Fisher war in the Palk Strait
Nearly three or more
days a week, about 2000 Indian trawl boats or more are crossing the
International Maritime Boundary Line to fish on the Sri Lankan side of
the Palk Bay in the north. The northern fishers of Sri Lanka, who
started to fish after the cruel civil war which kept them away from
fishing for nearly 30 years, face strict competition from the poaching
Indian trawlers, who steal their fish and damage their nets. More
recently (on the 27th of February 2015) more than 80 Indian trawlers
crossed the Maritime Boundary Line and started trawling near Kaddaikadu
in the east coast of the Jaffna peninsula, stealing the resources of the
local fishers, damaging their nets and even attacking them. They came
prepared for an attack and carried arms and explosives. The levels of
force used and deprivation of the rights of northern fishers of Sri
Lanka are unacceptable. Both their right to fish and the right to live
are violated. Enough is enough!
The nets of a Sri Lankan
fisher damaged by an Indian trawler
All this take place under the nose of the Sri Lankan Navy, and with
the knowledge of the governments of both countries. The ball is being
passed from one court to the other, but without any party showing
serious interest in arriving at a solution. This apathy shown by all
parties, is causing huge losses in terms of fast degrading resources on
the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Bay and seriously threatened livelihoods
of the northern people, pushing them into misery. They feel, excluded,
neglected, forgotten category, and their 'voices' are not heard. Change
of governments, change of ministers, bilateral discussions, have hardly
done anything substantial in resolving these issues.
The beginnings of the conflict
Palk Bay was the source of livelihood to tens of thousands of
fishermen both of Sri Lanka and South India since time immemorial.
Rather than a contested territory, it bridged the people of the two
countries together, through marriage, language and ethnicity. There were
no disputes between the two groups who fished in harmony with each
other. However, post-war developments saw radical changes in the
structure and organisation in fisheries in the region.
The 1950s saw a tremendous growth in international demand for shrimp
which also coincided with the onset of 'Blue revolution' where both
countries introduced new motorised fishing technology and new fishing
techniques (trawling in India and gill netting in Sri Lanka), which
finally led to large increases in fish production.
On the Indian side, the increased demand for shrimp resulted in the
growth of a trawl fleet which first started scraping the sea bottom on
its own side of the Palk Bay, while the Sri Lankans depended heavily on
gill net fisheries.
The next important development in the region was the establishment of
the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) in 1974, by concluding
an agreement, known as, the Agreement between India and Sri Lanka on the
boundary in historic waters between the two countries and related
matters (Gandhi and Bandaranaike, 1974. The boundary line was decided
based on the principle of equidistance, and Kachchativu became part of
the Sri Lankan territory of the Palk Bay.
The technique of trawling adopted by the Tamil Nadu fishers to catch
shrimp and other fish species living close to the ocean bottom, is known
as 'bottom trawling', where enormous bag-shaped nets are pulled along
the ocean floor, catching every rock, piece of coral, and fish in their
This technique literally scrapes the ocean floor clean of life and,
is tantamount to bulldozing the Sinharaja forest.
After damaging the ecosystem on their side by intensive trawling, the
Indian trawl fleet started venturing into the Sri Lankan side of the
Palk Bay in early 1980s by crossing the IMBL. Today, trawlers from
Rameshwaram, Mandapam (Ramnad District), Kottaipatinam all violate the
IMBL and fish on the Sri Lankan side.
Their poaching sites now include not only Mannar, Kilinochchi, Jaffna
and Point Pedro but also Mullaitivu and Kalpitiya on the north-east and
The eruption of civil war in Sri Lanka in 1983 saw easy passage of
Indians into Sri Lankan waters because the Sri Lankan fishers hardly
fished their waters due to a number of area and time restrictions
imposed by security forces.
Yet, today, the issue has become one of the most important economic
and political issues in the country, because the war has ended in 2009
and the Sri Lankan fishers in the North have commenced fishing.
These fishers are vehemently protesting against Indian trawlers
crossing the IMBL and request for immediate state intervention. There is
definitely an urgency to protect and restore the livelihoods of people
in the North of Sri Lanka.
Evidently, the intensive trawling on the Sri Lankan side of the Palk
Bay takes place under the nose of the Sri Lankan Navy and fishers
complain that the SL Navy is not taking adequate measures against
This kind of open smuggling that takes place with the knowledge of
authorities, has even triggered off other kinds of illegal practices as
The small trawl fleet in Pesalai, Gurunagar and Velvettithurai is
quite active today, although trawling is banned in this country. A kind
of stake net or wing net (ahalasiragu valai/kattudela), made from
galvanised pipes fitted with nets which are fixed in the near shore
area, are also causing a considerable damage to craft and gear of gill
net fishers operating in the Mannar area.
