A festering crisis in the Palk Strait
A moratorium on bottom trawling and support for fishermen is a good first step towards a solution
Rajkiran, 30, from the coastal district of Pudukkottai in Tamil Nadu, is the fifth Indian fisherman to die in the Palk Strait this year, after Samson Darwin, A. Mesiya, V. Nagaraj and S. Senthil Kumar from Ramanathapuram, died in January. . The boat Rajkiran was on, along with two others, sank late on October 18 after apparently colliding with a Sri Lankan Navy patrol boat. The other two fishermen were remanded in Sri Lanka until November 1, while Rajkiran was reported “missing” until his body was recovered by the navy days after the incident. Tamil Nadu fishing associations have accused the Sri Lankan navy of brutally attacking Rajkiran, while Sri Lanka has denied the allegations.
In both cases this year, what is known is that the fishermen died trying to make a living. In both cases, they would have crossed the international maritime border, an invisible demarcation between India and Sri Lanka. They were intercepted in Sri Lankan waters by the Sri Lankan Navy for “illegal fishing”, after which some of them returned dead.
New Delhi has addressed a “strong protest” to Colombo after the death of the four fishermen in January, allegedly at the hands of the Sri Lankan navy. But there has been no sign of a full investigation since, let alone credible. The distressing incidents are neither unique to this year nor inevitable.
The fishermen’s deaths are a stark reminder of the unresolved fishing dispute that escalates in the Palk Strait, barely 30 miles wide (at its narrowest point). The problem has been around for over a decade now, since the end of the 30-year civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009. This is when the Tamil fishermen from the north of the island, who were displaced and were denied access to the sea, began to return to their old homes, hoping to revive their livelihoods and resuscitate their lives. Their return, however, marks the start of a new tension with Tamil fishermen across the sea. It has posed a serious threat to their livelihoods, fishing gear and the marine resources on which they depend.
In Tamil Nadu, daily wage fishermen are all too aware of the risks involved in working on mechanized fishing vessels used for “bottom trawling”. Their salary depends on the catch they bring back. Using the bottom trawl method of fishing, they drag large fishing nets along the seabed, scooping up a huge amount of shrimp, small fish and pretty much everything in one go. This practice, considered destructive around the world, has ensured large profits for their employers – the shipowners – and a small income for the most risky fishermen.
The relentless bottom trawling along the coast of Tamil Nadu over the years has drawn fishermen to the relatively resource-rich Sri Lankan waters. This pushes them into a cycle of arrest, pre-trial detention, release or, in some unfortunate cases, violence or death at sea.
The Sri Lankan state’s response to the problem has been largely military and legal, instructing its navy to patrol the seas and stop “invaders”, ban trawling, and impose heavy fines on people. foreign vessels engaged in illegal fishing in its territorial waters. Little support has been given to war-affected artisanal fishermen in the Northern Province in terms of infrastructure or equipment. Despite the accumulation of large losses, the fishermen received no assistance even during the months of containment induced by the pandemic.
The heavy penalty imposed on foreign vessels has proven to be a deterrent, at least temporarily. But in recent months, fishermen in the north have frequently sighted Indian trawlers, especially when the Sri Lankan Navy relaxed its patrol, fearing the importation of COVID-19 infections.
India and Sri Lanka have held numerous rounds of bilateral talks over the past decade between government officials as well as leading fishermen. Results have mostly ranged from dead ends, with Tamil Nadu refusing to give up bottom trawling, to standard government responses, with India seeking a “humanitarian response” from Sri Lanka. The closest the two countries had come to a solution came in November 2016, following a meeting in New Delhi chaired by the foreign and fisheries ministers of both sides, with other interlocutors. keys. A joint working group was set up to accelerate above all “the transition to the end of the practice of bottom trawling as soon as possible”.
The Indian government’s attempt to divert fishermen to deep-sea fishing has not taken off as expected, even as profit-hungry boat owners in Tamil Nadu stubbornly defend their trawler trade. Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu fishermen continue to allege that the Sri Lankan navy is unleashing violence against them; Sri Lanka denies this. Five years since, we are at a fairly low point in the fisheries conflict, with increasing human costs.
In the meantime, this could be the biggest test to date for the solidarity that Tamil Nadu continues to express with the Sri Lankan Tamils who have borne the brunt of the civil war and still await justice and a political solution.
By now it is evident that bottom trawling has maximized not only the profits made by the Tamil Nadu shipowners, but also the risk faced by the poor daily wage fishermen employed in the coastal districts. Wealthy landowners and those they employ for meager wages should not be lumped together simply as “Tamil Nadu fishermen” without recognizing that their interests and risks differ hugely.
It is also well known that the incessant trawling of Indian vessels has caused enormous losses to fishermen in northern Sri Lanka. Their catches have declined dramatically and they have endangered varieties of fish. They are shot because their persistent calls to end bottom trawling have not been heard by their counterparts in Tamil Nadu, or “brothers” as they repeatedly call them.
For politicians and activists in Tamil Nadu, the death of fishermen is naturally the most scandalous and emotional dimension of this complex problem – especially since no previous case has been examined or no author has ‘was held responsible. Still, seeing the conflict simply through the prism of Tamil Nadu fishermen and the Sri Lankan Navy may not provide a solution to the problem, even if it could keep its most deplorable symptom in the center of attention.
At the heart of the conflict lies a tale of competing livelihoods in a narrow strip of sea, amid looming environmental threat and a blatant asymmetry of power – whether in numbers, equipment, or political support – between two Tamil fishermen. communities. The growing trust deficit between them does not bode well for the prospect of a solution.
India and Sri Lanka urgently need to refocus their energies to deal with this crisis. As a first step, Tamil Nadu should consider a moratorium on bottom trawling in the Palk Strait. Such a decision must be accompanied by substantial support from both New Delhi and Colombo to their respective fishing communities to deal with the suspension of trawling on the Tamil Nadu side and the devastating impact of the two sides. Time must be used to develop a lasting solution. Strong bilateral ties are not only about shared religious or cultural heritage, but also about sharing resources responsibly, so as to protect the lives and livelihoods of our peoples.