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Fishing in Neighbour's Waters Remains a Problem for India, Sri Lanka

Sustainability Politics

INDIA and SRI LANKA - On Wednesday, 11 Sri Lankan fishermen returned home after being detained for over three months in India. They had been picked up from near Andhra Pradesh by the Indian Coast Guard in May.

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Last week, Sri Lanka released 23 Indian fishermen after detaining them for fishing in Lankan waters. In both cases, passions run high, the two foreign ministries get involved and it's becoming a messy affair between the two neighbours, reports TimesofIndia.

In recent months, Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen have protested in front of the Indian consulate in Jaffna, complaining that Indian fishermen are stealing their livelihoods. In Tamil Nadu, fishermen complain that Sri Lankan navy, in its aggressive patrolling of the waters, has taken to shooting at them. For the first time, Indian Tamils are up against people they considered their own across the Palk Straits.

It's becoming a tough nut to crack for both governments. "It's a humane and livelihood issue for both countries," said Prasad Kariyawasam, Sri Lanka's high commissioner to India. At its simplest, the conflict is about Indian fishermen looking for prawns on the Lankan side and crossing over the maritime boundary where they are caught. Lankan fishermen too stray into Indian waters in search of tuna, and in the current case, were caught off the Andhra coast.

Government sources said they had tried to bring together fishermen's associations from both countries at Rameshwaram, Tamil Nadu. But there is still no meeting ground between the two sides. Every time Indian fishermen get caught, the central government is put on the mat by the Tamil Nadu government, which ends up in the MEA demarching the Sri Lankan authorities. One of the ways out could be to train Indian fishermen to take up deep sea fishing, rather than stay in the shallow waters of Palk Straits. But this is still just an idea.

In Tamil Nadu, the fishermen issue is seen as part of the larger Tamil-Sinhala antipathy. But government officials acknowledge privately that India needs to be more respecting of international boundaries. On the other side, Lankan forces allegedly regularly harass Indian fishermen who cross over, which adds to the discontent in Tamil Nadu.

At the heart of the trouble is a tiny island called Katchaitivu, which was ceded to Sri Lanka in 1974 when India and Sri Lanka demarcated their international maritime boundary line (IMBL). Sri Lankans say they gave an island called Wedgebank to India in exchange. However, Indian fishermen continue to be caught fishing off Kachaitivu on the explanation that it's a "traditional" fishing ground. But this is running afoul of not only Sri Lankan fishermen but its navy. "Crossing the IMBL cannot be condoned on the basis of any other consideration," Lankan officials said.

The Indian fishing industry is increasingly mechanized but Indian fishermen use bottom trawlers as well as nylon nets, which are frowned upon everywhere in the world, because these fishing practices are ruinous for the ecosystems and the sea bed. The Lankans are protesting against these practices and the difficulties are compounded by the fact that in northern Sri Lanka, it is the Tamils who have gone back to fishing after over a quarter century. They are at the forefront of the protests against India.