The southern fishers are now migrating in larger numbers to the
North, aiming at scuba diving for sea cucumber, although, scuba diving
is banned in the North. The Indian trawlers, which earlier aimed at
exploiting shrimp resources, are now engaged in harvesting sea cucumber
Since sea cucumber cannot be sold in Tamil Nadu (banned), these
fishers sell their catches to local merchants, the latter, who benefits
from South Indian trawl fishers, would naturally want to maintain the
status quo and welcome Indian intrusion.
The recent incident, where Indian trawl fishers have come armed and
attacked Sri Lankan fishers fishing in their own waters in Kaddaikadu of
the eastern coast of Jaffna peninsula, is of serious concern. This is
probably the first time, that Indian fishers resorted to armed violence,
which is quite haunting.
As Ranjan, a local fisherman in Kaddaikadu explained, "some 80 odd
trawlers were fishing in our waters, quite close to the shore and the
nets of a few of us were cut off. When we protested they started
throwing stones and small explosives at us. They were also pointing
sharp knives at us. Two of us were injured. Later, the Navy was able to
capture about light trawlers...this type of confrontations will lead to
loss of innocent lives, pushing us further into misery".
The costs associated with all these changes and developments are
huge. Fish landings in Jaffna and Mannar, which accounted for nearly 37
percent of all marine landings in the country in 1983 now account for
only 10 percent of country's total marine landings.
There are more than 30,000 fishing families in the Mannar,
Kilinochchi and Jaffna districts, whose livelihoods are seriously
In fact, the northern fishers are entangled in a 'triple net' - first
the agony of the war, then the Indian smugglers and bandits, and on top
of them, the southern fishers and merchants, all bringing them misery.
In the absence of any government intervention, there is only one
thing to do - take the law into your own hands!, which the local fishers
did on several occasions. The danger is that, such actions could be
stronger 'next time' taking the problem to unmanageable proportions.
In trying to deal with Palk Bay fisheries issues, an MOU was drawn up
in 2005, which made provision for the establishment of a Joint Working
Group (JWG), which among other things, would deal with issues of
poaching and arrests.
Already several rounds of discussions have been held since 2008 but
no significant developments have been reported, other than agreeing that
fishers in both countries should be able to pursue fishing activity in a
safe, secure and sustainable manner.
At the eighth meeting of the Indo-Sri Lanka Joint Commission held in
New Delhi on 22nd January 2013 both countries agreed that the use of
force could not be justified under any circumstances and reiterated in
this regard the importance of continuing to extend humane treatment to
all fishermen. It is quite evident that nothing substantial has been
officially achieved in resolving the burning issues at Palk Bay.
Yet, some progress has been achieved in the front of fisher-fisher
dialogues. Several such dialogues have taken in the past.
The first two dialogues were organised by ARIF (Alliance for the
Release of Innocent Fishermen). A goodwill mission consisting of a group
of fishers from Tamil Nadu visited Sri Lanka in May 2004. The Sri Lankan
fishermen wanted an end to trawling in their waters.
The Indian fishers promised to keep a three mile distance from the
shore and avoid certain trawl nets.
There was no government backing to this agreement and the subsequent
follow up of this agreement is not exact known.
Another dialogue between Tamil Nadu fishers and Sri Lankan fishers
from the Northern districts of Sri Lanka took place during 16-22 August
2010. About 23 fishers from Sri Lanka, along with two government
officials from Sri Lanka met Tamil Nadu fishers from a number of trawl
centres in Tamil Nadu.
The Indians agreed to stop mechanised trawl fishing in Sri Lankan
waters within a period of one year, during which time, only 70 days of
trawling were to be allowed.
Only two days of fishing (only Mondays and Saturdays, instead of
three days of fishing as at present) was promised. Unfortunately, the
governments failed to back up these decisions, and the promises were not
After realizing the importance of extending state patronage to fisher
dialogues, dialogues between the two fisher groups were held thrice;
March 2011, January 2014 and June 2014 with the intervention of the
The 2011 meeting, which was held in Colombo, did not produce any
fruitful results. However, at the January 2014 meeting, which was held
in Chennai, the Sri Lankan fisher representatives brought up the Palk
Bay fisheries issue as a serious livelihood issue of the Northern
fishing populations of Sri Lanka, which silenced the Tamil Nadu fishers
and the government officers, who were hanging onto Kachchativu and other
The Indian fishers promised to stop trawling for one month. Again the
governments failed to back up the agreements.
