Vivekanandan has worked with fishing communities for over a quarter-century. Most of that was spent with the South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies, a cooperative organisation for small fishermen, of which he is currently advisor. He has started a new organisation, Fisheries Management Resource Centre (FishMARC) to promote and support collectives of the fishing community, and is the convener of the Alliance for Release of Innocent Fishermen (ARIF), which has been working on the issue of trans-border fishing on the Indo-Sri Lankan maritime border for over a decade. Chandrika Sharma spoke with Vivikenandan about the outstanding problems of transborder fishing on the Indo-Sri Lankan border and possibilities for resolving these.
First, give us an overview of the issues currently facing fisherfolk in India and Sri Lanka.
There are two distinct issues here. The first is the movement of Indian boats into Sri Lankan waters, especially in the Palk Bay, the shallow, narrow strait between India and Sri Lanka. The second is the Sri Lankan ‘multi-day’ fishing boats, which fish in many parts of India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The Palk Bay problem arises because the international border is close to the shores of both India and Sri Lanka. Historically, fishermen from both countries have fished amicably in the Palk Bay without any notion of a border. The border was fixed in 1974, but there were no conflicts till the civil war in 1983, after which Sri Lankan fishermen were not permitted to fish normally by the Sri Lankan authorities, due to security concerns. The Indian side saw this as an opportunity to cross over and fish in the Lankan waters; their fleet expanded, particularly the trawl fleet. The smaller-scale fishermen in India have always been at loggerheads with the trawl fleet, which is not allowed to fish within three nautical miles of the shore of Tamil Nadu. So they go beyond this to fish, deep within Sri Lankan waters.
What is the distance between the Indian and Sri Lankan shores?
It varies between 18 and 40 km. It is a short distance and relatively easy to cross; besides, it is difficult to keep to your own side of the boundary when pursuing fish shoals. The Indian fishermen who went across the border to fish, expanded their fleet after the war. Many Sri Lankan fishermen who had come as refugees to India lived in camps near Rameswaram accompanied the Indians on their vessels, and would show them all the fishing grounds. Throughout the war, from 1983 to 2009, the Indian boats regularly crossed and fished on the Sri Lankan side. On a number of occasions, they were detained, arrested and at times even shot at.
Are there statistics on how many Indian fishermen have been killed?
Over 100 people died in the first 25 years of the war, and thousands must have been arrested over the last 25-30 years. But I suspect that the arrests or the number of shootings is only a small percentage of the total trips taken. This means that many could expect to cross the boundary, fish and come back safely – a risk many consider worth taking. During the war, the Indian government saw the problem as one of Indian fishermen straying across borders to fish with no malicious intent, and the Sri Lankan Navy and authorities being excessively harsh towards them.
What complicates matters and allows people to ignore the problems of trans-boundary fishing is Katchativu, the island near the international maritime border, which India – according to most political parties in Tamil Nadu – gifted to Sri Lanka. It is an island where fisherman from Tamil Nadu historically had fishing rights. Typically, the excuse that fisherman give for any kind of incident is that they were fishing at Katchativu. But the reality is quite different – Tamil Nadu fishermen went deep into Sri Lankan waters, right up to the shores, to fish.
Where did the opposition to Indian boats come from?
It has essentially been a problem between Indian fishermen and the Sri Lankan Navy. During the ceasefire in 2002-04, things changed because Sri Lankan fishermen also resumed fishing to some extent. They resented the intrusion of Indian fishermen, and there were clashes in 2003. The media, politicians, administration and Indian people at large were oblivious to the fact that the fishing activities by Indian boats were affecting the livelihood of Sri Lankan fishermen.
What about problems arising from the Sri Lankan side?
Sri Lankan multi-day fishing boats fish in Indian waters. This problem started in the early 1990s, when Sri Lanka developed a fleet of such boats to fish for tuna; these new boats eventually started to go all over the Indian Ocean. Though they are not very large, they have the capacity to stay at sea for almost three months. The Sri Lankan fishermen, especially from the south and west, who were not particularly affected by the war, developed this fleet with government support in the form of subsidies and soft loans. Slowly, this fleet started to enter parts of India’s Exclusive Economic Zone, as well as Maldivian waters. They have even been found in Diego Garcia, the Seychelles and occasionally off Australia – chasing the Indian Ocean tuna.
