COLOMBO: The recent arrest of 54 Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lankan navy and their subsequent release under diplomatic pressure, has again brought into focus the intractable India-Sri Lanka row about fishing in the narrow Palk Strait. Geographical, historical and political factors have complicated the issue which, on the face of it, is a simple matter.

The Indian authorities have invariably succeeded in securing the release of arrested fishermen on appeals from Tamil Nadu fishermen and State leaders. But this time round, a sense of urgency was palpable. A possible reason is that, Tamil Nadu is in the final leg of campaigns for the April 6 State Assembly elections.

The ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), in alliance with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is fighting to retain power against a formidable challenge mounted by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-Congress alliance. And for the first time, the BJP is contesting 20 out of 234 seats, the highest thus far.

Coastal fishermen are not only numerous but are also traditional supporters of the AIADMK, whose founder-leader matinee idol M.G.Ramachandran, was acclaimed as “Meenavar Nanban” or “Friend of Fishermen”. An agitation among fishermen could, therefore, spell the AIADMK-alliance’s electoral doom.

Adding a new dimension to the fishing issue is Sri Lankan Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda’s offer of licensed fishing to Indian vessels in the Palk Strait. There is speculation that the offer stemmed from Sri Lanka’s need to mollify India, which is miffed by the former’s moves favoring China in the allocation of developmental projects.

Minister Devananda said that he would be holding talks with the Tamil Nadu government about a limited number of Indian vessels engaging in fishing in Sri Lankan waters on a weekly basis subject to a large levy. The period assigned to each vessel would be one week. Bottom trawlers would not be allowed. But the cabinet spokesman, Udaya Gammanpila, denied that government has taken any decision in this matter.

Be that as it may, this is not the first time that licensed fishing has been suggested. It had been proposed by the Indian side a number of times earlier, but had always been rejected by Sri Lankan fishermen.

Tamil Nadu fishermen have been consistently claiming a traditional right to fish throughout the Palk Strait. They point out that the Maritime Boundary Line (MBL) was drawn in the mid-1970s, without taking their views into account. But Sri Lankan fishermen have accepted the MBL and see Indian intrusions as illegal and a violation of their natural right.

K. Rajachandran, a leader of the fishermen in Karainagar in Jaffna, said that Minister Devananda has “betrayed” Lankan fishermen by offering a licensing system. S.P.Anthonymuthu, belonging to a Catholic organization which had arranged meetings between Sri Lankan and Tamil Nadu fishermen in the past, said that under the guise of licensed fishing, Tamil Nadu fishermen could bring contraband.

V. Vivekanandan, a noted Indian expert on fishing issues, said licensed fishing is an “impractical idea”. But Arulanandam, an Indian leader of an alliance for the release of detained fishermen, said that licensing is good in principle but added that he needs to know the conditions attached to it to be able to give a definitive reply.

Since bottom trawling indulged in by Indian fishermen is a major issue in Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan negotiators have insisted that the Indians give up bottom trawling. In July 2017, Sri Lanka became the first Asian country to ban bottom trawling. It carries a fine of LKR 50,000 with two years of imprisonment.

On its part, India had introduced a scheme to replace 2,000 trawlers by deep-sea tuna long liner-cum-gill-netter boats. The idea was to divert their attention from the shallow Palk Strait bordering Sri Lanka to the Bay of Bengal. The Tamil Nadu government had sought from the Central government, INR 16.5 billion for the conversion scheme. A small part of the money was disbursed, but the scheme never took off.

“Tamil Nadu fishermen are not into deep sea fishing at all. They fish in shallow waters not more than 20 meters deep. They do not have the skills or the frame of mind to go to the mid-ocean and stay put there for two or three months,” Vivekanandan explained. Deep sea fishing also needs expensive equipment and the competition is tough, being international.

Misled by Tamil Nadu fishermen’s propaganda that they do not go beyond Kachchativu island and that the Sri Lankan navy attacks them on the Indian side of the island, Chief Minister J.Jayalalitha filed a case in the Indian Supreme Court to get back Kachchativu which had been handed over to Sri Lanka in the mid-1970s. Prof.V.Suryanarayan floated the idea of taking the island on lease. But none of these demands had New Delhi’s backing.

Prior to the December 2004 Tsunami, Indian fishermen had accepted that bottom trawling must be discontinued. They also agreed to (1) reduce the number of fishing days to two per week, (2) maintain a distance of three nautical miles from the shore so that the livelihoods of Sri Lankan fishermen were not affected, (3) reduce the fishing time to twelve hours per trip, and (4) introduce a monitoring and enforcement mechanism.

But this agreement was not implemented. In August 2010, negotiations resumed. Sri Lankan fishermen lamented the damage caused by bottom trawling, and requested an immediate end to the practice. The Indian delegates pointed out that unless their government introduced concrete steps to buy back trawlers, it would not be possible to stop trawling.

The conclusions of the dialogue were submitted to government representatives, but the dispute remained unresolved. Anthonymuthu recalled that the Indian fishermen had sought 70 days’ time to get rid of their trawlers, but there was no follow up.

In 2005, India and Sri Lanka had established a Joint Working Group on Fishing. New Delhi mooted the idea of licensing Indian fishermen, but only to be met with stiff opposition from the Sri Lankan side. Sri Lanka had proposed joint patrolling of the MBL by the Indian Coast Guard and the Sri Lankan navy, but this was not favored by India.

Anthonymuthu, said that a solution to the problem could come only from an agreement between the two fishing communities and the strict implementation of that agreement by the governments of the two countries.

But according to Vivekanandan, the fishing issue is entangled in the competitive politics of Tamil Nadu and therefore difficult to solve. Both the AIADMK and the DMK fiercely compete for the votes of fishermen by pandering to their demands, no matter how unreasonable they may be. The Congress too has gone along with these two parties, motivated by the same consideration. The BJP too will do the same, now that it has entered Tamil Nadu politics as an ally of the AIADMK.

As per a 2018 Sri Lankan law a fee of minimum 4 million Sri Lankan Rupees and a maximum of LKR 150 million would be slapped on any vessels, in proportion to their length, for entering the country's coastal waters without license. To some extent this has deterred Indian fishermen intruding into Sri Lankan waters. But given the fact that Indian intrusions tend to be treated as a bilateral matter, it is doubtful if fines will be imposed on Indian intruders.

Meanwhile, given the intractability of the problem, Indian diplomats have been focusing on the doable- namely, ensuring the release of detained Indian fishermen and trawlers at the earliest. They have also been urging Colombo to treat the arrested fishermen humanely. So far, such diplomatic efforts have succeeded.