The dialogue continued again in June 2014, and the Tamil Nadu fishers
asked for more time to stop trawling, which the Sri Lankan fishers were
not ready to grant. The discussions ended in a deadlock.
What solutions exist?
Given that the Indian side of the Palk Bay is significantly degraded,
if we allow the status quo to continue, all parties will suffer in the
long run, because Palk Bay will be completely devoid of fish. Thus,
trawling has to be stopped.
This means that, the TN government has to work out a trawl fleet
reduction programme with top priority. Of course, this cannot take place
overnight because of the massive numbers of households depending on
trawling for their livelihood. It appears that there is no will on the
part of the TN government to take immediate steps in reducing its trawl
Although trawler 'buy back' scheme and deep sea fishing have been
proposed in reducing the trawler fleet, no significant development has
taken place in any of these fronts.
It is questionable, whether the Tamil Nadu government has a genuine
interest in reducing the trawl fleet.
What is surprising is that the very people in TN who have tremendous
sympathy towards the northern Sri Lankan populations who have suffered
the vagaries of war, are encouraging their own fishers to poach in Sri
Lankan waters posing a threat to the livelihoods of thousands of Sri
Lankan Tamil families.
Tamil political parties in Sri Lanka, such as the Tamil National
Alliance (TNA), too has an important role to play in this regard.
Surprisingly, they have remained quite silent on the issue for a very
long time, although they appear to have changed their stance and get
actively involved in finding a solution.
Token arrests of Indian fishers violating the International Maritime
Boundary Line (IMBL) and the initiation of fisher-fisher dialogues are
two means available to Sri Lanka, of sending signals to the TN
government in reducing its trawl fleet.
The former strategy will have to be re-worked to impose severe
punishment on those trawler bandits. But the major strategy to be
adapted in finding a long lasting solution is the fisher-fisher
Posing the Palk Bay fisheries problem as a livelihood issue, by Sri
Lankan fishers participating in the Jan 27th, 2014 dialogue, was an
important development in this sphere.
By completely avoiding the political dimensions such as the sanctity
of the international border, historical rights of Tamil Nadu fishers,
Kachchathivu, etc., the Sri Lankan fishers have directed the attention
of all parties towards environmental and livelihood issues arising from
trawling, putting the Tamil Nadu government on the right track.
This approach needs to be continued in all future dialogues and, the
two Governments must back up agreements made by fishers if deemed
Another thing is to ensure that legitimate fisher representatives are
selected for the dialogues.
Although the fisheries cooperative movement stood up as the only form
of organisation of fishing communities, performing an array of important
functions in small scale fisheries development of Sri Lanka in the past,
a parallel organisation called the 'Rural Fisheries Organisation' has
been recently established.
Which organisation better represent the interest of genuine fishers
in debatable. Earlier there were allegations that past fisher
delegations did not comprise genuine fishers who had a good
understanding of the problem and who could strongly defend their
It is also to be emphasised that fishers should be able to express
their feelings and discuss the diverse issues in an environment free of
any form of intervention.
The role of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) and the Tamil
National Alliance (TNA) in the whole issue is colossal.
They should definitely bear some responsibility to address the
concerns of the Northern fishers, including by breaking the political
deadlock with Tamil Nadu.
To the eyes of many, the Sri Lankan multi day fishers poaching in
Indian waters is a similar issue, with propositions for adopting a 'give
and take' policy (exchanging multi day fishers; interests in Indian
waters, for interest of Indian trawler fishers in Sri Lankan waters).
First it is to be noted that these are two different issues which
have to be treated separately.
Second, exchange of interest of this nature will be tantamount to
securing Sinhala interests (multi day fishers) at the cost of Tamil
interests (Northern fisher people), which should be avoided.
Besides, it should be noted that, measures are being taken to fix
Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) to multi day crafts to regulate their
Finally, efforts made at resolving fisheries issues in the North will
have to address the ecosystem health issue as well.
The ecosystem of the Palk Bay is under threats of degradation and
resource sustainability issues are of serious concern. Unless both
countries join hands in managing this ecosystem, efforts made at micro
level would be quite futile.
Towards meeting sustainability goals, the State of Tamil Nadu has
taken an important step in establishing a co- management platform for
the Palk Bay, comprised all relevant parties (Under a project called
FIMSUL 1) and, Sri Lanka need to do the same on their side and become
part and parcel of a comprehensive fisheries management plan involving
The writer is attached to the Dept. of Agricultural,Economics Faculty
of Agriculture, University of Ruhuna, Kamburupitiya.