India, which has a comparatively wider continental shelf, has been slow in developing a deep-sea fleet. People can still find it profitable to fish on the shelf, rather than go into deeper waters, where the density of fish is lower and which also takes more time, fuel and a huge investment in bigger boats – not to mention developing a whole chain to market the fish. The Sri Lankan fleet, on the other hand, saw this as an opportunity, and have been fishing off the Indian coast for the last 15 years. Until recently, local fisherman in India did not even take note of them because these larger boats did not come into the shelf area.
The Indian Coast Guard would capture some of these Sri Lankan boats, but the number of boats caught was a small proportion of the total number that crossed into Indian waters. The Sri Lankan fishermen would get prosecuted under the Maritime Zones of India Act, and would spend months in remand until their case was over. They were also fined and their boats confiscated. But this is nothing compared to the harassment or shooting that Indian fisherman were subjected to in the border zone, though that was because they were actually fishing in a war arena. This has to be kept in mind: Indian fishermen were literally caught in the crossfire between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Navy. There was also an ethnic element involved, with the Sri Lankan Navy and authorities suspecting Indian fishermen of being LTTE supporters and, therefore, were rough with them.
What initiatives have been taken on both sides to resolve the problems as they crop up?
Although the problem of Sri Lankan fishermen jailed in India has been highlighted by the media, none of the national organisations in India did anything beyond registering their protest. Finally, in early 1997, fishermen’s associations, trade unions and NGOs came together and formed the Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fisherman (ARIF). ARIF conducted a study through a fact-finding mission, where senior trade unionists from all the national unions of India got involved. A report was prepared based on their findings, but nothing changed. So, ARIF eventually began to follow up every case of detention and arrest – we visited fishermen in jail, gave them legal and humanitarian support, and lobbied with the concerned departments to get them released. Eventually, we were able to convince authorities, especially in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, that there is no real case against these Sri Lankan fisherman who were fishing in Indian waters, because the Indian fisherman were doing the same. We wanted Indian fisherman jailed in Sri Lanka to be released, so there was no reason for treating Sri Lankan fisherman differently. Once this was understood – especially in Tamil Nadu, where a lot of the arrests and detentions take place – the government put a system in place to review their punishment. If it was only a fishing offense, a recommendation would be made to the New Delhi government not to prosecute.
In the first few years of our work there were a lot of prosecutions; at best, all we could do was speed up the legal process. But from around 1999, most fishermen were released without being prosecuted. We have volunteers in Tamil Nadu and Kerala who routinely visit Sri Lankan fishermen in detention and follow up on their paperwork. Once released, they are handed over to us, to be taken care of until they can be sent home.
We also work closely with individuals and organisations in Sri Lanka to help us release Indian fishermen arrested there. In Sri Lanka, the system is more flexible. Many times the judge will just say, ‘These are ordinary fishermen, poor fishermen – let them go.’ But many times, we had to approach the Sri Lankan attorney-general’s office and convince them to withdraw the case. When that happens, the High Commissions on both sides get involved, and a number of people have to be contacted.
What is the situation now that the war is over?
The governments still sees this as a law-enforcement problem. There is, however, some sympathy and understanding that these fishermen are crossing borders for their livelihood. What has not been recognised, however, is that it is essentially a fisheries-management problem. Both sides have not managed their fish population properly. In India, this problem is not necessarily restricted to the part of the coast facing Sri Lanka, but is prevalent along the entire coastline of India. The only difference is that where there is no shared border, it doesn’t get translated into an international problem.
Two of the four districts in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka recently started fishing again and will take some time before they achieve normalcy. They consider Indian trawlers crossing the border a serious problem. Last month [July], people from a small fishing village in Mannar, in Sri Lanka, took the law into their own hands, attacking the trawlers with petrol bombs and even sinking one of them. The next day, another boat which went in search of that vessel, with the permission of the Sri Lankan navy was also sunk. So, this could easily evolve as a serious fisherman-versus-fisherman situation.
The Sri Lankan Navy has also changed its stance. During the war, it was concerned about its own security, and this would drive its efforts. But now, the Navy works to keep Indian trawlers from crossing the boundary. The political reaction in Tamil Nadu to any incident that affects Indian fishermen becomes very difficult for the central government to handle, and this puts pressure on Sri Lanka. Thus, at times, the Sri Lankan Navy acts tough, and at times it is more relaxed.
