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The Reality of India – Sri Lanka Fishermen Dispute


For the past few months, the Modi government has been making efforts to improve relations with Sri Lanka and permanently move beyond engagement on longstanding disputes. Notable amongst these persistent disputes is the issue of Indian (Tamil) fishermen frequently straying into the Lankan waters for fishing and then getting arrested or shot by the Lankan Coast Guard. No bilateral talks between India and Sri Lanka have been conducted without reference to this issue. However, now the Modi government is seeking to move beyond it, instead of letting it act as an obstruction to the development of India-Sri Lanka relations.

This is fine. But the issue of fishermen raises more serious questions about how India is rapidly depleting its scarce fishery resources and how unfair our dealing on this issue has been so far.

The state government has proposed a deep-sea fishing policy that will be jointly subsidized by the central and state governments. In this, mainly, the destructive bottom-trawling fishing (where heavy fishing nets or trawls are dragged across the sea-bed) will be replaced by sophisticated vessels for deep-sea fishing. Bottom trawling has been banned in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, since the 1950s, it has been encouraged by Tamil Nadu as a part of its push towards a mechanized fishing sector. The mechanized fishing sector mainly caters to the export market for trading in fishes. This is different from the simple near-shore fishing that artisanal fishermen did. Over the years, bottom trawling has completely decimated our near-shore fisheries and we are fast destroying the fisheries farther off also.

In fact, Indian fishermen frequently knowingly encroached on Sri Lanka’s fisheries, which had banned bottom trawling to protect its own marine resources. Yet the Tamil government, despite being in the wrong, continued to be aggressive and belligerent towards Sri Lanka on the fishing issue. Anybody can see how fair that is! Now we have almost depleted all our fisheries and are realizing that there is little left for export, little left for the artisanal fishermen and little left for eating. The greed for foreign exchange and relentless and unthinking exploitation of the marine resources has led to this. Now that nothing is left, we want Sri Lanka to give up its claims on Katchatheevu island – a long dispute – and redraw the International Maritime Boundary Line which was finalized in 1974. Why? So that we can get more fish.

The Tamil Nadu government is always trying to look like a martyr by showing that its fishermen are deprived of their needs and are arrested or shot by Sri Lankan Coast Guard. This is far from the truth. The fishermen who actually trespass the maritime boundary are the ones who engage in bottom trawling to get fish for export in the Palk Bay – an entirely commercial motive of greed for which they unfairly want to destroy Sri Lanka’s fisheries after having finished their own. The actual victim fishermen were the ones who only did near-shore fishing and whose interests were brazenly killed by the Tamil government itself. Even as Jayalalitha continued to pretend to regard herself as a mother of the fishermen, unbridled commercialism was being promoted and the Tamil government was recklessly straining India-Sri Lanka relations.

What the Tamil government fails to realize or wants to overlook is that demanding or blaming Sri Lanka or gaining the island or redrawing the maritime boundary line, will not solve the larger problem. According to figures, roughly 2000 bottom trawlers operate in Palk Bay three days a week. Even if India were to gain the Katchatheevu island (whose fishes are also depleting), it would just take a few days to completely fish out the whole island. Then Tamil Nadu’s commercial, export-oriented fishermen would continue to try to enter Sri Lankan waters and poach its marine resources, while the Tamil government will continue to cry itself hoarse about how its ‘victimized’ fishermen are targeted by the Lankan authorities.

It is obvious that the Tamil government should be stopped from being so self-destructive. The real situation is that after having exhausted its own fisheries solely for export purposes, they want to poach as much as they can on Sri Lanka’s resources too – they especially enter the Lankan waters to poach ‘high value’ resources like the shrimp which can bring more money. The conduct of Tamil bottom trawlers has been making headlines in Sri Lanka. Modi will no longer be able to sit with the Lankan premier and defend Tamil Nadu, as previous central governments have done. In India-Lanka talks, India had committed to phase out bottom trawling but did not keep its promise. Under such conditions, we are in no position to blame Lanka. It would be better if the Tamil government stopped playing dirty politics over the issue.

The sole motive of Tamil government is to poach endlessly for export. So its latest deep sea fishing policy will use sophisticated fishing equipment to ensure that ‘high-value’ species like tuna are targeted. Not only will this permanently wipe out whatever little marine resources we have left, but will also benefit only a small group of commercial fishermen who can afford the technology – thus, standing contrary to Tamil Nadu’s martyred image of it trying to protect its victim fishermen. Not Lanka, but Tamil Nadu is responsible for destroying its fishermen. Tamil government is working not just against Lanka, but also against the long-term interests of India.

In these times of climate change, nothing will be left and Lankans and Tamils killing each other over fisheries will become more common. In fact, in drought years, when the burden on fisheries increases, there is conflict among Tamils themselves. With climate change, there will be more drought and more unpredictable monsoons. At the same time, we will continue destroying our resources for profit. Already we are seeing a mad rush where people will kill each other for these resources and this will increase. It will then no longer be merely a Lankan-Tamil fishermen dispute.

The way this issue raises questions about the serious impacts on the ocean’s fishes shows how the deep malaise of utilitarianism is showing its results in various guises. The crux of the whole problem of depleting fish stock and the fight over who gets more fish is the fact that unbridled greed and commercial interests of the state government and the commercial fishermen (who were painted as victims) led to this state of things. We have already degraded our land resources, have manipulated the atmosphere and have impacted the oceans’ health. The malaise of the utilitarian spirit will single-handedly ensure the planet’s destruction.

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