The Indo-Sri Lankan dispute over poaching by Tamil Nadu bottom trawlers in the north Sri Lankan waters could well become a flash point for a serious conflict between the two countries in the not-too-distant future, if not attended to urgently.

Till now, the two countries have been able to defuse crises in an ad hoc manner. But in future, such an approach may not work if the competition for aquatic resources intensifies with North Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen trying to improve their lot, now that war has ended in North Sri Lanka.

A recent incident should warn authorities in both Sri Lanka and India, that the tried and tested antidote of arresting and releasing the intruders may not work in the future. Unlike in the past, when it was the Sri Lankan Navy which confronted the Indian intruders, North Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen are now taking the law into their own hands and clashing with the Indian intruders in mid-sea.

This triggered agitations on both sides of the contested sea. If such clashes and agitations become regular, relations between Sri Lanka and India might be badly affected.

For decades, the war in Sri Lanka had prevented the North Lankan Tamil fishermen from utilizing the sea on their side of the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL). Tamil Nadu fishermen, on the contrary, had no such constraints. They had been merrily poaching and sweeping the sea bed with their bottom trawlers. After the war, the North Lankan Tamil fishermen wanted to fish in their own waters but the sea was occupied by hundreds of Indian trawlers.

The pleas of the Lankan fishermen for help went unheeded on both sides of the sea. While Tamil Nadu politicians looked at their fishermen as a vote bank and blindly supported them, Lankan Tamil politicians refrained from putting pressure on the Tamil Nadu or Indian governments because they needed their support for their political agenda in Sri Lanka.

The recent tough action by the Lankan Tamil fishermen in mid sea could theoretically stem Indian poaching. But given the over-powering need of the Lankan Tamil politicians to keep Tamil Nadu and New Delhi in good humor, the Lankan Tamil fishermen might not get the backing they need. Thus, the Indo-Lankan dispute over fishing is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Lankan Tamil parties, which were indifferent to the fishermen’s plight for long, are now using the issue to score political points against their political rivals. The Tamil National Alliance, which had never taken up the fishermen’s issue before, suddenly woke up to it because of the coming Provincial Council elections, where it will be taking on the Eelam Peoples’ Democratic Party led by Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda.

The TNA wants the Fisheries Minister to use the Sri Lankan law banning bottom trawling against the Indian intruders. But if Devananda were to use the law, it would trigger a confrontation with India, which would, in turn, hurt the interest of the government he is serving. Meanwhile, with the Lankan Tamil political parties distracted by local rivalries, the Tamil Nadu fishermen are likely to have a free run of the sea.

In Tamil Nadu, the mid-sea clash has brought about a change in the outlook of the government in Chennai. The DMK government has appealed to fishermen not to cross the IMBL and has deployed the police.

The fishermen have been told that they could be attacked by Lankan Tamil fishermen in addition to the Sri Lankan navy. The Tamil Nadu government wants to avoid mid-sea confrontations that would alienate Indian Tamils from Sri Lankan Tamils.

But whether the Tamil Nadu government’s appeals will have the desired effect is doubtful because the Tamil Nadu fishermen know only one fishing ground - the sea between India and Sri Lanka. And poaching here is claimed as a matter of “traditional right”.

The earlier Jayalalithaa government’s attempts to persuade the Tamil Nadu fishermen to switch to deep sea fishing with equipment given to them at reasonable rates, did not work. The fishermen refused to go beyond their traditional comfort zone. A bilateral plan to develop the sea as a common resource also met the same fate.

At the moment, the people and politicians of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province do not appear to be interested in economic development. Their concentration is on securing a federal constitution. But unlike the farmers and other land-based interest groups, the fishermen of the province will be encountering Indian poachers snatching away their livelihood.

Therefore, the fishermen may not remain indifferent for long. The Sri Lankan and Indian authorities would do well to attend to the issue urgently, and devise means to solve the problem.

And this may not be very difficult because, despite all the losses they have suffered for decades, the North Lankan Tamil fishermen are still accommodative, saying that Tamil Nadu fishermen are welcome to fish in their waters if they eschew bottom trawling which denudes the sea of its resources. They could fish using other less harmful nets and methods. A determined effort by both the Indian and Sri Lankan governments to jointly develop the aquatic resources in the sea and to work out a joint fishing arrangement will also ensure peace.

There is a growing school of thought which believes that, in the years to come, international armed conflicts might occur over fishing rights rather than rights over fossil fuel. The fact is that fishing disputes are natural and endemic. While boundaries drawn on land are easy to guard, those drawn in the sea are not, especially when the sea is small and there are two or more countries laying claim to it.

Unlike the produce of land, whose ownership can be easily established, the ownership of stocks in the sea cannot be, because these keep moving across man made boundary lines. And fishermen have a tendency to chase fish across maritime boundaries irrespective of consequences.

Bordered by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Singapore, the South China Sea has long been a major source of tension in Southeast Asia. The rise of China intensified the competition for fishing resources in the South China Sea.

China has claimed 57% of the sea by drawing the so-called "nine-dash line" and seizing stocks from intruding fishing vessels. China uses its fishing fleets for geopolitical purposes as a part of its “fish, protect, contest and occupy” tactic to assert its sovereignty over the sea. Other countries also use their fishermen as pawns to assert territorial claims.

ASEAN, which comprises Vietnam, the Philippines and eight other Southeast Asian countries, had supported multilateral talks on the disputed waters in the South China Sea. In 2002, ASEAN and China signed the “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea”, a non-binding political statement restating the freedom of navigation and asserting their common willingness to solve the disputes through peaceful means.

But there was a political deadlock which stymied the working of agreement. In 2013, the Philippines took its case against China to the United Nations Tribunal. China refused to attend. In December 2014, it released a position paper rejecting the jurisdiction of the UN over the South China Sea dispute, but stressing its willingness to resolve the dispute bilaterally.

It also argued that its nine-dash line was not inconsistent with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. On July 12, 2016, the international tribunal in The Hague delivered its verdict, which rebuked China’s exaggerated claims in the South China Sea. China rejected the decision. A tense stalemate prevails in the South China Sea.

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