Has the multi-day boat situation changed after the civil war?
It is more or less the same. If Sri Lankan fishermen on multi-day boats are lucky enough to get caught in Tamil Nadu or Kerala, we get them released early. But if they get caught in Orissa or in the Andamans, it can take longer to get them released.
What is the way forward?
The solution to the problem rests entirely with India, especially in the Palk Bay. The Sri Lankan authorities can do very little about it. The most effective solution would be to reduce the trawler fleet on the Indian side. They could even completely stop trawling because the Sri Lankan fishermen object only to trawlers, not to traditional boats. I would not be surprised if Sri Lankan small boats also cross the border to fish. This is a mutual, reciprocal – though unofficial – arrangement that has always existed.
Both sides recognise that trawlers are destroying the fish population. So sharing resources is one issue, while destroying the resource is another. We need to think about completely stopping trawling on the Indian side. India and Sri Lanka need to reach an understanding that boundary crossing, especially by small boats, is inevitable. We also need to find a way of sharing the fish amicably; if we do so, this could lead to an understanding between fishing communities that could translate into a formal joint-management system. But any kind of a sharing agreement needs the commitment of the two governments, and requires fishermen on both sides to accept it.
ARIF’s current initiative is focused on promoting fisherman-to-fisherman dialogue. In May 2004, a 21-member team from India, mostly fishermen, met fishermen from the Northern Province. We had a good exchange, where our hosts clarified that it was the trawlers that they objected to. The trawler sector in India is a dominant force and politically difficult to manage. But once the Sri Lankan fishermen sent a strong message against trawling in their area, Indian fishermen said, for the first time, that they are ready for trawler-fleet reduction. This will remain a difficult policy to implement, but at least there is an openness to talk about it. In fact, the Planning Commission of India, for the first time, included a provision for reducing trawlers in its 11th Five Year Plan as a result of a suggestion from our side.
Would Sri Lanka want to link the two issues of allowing Indian fishermen access to resources in northern Sri Lanka and the multi-day fishing boats?
Different parts of the Sri Lankan establishment think differently about this. But ARIF is not inter-linking the two issues because at the ground level the Indian fisherman seek legal access in northern Sri Lanka, and if in return the southern and western Sri Lankan fishermen get access to Indian waters, it would not be reciprocal – certainly from the fishermen’s perspective. We are trying to work out a reciprocal arrangement between the fishermen in northern Sri Lanka and the central districts of Tamil Nadu, which would then be accepted by the two governments. If it so happens that the northern [Sri Lankan] fishermen allow Indian fishermen to access their water, it could be advantageous for Sri Lanka to negotiate a deal with India for the Sri Lankan multi-day boats.
Does the dialogue include both the Gulf of Mannar fishermen and the multi-day boat fishermen?
At the moment the dialogue is restricted to Tamil fishermen on both sides, which includes the Northern Province and the four districts of Tamil Nadu that are affected by this problem. As far as the Sri Lankan multi-day boats are concerned, it is not possible to organise a fishermen-to-fishermen dialogue. Unlike the Palk Bay situation, there are no two fishermen groups with conflicts in this issue. We are exploring possibilities for a discussion between the Kanyakumari fishermen, the Thoothoor fishermen, and the Sri Lankan multi-day fishing boats. These fishermen, who do deep-sea fishing on the west coast of India are the only ones who have the potential to discuss resource-sharing arrangements with the multi-day boats.
However, I do feel that the prospects for a solution are bright at the moment. More than a year after the end of the civil war, this problem has become more serious. For that reason, there is more interest to resolve the problem amongst the authorities on both sides. Both governments are looking at this problem, and it is a significant irritant in relations, which they are keen on resolving. In fact, the Sri Lankan Minister of fisheries is very keen to come to a workshop that we are organising for fishermen on both sides, to meet and listen to our recommendations. This time, if we can come up with something sensible, if the fishermen can propose something not too outlandish, there may be a very good chance the governments will accept our recommendations.
~ Chandrika Sharma is the executive secretary of the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers, an international NGO based in Chennai.