When thousands of boats with GPS monitoring systems violate the International Maritime Border Line that divides Sri Lanka and India and Tamil Nadu crafts travel as far as Trincomalee and pilfer fish that belong to Sri Lanka’s fishermen where is the problem? Is the problem the arrest of Indian fishermen or the violation of internationally demarcated territorial waters and the poaching of fish? How have the arrest of Indian fishermen, the confiscation of their boats taken over the discussion focus when it is the violation of thousands of Indian shipping vessels looting fish and depriving the livelihood of thousands of Sri Lankan fishermen that should be the priority item? The next focus needs to be the realization that the use of bottom trawlers which ruined the seabed of India’s coast depriving breeding ground for fish resulting in the absence of fish is likely to lead to the same catastrophe for Sri Lanka if the problem is not dealt with leaving aside theatrics and politics.
The goodwill and cordial relations that Sri Lanka has shown to India has been at the cost of watching Tamil Nadu fishermen poach on Sri Lankan waters and make millions in exporting fish that belong to Sri Lanka and depriving Sri Lankan fishermen of a livelihood. Hard as it is to accept, this is the truth.
The question is can Sri Lanka or should Sri Lanka continue to watch Tamil Nadu illegally violate IMBL and poach fish while also ruining the marine sea bed of Sri Lanka simply to maintain cordial relations? Lives of 600,000 Sri Lankans are affected and so too is marine sea life. Would India have done the same in the reverse situation?
Cordial relations between two nations is one thing but the issue at hand is the livelihood of fishermen (Sri Lankans and Indians), future of Marine fish (on Sri Lankan and Indian waters) and officials of both countries need to realize that domestic political compulsions or current income status should not mar the ground realities. Eventually both sides will end up losers.
We need to also add that these Indian fishermen come from the same families that helped LTTE throughout the 30 year conflict and were very much involved in smuggling goods to and from Sri Lanka.
What exactly is the problem?
- Main problem 1 : Tamil Nadu fishermen poaching in Sri Lanka’s territorial seas & depriving Sri Lankan fishermen of their livelihood.
- Main problem 2 : Tamil Nadu fishermen are poaching in Sri Lanka’s waters because they have ruined the Indian side of the maritime border where there is no fish now. That is why Tamil Nadu fishermen are poaching in Sri Lanka’s waters. By using internationally banned bottom trawlers Sri Lanka’s marine sea bed will get destroyed and lead to no fish on either side.
- Main problem 3 : Tamil Nadu fishermen stealing fish and earning millions in revenue that rightly belongs to Sri Lanka. This is depriving Sri Lankan fishermen and families of livelihood and Sri Lanka is losing out on an income that belongs to Sri Lanka.
- Indian fishing boats have GPS (Global Positioning System) devices on their boats and so are well aware when borders are crossed! Over 4000 Indian vessels have GPS installed. The device also supports SMS, GPRS, HSPA packet data and an alarm sounded to the vessel informing them they are straying and should return.
- Is the Tamil Nadu State Government not aware that
o Tamil Nadu fishermen are poaching on waters that do not belong to India?
o Tamil Nadu fishermen using internationally banned bottom trawlers?
o Tamil Nadu marine sea bed has no fish because these same fishermen have destroyed the marine sea bed because of their selfish methodology of fishing?
o Tamil Nadu fishermen CANNOT continue poaching on waters belonging to another country, CANNOT steal fish that belong to fishermen of another country and Tamil Nadu should not deprive the Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen most of whom are the one’s who are getting affecting from the loss of livelihood.
o Tamil Nadu fishermen come in massive steel boats and ram into the small fiberglass one’s belonging to Sri Lankan fishermen and even cut their nets. (nets are purchased with a loan of Rs.100,000)
o Tamil Nadu has opened 400 processing plants despite knowing that these are for fish that have been stolen from Sri Lankan waters.
The Poaching Scenario
- What is Tamil Nadu’s coastal length – 1076km
- How large is the Tamil Nadu fishing population – 1million living in close to 600 fishing villages across 13 coastal districts
- How large is the fleet of ships/crafts used by Tamil Nadu fishermen – over 6200 mechanized fishing crafts / 54,000 traditional crafts.
