Crossing maritime Borders:The Problem and Solution in Indo-Sri Lankan context

Crossing Maritime Borders: The Problem and Solution
in the Indo-Sri Lankan context

The number of incidents of firing at Indian fishing boats in the Palk Bay by the Sri Lankan
Navy and the consequent loss of lives has been a serious issue in Tamil Nadu, India for the past
many years. An equally important issue associated with this has been the arrest of Indian fishermen
at sea and their subsequent detention in jails by the Sri Lankan authorities. At times, the
resentment of the fisherfolk of Rameswaram and neighbouring villages in Tamil Nadu has boiled
over, leading to demonstrations and even violent protests. Less publicized in India has been the
regular arrest and detention of Sri Lankan fishermen by the Indian authorities for crossing the
maritime border. However, this is an important issue in Sri Lanka itself and many fisherfolk
organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from that country have been contacting
NGOs and fisherfolk organizations in India to seek help in the release of arrested Sri Lankan
The problem of fishermen crossing borders is a serious one on the Indo-Sri Lankan maritime
border. It has led to great deal of suffering among the fisherfolk of both countries. Both governments
are treating the problem without acknowledging the real causes behind it. The problems
need to be squarely faced and creative solutions found so that national interests as well as fishermen’s
livelihoods are protected.
India. Sri Lanka. Indo-Sri Lanka maritime boundary. Maritime border. Historic waters.
International boundary line. Territorial waters. Territorial sea. Exclusive economic zone. Border
crossing. Equidistance. Palk Bay. Tamil Nadu. Rameswaram. Gulf of Mannar. Mandapam.
Adam’s Bridge. Kachchativu. Maritime Zones of India (MZI) Act. Alliance for Release of Innocent
Fishermen (ARIF). Forum for Human Dignity. World Forum of Fishworkers.
1 Introduction
1.1 The problem
The number of incidents of firing at Indian fishing
boats in the Palk Bay by the Sri Lankan Navy
and the consequent loss of lives has been a serious
issue in Tamil Nadu for the last many years.
An equally important issue associated with this has
been the arrest of Indian fishermen at sea and their
subsequent detention in jails by the Sri Lankan authorities.
At times, the resentment of the fisherfolk
of Rameswaram and neighbouring villages has
boiled over, leading to demonstrations and even violent
protests. Less publicized in India has been the
regular arrest and detention of Sri Lankan fishermen
by the Indian authorities for crossing the maritime
border. However, this is an important issue in
Sri Lanka itself and many fisherfolk organizations
and NGOs from that country have been contacting
NGOs and fisherfolk organizations in India to seek
help in the release of arrested Sri Lankan fishermen.
2 Historical Evolution of the Problem
India and Sri Lanka share a long and common
history, with considerable interaction between the
coastal communities of both nations. However, to
Chief Executive, South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies (SIFFS), Trivandrum, India, and Convener, Alliance for Release
of Innocent Fishermen (ARIF). Email:
understand the historical evolution of the particular
problem at hand, a quick look at the geographical
aspects is vital.
2.1 The geographical aspects
The island nation of Sri Lanka lies off the southeast
coast of India, with the northern part of the
island being at the same latitude as the southern
part of Tamil Nadu, India’s southernmost State.
The maritime boundary between the two countries
were settled through two Agreements in 1974 and
1976, even before the Law of the Sea was negotiated
at the United Nations, and India declared its 200-
nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The
Indo-Sri Lanka maritime boundary cuts through
three different seas: the Bay of Bengal in the north,
the Palk Bay in the centre, and the Gulf of Mannar
(which opens to the Indian Ocean) in the south.
The 1974 Agreement between Indira Gandhi and
Srimavo Bandaranaike, the then Prime Ministers of
the two countries, was for the Palk Bay, which was
termed as the ‘historic waters’. The 1976 Agreement
was for the Bay of Bengal and the Gulf of
The maritime boundary (or International
Boundary Line or IBL as it is called by the coastguard
and navy) is uncomfortably close to the
shores of both countries in the Palk Bay, where
the maximum distance between the two countries
is only around 45 km, and the minimum is just 16
km between Dhanushkodi on the Indian coast and
Thalaimannar on the Sri Lankan coast. A crossing
of the IBL would imply entry into the territorial
waters (12 nautical miles or 22 km) rather than the
EEZ. The distances between the Indian coast and
the Sri Lanka coast are much longer in the Bay of
Bengal and the Gulf of Mannar. As far as the Gulf
of Mannar is concerned, except for a few of the
centres like Mandapam, south of Rameswaram, the
distances are considerable. As far as the Bay of
Bengal is concerned, except for centres close to Pt.
Calimere (Kodikarai), the distances to Sri Lanka are
quite considerable.
Some remarks about the Palk Bay are warranted
at this point. The bay is a shallow system with
the depth not increasing beyond 50 m at any point.
