduct and promote fishing scientifically and in an organised and equitable basis in their common waters, and perhaps, to an extent in nearby deep sea designated areas. This sort of cooperative venture may subsist within a frame-work agreement or memorandum of understanding between the two countries. The cooperatives could be set up with seed capital subsidised or totally funded by the governments. A line of credit could also be extended by government of India to its counterpart in Colombo, to fund the subsidisation or total subscription of the Sri Lankan fishermen dependent on fishing in the Gulf of Manner, Palk Straits and Palk Bay, towards seed capital.

The crucial issue of deployment of fishermen of the cooperatives and the respective areas of fishing may be dealt with by the Deputy Commissioners/government agents, who could designate areas or zones for each cooperative, thereby enabling orderly fishing and sharing of catch as per the members involved in the activity. In the suggested scheme, some cooperatives would consist of more Indian fisher folk, while others may be having more Sri Lankans. This may be inevitable because of the fact that, there are more active Indian fisher folk than Sri Lankan fishermen in the Gulf of Mannar—Palk Bay—Palk Straits area. Notwithstanding this backdrop, the very jointness of the fishing activities under the aegis of joint cooperatives and oversight of the local administration, would engender better understanding among the fisher folk of both the countries.

The Government of India already has a scheme to provide subsidy ranging up to Rs 10 lakh per person and for trawler from funds channelized under MUDRA (Micro Units Development and Reinvestment Agency) yojna for small enterprises and entrepreneurs. Tamil Nadu‘s coastal districts‘ fishermen‘s societies or cooperatives could avail of the benefits as above, for both ancillary activities and switching over to deep sea fishing on a large scale. Tamil Nadu‘s record under MUDRA has been creditable in the last two years. The state has disbursed MUDRA loans amounting to Rs 2600 crores in the range Rs 5-10 lakhs. There is therefore a reasonable prospect of reorienting Tamil Nadu‘s fishermen‘s fishing activities towards a joint cooperative mode with their Sri Lankan counterparts, and simultaneously optimising the fishing endeavour as well as gradually eliminating a source of continuous friction, with emotive overtones, in India-Sri Lanka relations.

The author is a retired IDAS officer, who has served at the First Secretary level in India‘s High Commission at Colombo and in different senior appointments under the Government of India and a State Government.

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