India-Sri Lanka : Fishermen Issue – UPSC GS2

  • Palk Strait and Gulf of Mannar are major fishing grounds for both the countries.

  • Given the proximity of the territorial waters of both countries, especially in the Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar, incidents of straying of fishermen are common.
  • Indian boats have been fishing in the troubled waters for centuries and had a free run of the Bay of Bengal, Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar until 1974 and 1976 when treaties were signed between the two countries to demarcate International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL).
  • However, the treaties failed to factor in the hardship of thousands of traditional fishermen who were forced to restrict themselves to a meagre area in their fishing forays.
  • The small islet of Katchatheevu, hitherto used by the Indian fishermen for sorting their catch and drying their nets, fell on the other side of the IMBL.
  • Fishermen often risk their lives and cross the IMBL rather than return empty-handed, but the Sri Lankan Navy is on alert, and have either arrested or destroyed fishing nets and vessels of those who have crossed the line.

What is the issue?
The fishermen issue continues to be a major irritant in the India-Lanka ties. This issue has a socio-economic dimensions, livelihood and humanitarian dimension and wants a long term solution to the problem.
Sri Lanka’s Position: It accuses Indian fishermen of straying into its territorial waters. It wants Indian fishermen to immediately end bottom trawling, a practice that depletes the ocean’s resources. It also has refused to return more than 100 trawlers seized since 2014.
India’s Position: Fishermen from Tamil Nadu are only fishing in their traditional areas, especially around Katchatheevu, an islet ceded to Sri Lanka in 1974.
Joint Working Group:
  • India and Sri Lanka agreed to set up a Joint Working Group (JWG) on Fisheries in 2016 as the mechanism to help find a permanent solution to the fishermen issue.
  • The JWG also includes representatives from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, the Coast Guards and Navies of both countries.
  • Terms of reference of the JWG:
    • Expediting the transition towards ending the practice of bottom trawling at the earliest.
    • Bottom trawling is an industrial fishing method where a large net with heavy weights is dragged across the seafloor.
    • When the weighted nets and trawl doors are dragged along the seafloor, everything in their path is disturbed or destroyed, including seagrasses, coral reefs or rock gardens where fish hide from predators.
  • Framing procedures for returning fishermen arrested by both sides.
  • Possibility of joint patrolling.
Bottom Trawling Issue:
  • Bottom trawling by Indian fishermen had emerged as a major issue because of the disruptive impact it left on the coastal communities of Sri Lanka.
  • Sri Lanka banned bottom trawling, increasing the chances of interception of more Indian bottom trawlers.
Initiatives taken by India to reduce Bottom Trawling:
  • Recent initiatives taken by the Government of India to end bottom trawling in the Palk Bay area include the launch of a programme on diversification of bottom trawlers into deep-sea fishing vessels for tuna long lining under the Blue Revolution Scheme, construction of Mookaiyur and Poompuhar fishing harbours, and capacity-building programmes for fishermen of the Palk Bay area in deep sea tuna long lining.
  • Besides, fresh registration for bottom trawlers in the Palk Bay area has been banned by the Government of Tamil Nadu.
  • India has informed that schemes promoting seaweed farming and sea-cage farming have begun in the Palk Bay area to wean away fishermen from deep-sea trawling.
Why the conflict has not been resolved yet?
  • Failure in implementing joint working group resolutions: Earlier both sides agreed for no violence or loss of life while handling the fishermen. A hotline was established between the respective Coast Guards for that.  However, the proposed hotline has not been operationalized yet.
  • Alternate solutions failed: The plan to replace Tamil Nadu fishermen trawlers with deep-sea fishing vessels has not been successful.
  • Failure of Direct talks: Attempts to negotiate a settlement through direct talks between fishermen from both sides have also failed.
  • Inability to find a common ground: Sri Lanka favors an immediate ban on unsustainable fishing practices such as bottom trawling.  While Tamil Nadu fishermen want a lengthy phase-out period for the same.
  • Insensitivity of Tamil Nadu Political leaders. Political leaders in Tamil Nadu fail to acknowledge that incursion into Sri Lankan waters by the State’s fishermen contribute immensely to the problem.

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