The southern end of the bay is narrow and the socalled
Adam’s Bridge that connects Dhanushkodi
and Thalaimannar acts as a barrier to the Gulf of
Mannar. This ridge between Dhanushkodi and
Thalaimannar makes it difficult for larger vessels
to cross over from the Bay to the Gulf and vice
versa. This makes the Palk Bay a distinctly different
ecosystem and the fish resources and stocks are
different from that of the Gulf.
2.2 Historic contacts
The fishermen communities on either side of the
Palk Bay are Tamil-speaking and have common origins.
Further, the Bay is a common fishing ground
for fishermen of both countries. It is, therefore,
not surprising that there has been close contact
between the fishermen of both countries for centuries.
There has also been a free movement of
goods across the bay before independence, which
did not completely stop after independence. During
the colonial period, both countries were under
the administration of the British, and this ensured
that the free intercourse that existed prior to colonization
was not disrupted. The coming of independence
and the creation of two modern nation
States did not alter the picture substantially as far
as the coastal fishermen were concerned. The free
movement of men and material continued across
the Palk Bay. The two events that affected this and
progressively led to the current situation were the
1974 Agreement between India and Sri Lanka on
the maritime border in the Palk Bay and the start of
the civil war in Sri Lanka in 1983.
2.3 The pre-1974 scenario
As mentioned earlier, there was a great deal of continuity
in the relationship between the fishermen
on either side of the Palk Bay, even after independence.
But some of the developments during this
period are worth mentioning. Up to the 1940s, the
Rameswaram Island was only a seasonal base for
migrant fishermen from the Gulf of Mannar side.
Only a small group of cast-net fishermen permanently
resided on the island. The parava fishermen
from the Gulf would come with their fishing
equipment during the lean season in the Gulf and
base themselves in the island, putting up temporary
huts. It is only after independence that the parava
fishermen started settling down permanently in
The changes in the post-independence period
were essentially related to technological changes.
In the beginning, the fishing craft of the Bay on
both the Indian and Sri Lankan sides were nonmotorized,
with a predominance of kattumarams.
A variety of traditional nets made of natural fibres
were in use. The boat-seine (thattumadi) was an important
gear for the parava fishermen who went after
the shoaling fishes in an operation that needed
two kattumarams. Kachchativu, a small, uninhabited
island (which has no water source) was of special
significance for the fishing operations. It is located
around two-and-a-half hours sailing distance
from Rameswaram. In an era of non-motorized
fishing, it was very useful as a base to exploit the
fishing grounds that were difficult to cover in daily
operations. Seasonally, the Rameswaram fishermen
would put up huts and stay there for up to
a week, conducting fishing operations. The island
was ideal for drying the fish and nets. The
fishermen from Mannar would also come and fish
from Kachchativu, and both had an excellent understanding.
It is worth noting that the two groups
used different fishing gear (the boat-seine, in the
case of the Rameswaram fishermen, and gill-nets,
in the case of the Mannar fishermen) and had very
little competition between them.
Kachchativu was also a place of annual pilgrimage
to the St. Antony’s church, which was under
the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Bishop of Jaffna.
Fisherfolk from both sides of the Palk Bay would
turn up in large numbers for the annual feast.
An important development in the early 1960s
that led to friction between the two groups of fishermen
was the introduction of nylon nets in Sri
Lanka. Finding the nylon nets much superior, the
Rameswaram fishermen began to feel envious of
their brothers across the Bay. Things became serious
when some Indian fishermen started stealing
the nylon nets at night when they were set at sea.
This resulted in a clash and the first reported firing
by the Sri Lankan Navy on Indian fishermen. The
problem was, however, transient in nature and got
resolved once the Indian fishermen also acquired
nylon nets, which soon became easily available in
India also. The nylon nets gave a boost to gillnetting,
especially with large drift-nets. This, in
turn, led to the Tuticorin vallams (canoes), which
are solidly built and have greater carrying capacity,
becoming more popular and replacing a part of
the kattumaram fleet of Rameswaram.
The late 1960s saw another gear conflict erupting.
This was due to the introduction of small
mechanized trawlers (32-footers) on the Indian side
in 1967. The trawlers created conflicts with artisanal
fishermen on both sides of the bay. This problem
also got resolved (at least as a source of conflict
between the fishermen of the two countries) when
the Sri Lankan fishermen acquired trawlers too.
However, it must be understood that the trawler
problem is a permanent one in India, with constant
conflicts between the mechanized trawlers and the
artisanal fishermen.
Thus, the pre-1974 period was one of a long history
of close contact between the fishermen on either
side of the Bay. Towards the end, however,
new technological developments had led to some
conflicts, which got resolved when the new technologies
became accessible to both groups.
2.4 The 1974 and 1976 Agreements
In 1974, the Prime Ministers of India and Sri Lanka
met to decide on crucial issues between the two
countries that had been hanging fire for long. The
most important issue that affected the relationship
between the two countries was that of the ’Stateless
Tamils’, the large number of people from Tamil
Nadu who had gone to work on the tea plantations
of Sri Lanka during the British period and who
were refused citizenship by independent Sri Lanka.