- Over 1000 Indian boats (of varying sizes) cross illegally to Sri Lanka daily.
- $20m worth shrimp is stolen by Indian fishermen / total loss is in excess of $730m (Minister Senaratne)
- According to experts, there are nearly 250,000 tonnes of tuna in the Bay or Bengal which move in schools northward during breeding season. Tuna, in the international market, can fetch anything between US$ 6-10 per kg (nearly US$ 30,000 or about Rs 18,00,000 in the international market.)
- Indian fishermen steal 65million kg of fish that belong to Sri Lanka annually.
- Allegations against Tamil Nadu fishermen illegally crossing the international maritime border and poaching fish that belong to Sri Lanka thus getting arrested by the Sri Lankan Naval authorities has resulted in claiming that fishermen are being harassed and arrested without reason and thereafter forcing a diplomatic row between the 2 nations using domestic politics as bait, an easy ploy that leaves little choice for the Indian Central Government in view of the need to cooperate with State Governments to pass domestic legislation.
- Yet, Sri Lanka has sacrificed its income and livelihood of its own fishermen and their families for cordial relations with India in view of South Indian coastal fishing industry having to close down if Sri Lanka does take a sterner stand.
- The most damaging impact is the use of bottom trawlers which with their weighted nets not only destroy the seabed and corals but deny breeding ground for fish (this is why the Indian side of the IMBL does not have fish because fish cannot breed there)
What is the scale of the problem to Sri Lankans
- Sri Lanka’s marine fisheries resource base has a total extent of 538500 km2
- Northern and eastern coastal belts cover nearly 60 percent of Sri Lanka’s coastline. This 60% was subject to fishing restrictions throughout the 3 decades of war. The restrictions affected livelihood of traditional fishermen and fishing families.
- In 1980 fishing industry in North Sri Lanka accounted for 100,000 metric tons. By 2009 that figure was a dismal 15,000 mt while Indians were stealing 615,000 mt of fish from Sri Lankan waters.
- Fishing is the livelihood of coastal families
- Fishing provides employment for 150,000 and indirectly to 250,000 people (Northern Sri Lanka is home to an estimated 28,000 fishermen) The poaching problem has affected 600,000 people.
- 1.7% of GDP comes from fisheries.
- In 2012 national fish production was 486,170 metric tons (417,220 mt of marine fish/68,950 mt inland fish)
- Exchange earning from fish exports and fishery products was Rs.26m. Sri Lanka exported 18,631 mt processed fish to the value of Rs.26.3m. 70% of annual protein intake for Sri Lankans come from fish.
- At present there are 16 fisheries harbours in operation. Most of these fisheries harbours do not have adequate facilities and unable to accommodate large vessels. Poor fisheries infrastructure hampers the development of off shore and high sea fishing. Additionally, inadequate ice production, storage and transport facilities have constrained the quality improvement and improved distribution of fish Loss of revenue to Sri Lanka from poaching by Indian fishermen is beyond $730million.
- UK and Japan are the largest international buyers of Sri Lankan fisheries products, accounting for 25 percent and 22 percent of total fish exports respectively, followed by France, Germany and the U.S. The European Union is the main buyer for Sri Lankan fisheries exports
Some quotes from article by Meera Srinivasan writing for The Hindu (June 2014)
- “Unless India acknowledges that fishermen from Tamil Nadu trespass into Sri Lankan waters, the northern province fisher folk will have no hope”
- “I will have a job only if the Indian trawlers stop coming.” Gently nudging a reluctant crab out of the fishing net with a stone, J. Rajeswari speaks of the acute impact the Indian trawlers have had on Pesalai, one of the biggest fishing villages in Mannar, Sri Lanka. “On the days that the trawlers come our fishermen don’t go to the sea. If they don’t go, I have no job.”
- Trapped between a natural affinity for Tamil Nadu and growing anger over its response to the fisheries issue, he says: “They [people of Tamil Nadu] are our people and we have very strong links with them. They always speak up for us. But the Tamil Nadu fishermen should realise we are just piecing our lives together after a brutal war. We need to eat. We need to live.”
