The smouldering fishermen issue

Ceylon Today Editorial

The Tamil Nadu fishermen encroaching on local waters North of the country, has reached a boiling point. They have now issued an ultimatum to Sri Lanka and India, demanding that concrete steps be taken to address the Indo-Lanka fishing dispute, saying that failing which the situation may spiral out of control.

The warning was issued after a Tamil Nadu fisherman was allegedly shot and killed last week and fingers were pointed at the Sri Lanka Navy. The Sri Lanka Government responded by releasing several Tamil Nadu fishermen who were in custody back to the Indian authorities – which was not well received by the Indian Central Government and the Tamil Nadu Government which decided to pursue the accusations.

The persistent blame resulted in the Navy Commander taking up the matter as well. The once criticized, media’s bane Navy Commander Vice Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne recently claimed that the Indian Coast Guard has not provided requested information that will be highly useful for the investigations conducted by the Sri Lanka Navy. He noted that in order to ascertain whether such a shooting had taken place last week, the Sri Lanka Navy had requested Global Positioning System information from all the fishing boats that were in the sea on the night when the incident had taken place – which as of yet, has not been provided.

Theme Cartoon googled and added by TW (Big Fish UP: Political Gain: k’nidhi and j’latha Tamil and Fishers issues)
Image result for Tamil nadu Fishermen cartoons

Vice Admiral Wijegunaratne has adamantly noted that no Navy Officer is authorized to shoot poaching fishermen without a clearance from the Navy Commander, himself. And according to him, on the night the shooting is said to have occurred, no such authorization was provided. But then again, this coming from the same person who straight out assaulted a video journalist covering a protest last year in Hambantota and was seen ordering his officers to remove protestors from the Hambantota Port by ‘any means necessary’ is, itself, a questionable statement.

But, it is obvious, that we cannot jump to conclusions.

Relations between two countries comes under pressure due to fishermen straying into each other’s waters. Every month dozens of fishermen from each country get arrested for illegal poaching. The fishing controversy is due to the unclear demarcation over the Palk Strait, a narrow strip of sea between the two countries – which as of yet neither government has come forward in discussions (or in any other form) in order to resolve same.

The Palk Strait is a strip of ocean that separates Tamil Nadu in India from the Mannar District in Sri Lanka. Its width is between 53 and 80 kilometres; the narrow division between the two countries has resulted in confusion over who holds ownership over the waters.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is a sea zone which a country has special rights to including the exploration and use of marine resources. This zone stretches 200 nautical miles out from the coastline.

In the case of the Palk Strait, both Sri Lanka’s and India’s EEZ overlap each other. This has now resulted in the conflict that has arisen between the two nations’ fishing communities.

According to fishermen living in the northern Mannar District in Sri Lanka, Indian fishing trawlers often come within 500 metres of the shoreline. The number of Indian fishermen who enter Sri Lankan waters is so high that the local fishermen are scared to venture out. As for Sri Lankan fishermen, they do not know where Sri Lankan waters end and the Indian waters begin – most of the local fishermen lack GPS facilities in their boats which result in unintentional encroaching of foreign maritime borders. 

Cartoon from internetImage result for Tamil nadu Fishermen cartoons

As always, there are many solutions to this. Fishing communities in the Northern Province as well as those fishermen who encroach into local waters are being educated on the safety of fishing and the illegality of crossing maritime borders to ensure they do not stray into foreign waters.

Furthermore, India should acknowledge that fishermen of Tamil Nadu are trespassing on Sri Lankan waters. This has been proved, time and again by various individuals who have provided satellite images of the Palk Strait, when and before fishermen cross the borders. Yet, neither the Indian Central Government nor most definitely the Tamil Nadu Government has paid an ounce of attention to this bit of information.

This matter would be resolved more or less, if the governments of the two countries met in discussion to clearly demarcate the parameters of the Palk Strait – something that has been overdue for several decades. Yet we don’t see that happening in the near future, with all the internal issues and possible controversial economic partnerships that could be signed between the two countries; the two governments of the respective countries have already a lot on their plates. And this issue is not on it and will drag on. Yet we write, with the hopes that someone would see this and would take this into consideration.