The latest incident, which led to the death of four Indian fishermen, has once again brought the dispute to the fore. Indian fishermen went missing as they ventured into Palk Strait. A few days later, the Sri Lankan Navy announced that it had recovered four bodies, suspected to be of the missing fishermen. As news reached the shores of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, protests erupted as more than 200 fishermen blocked roads.
A maritime dispute between India and Sri Lanka remains unsolved, despite an agreement 47 years ago. Notwithstanding the 1974 Indo-Lanka Maritime Boundary Agreement, Indian fishermen tend to cross the maritime border into Sri Lanka in the Palk Strait, which in turn leads to assaults by the Sri Lankan Navy.
The fishermen were beaten to death by Sri Lankan naval officers.
Story behind fisherman issue
- For centuries, Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen communities have been fishing in each other’s waters without conflict.
- The scenario changed when India and Sri Lanka signed four Maritime Boundary Agreements between 1974-76, which defined their respective understanding of the international maritime boundary between the two countries.
- The idea behind these agreements was that they’d facilitate law enforcement and resource management in the Palk Strait.
- Through the agreements, the Katchatheevu Island was ceded to Sri Lanka by the Indian government without consulting the Tamil Nadu state government.
- Since then, Indian fishermen have only been allowed “access” to the island for resting, drying of nets and the annual St. Anthony’s festival, but not for fishing.
- Despite the agreements, there is no well-defined maritime boundary between the two countries, leading to Indian fishermen trespassing into Sri Lankan waters in search of a better catch.
- Between 1983 and 2009, Indian fishermen had easier access to the rich Sri Lankan waters as the maritime boundary in the Palk Strait was not heavily guarded.
- In the last few decades, fish and aquatic life in the Indian continental shelf has depleted. As a result, more fishermen enter Sri Lankan waters and also resort to the use of modern fishing trolleys which Lankan fishermen are unable to match.
- The Indian fishermen saw a golden business opportunity during the LTTE era as the Sri Lankan government had disallowed the easy movement of Sri Lankan fishermen in waters owing to military operations.
- Since 2009, the Sri Lankan navy has tightened surveillance of its northern maritime boundary to halt a potential return of Tamil insurgents.
- With the LTTE war over, since 2010, there is a resurgence of Sri Lankan fishermen in Palk Bay. They were trying to reclaim their legitimate lost base and, in the process, became engaged in conflict.
- This, in turn, increasing the number of arrests of Indian fishermen,
- Sri Lankan authorities argue that they are simply protecting the maritime boundaries of the country against poaching, and securing the livelihood of Sri Lankan fishermen.
- The department of ocean development and ministry of agriculture have to ensure assistance to the states so that fishermen are able to find alternative livelihood to fishing in Palk Bay.
- The Sri Lankan Fisheries and Aquatic Resource Minister appointed a three-member committee to find a lasting solution to the issue.
- According to the minister, India had accepted a draft solution submitted by Sri Lanka in January last year, but further progress was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Sri Lanka had suggested joint patrols and operations between the two countries to guarantee effective results on illegal fishing and trespassing. There is an immediate need to sign a protocol for joint patrolling.
- Despite having met more than once since 2016, a solution is yet to be finalized. Irrespective of the circumstances, a potential solution to the dispute relies on the response from the respective governments of India and Sri Lanka.
- If both countries are unable to settle the dispute, then they could seek assistance from international maritime experts through the United Nations.
- The Indian government has renewed the thrust on ocean economy in recent times with the PM signing MoU on ocean economy with Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Maldives in 2015.
- Kachchatheevu is a small island located about 10 miles north east of Rameshwaram.
- The fishermen used it to dry their nets and catch fish.
- When the Zamindari system was abolished, Kachchatheevu became a part of the Presidency of Madras.
- When India became independent and initiated a boundary negotiation at the maritime level with Sri Lanka, Kachchatheevu was a disputed territory between Ceylon and the British and there was never an agreement on boundary ever.
- In 1947 and 1976, as per agreements, the issue was bilaterally resolved between India and Sri Lanka, and the resultant maritime agreement has allowed Indians to visit Kachchatheevu for pilgrimage for which no visa is required.
- The Indian government has maintained that the right of access to Kachchatheevu does not cover any fishing rights.