- According to Justin Soysa, president of Federation of Mannar District Fishermen Associations. “Many of us have lost our nets. Some fishermen have mortgaged their assets to cope with the crisis. We have nothing more to lose,” he says.
- “The Tamil Nadu fishermen are adamant in their stance. They want three years to phase out trawling. Isn’t that unfair?” asks Mohammed Alam, president of the union of fishermen’s cooperatives in Mannar.
- K Rajachandran president of a Jaffna-based cooperative. To start with, the trawlers pose a serious threat to marine resources and in the long run, it would affect not just fishermen of northern Sri Lanka, but all fishermen in the region. At another level, he says it is unreasonable on the part of Tamil Nadu fishermen to expect them to negotiate without bringing in the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) into the discussion. “How can we speak about the issue without bringing in the problem of poaching?” asks Mr. Rajachandran, who participated in the recent talks in Colombo.
However, what the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister has been reluctant to admit is that Tamil Nadu fishermen go well past Katchatheevu into what is legally Sri Lanka’s fishing territory across the IMBL.
After a brutal war spanning nearly three decades the fishermen are desperately trying to put their lives back on track. Unless the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister recognises this and acknowledges that fishermen from her State are trespassing into Sri Lankan waters — as has been repeatedly proved by satellite images — the fisher folk of Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority Northern Province will have no reason to cling on to hope. They have already been pushed to the very edge.
What is the Katchchativu problem?
- In 1974 and 1976 a bilateral agreement was signed between India and Sri Lanka.
- That bilateral agreement legally signed between 2 sovereign nations drew up the International Maritime Border Line.
- With the IMBL Katchchetivu officially came under the jurisdiction of Sri Lanka.
- Historically, Sri Lanka has made claim to Katchchaitivu in 1924 and as far back as 1876 even colonial invaders accepted Katchchativu as belonging to Sri Lanka.
- The 1976 Agreement allowed Tamil Nadu fishermen to use Katchchativu only to dry wet nets and to attend the Catholic festival annually held on the island.
- Tamil Nadu fishermen stray beyond Katchchativu though it is around Katchchativu that shrimp can be found
- It is an open question whether the Tamil Nadu demand for Katchchativu is to hide the fact that fish abound around Katchchativu.
- The legal status of Katchchativu was settled in July 2014 except for the political spin via media. The Indian Central Government in its affidavit responding to a Public Interest Litigation filed by L A Peter Rayan of the Fishermen Care with the Madras High Court concluded that
- Katachchativu is a sovereign property of Sri Lanka
- The 1974 and 1976 agreements between India and Sri Lanka do not confer any fishing rights around the island for Indian fishermen
- Indian fishermen and pilgrims will enjoy access to Katchchativu without travel documents or visas only to dry nets and for annual St. Anthony’s pilgrimage. Right of access does not cover fishing rights.
The solution :
When the IMBL an international and legal border is being violated it is a matter for officials of the 2 nations signatory to the agreement to solve. The State violating the IMBL cannot or should not be allowed to determine the action plan that the two sovereign nations discuss and conclude upon. It is therefore, better for India’s Central Government to analyze the faultlines on the Tamil Nadu side, weigh them against the legalities and violations and with the State Chief Minister ensure that the Indian Central Government gives assistance for alternate fishing methodologies so that the IMBL is not crossed.
The legal status of Katchchativu is a settled matter. Katchchativu belongs to Sri Lanka. The affidavit by the Indian Central Government suffices to not waste time arguing on this.
The next three problems are
- the straying into Sri Lankan waters by Tamil Nadu fishermen,
- the poaching of fishing and looting of earnings that belong to Sri Lanka and its fishermen
- the gradual destruction of Sri Lanka’s marine sea bed as a result of bottom trawlers used by Tamil Nadu fishermen.
These are the 3 areas that need to take centre stage of the discussions. What is now happening is that those doing the harm are presented as the victims and the arrest of the Tamil Nadu fishermen who are violating the IMBL, the confiscation of their boats are taking centre stage.
The authorities on both sides need to put the argument in perspective to genuinely reach a solution.
Shenali D Waduge