The other pending problem had been the absence
of a mutually agreed upon maritime boundary between
India and Sri Lanka. This boundary problem
was related to differences on the status of Kachchativu.
Since the 1920s (well before independence!),
the Sri Lankan side had been staking claims on
the island, while India (represented by the Madras
Presidency) was convinced that it belonged to India.
The Government of India (GoI) saw the
Kachchativu problem as a minor irritant and the
mandarins in Delhi felt that a ’barren rock’ in midsea
was not worth fighting for with a friendly country.
The problem of the Stateless Tamils was the
more serious one and all diplomatic energies were
concentrated on that problem. Whether the concessions
made by the Sri Lankans on the problem of
the Stateless Tamils were satisfactory or not can be
debated. However, the GoI felt satisfied enough to
concede Kachchativu to Sri Lanka. As a result, a
boundary in the Palk Bay was agreed upon, with
Kachchativu going to the Sri Lankan side.
The extent to which the fishing interests were
taken into account by either government is difficult
to assess. Even for Sri Lanka, the main reason for
seeking Kachchativu appears to have been a suspicion
of untapped petroleum resources in the Bay.
However, the fishermen on either side do not appear
to have played any role in the negotiations and
their opinions were never sought.
It is, however, worth noting that the 1974 Agreement
has two special clauses that appear to protect
the interest of Indian fishermen. Article 5 states:
Subject to the foregoing, the Indian fishermen
and pilgrims will enjoy access to
visit Kachchativu as hitherto and will
not be required by Sri Lanka to obtain
travel documents or visas for these purposes.
Article 6 is even more significant, as it states:
The vessels of Sri Lanka and India will
enjoy in each other’s waters such rights
as they have enjoyed therein.
While Article 5 relates to the continuing use of
Kachchativu for pilgrimage and for drying nets and
fish, Article 6 appears to grant Indian fishermen the
right to continue fishing in the Palk Bay as before
(even though fishing is not explicitly mentioned).
The Dravidian parties of Tamil Nadu (the
Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or DMK was in
power) had strongly criticized the Agreement and
the DMK members had walked out of the Indian
parliament in protest. However, they were unable
to make much impact on the GoI’s thinking on the
In 1976, another Agreement was signed between
India and Sri Lanka on the boundary in the
Bay of Bengal and the Gulf of Mannar. Both these
boundaries were non-controversial, with no disputed
island in the picture. The well-accepted principle
of equidistance was adhered to.
Probably the most important event that actually
deprived the Indian fishermen of their right to fish
in the Palk Bay was an exchange of letters between
India and Sri Lanka in 1976. In March 1976, the Foreign
Secretary of India wrote to his counterpart that
“...the fishing vessels and fishermen of
India shall not engage in fishing in
the historic waters, the territorial sea
and the exclusive economic zone of Sri
Lanka nor shall the fishing vessels and
fishermen of Sri Lanka engage in fishing
in the historic waters, territorial sea
and the exclusive economic zone of India,
without the express permission of
Sri Lanka or India, as the case may be...”
The contents of this letter, apparently, are also
binding on the GoI and constitute an Agreement.
The Minister of External Affairs, Y. B. Chavan,
stated this categorically in Parliament:
“Consequent to the signing of the
Agreement, there was also an Exchange
of Letters ...This Exchange of Letters
also constitutes an Agreement between
the two countries...Both countries have
agreed that after the determination of
the maritime boundary, fishing vessels
and fishermen of one country shall not
engage in fishing in the waters of the
Thus, through an exchange of letters, the GoI
had more or less given away the benefit that Article
6 of the 1974 Agreement appeared to grant to
the Indian fishermen (despite some ambiguity in its
2.5 1974 to 1983: some trouble, but business
as usual
The Agreement of 1974 and the exchange of letters
in 1976 did not lead to any significant change in the
activities of the fishermen. It was business as usual.
If anything, the fishing operations in the Bay only
further intensified as a result of the expansion of
the fleet of trawlers on both sides. The nylon net
revolution had lead to an increase in gill-netting on
the Indian side and the number of vallams also increased
as a result. Motorization of the vallams using
single-cylinder diesel engines also took place,
increasing their range of operations. The nylon net
usage also meant that Kachchativu’s significance as
a centre for drying nets was lost. With increased
mechanical propulsion, the need of Kachchativu as
a base for fishing and fish drying was also reduced.
However, the Sri Lanka authorities did attempt
to restrict fishing by Indian vessels on the basis of
the Agreement. In this, they were obviously handicapped
by the limitations of their navy. The Sri
Lankan Navy, prior to the civil war, was a nominal
entity and had very little capacity to undertake
patrolling. Small vessels with handguns would occasionally
stop Indian vessels and direct them to
the Sri Lanka shores for interrogation and, subsequently,
release them after a few hours. A significant
fact was that, on such occasions, the Sri Lanka
authorities would seize the fish and the nets. Often,
the violations were by Indian trawlers and trawl
nets would be seized. The Indian fishermen attributed
this, in part, to the fact that trawling was
still developing in Sri Lanka, and the seized Indian
nets would find their way to Sri Lankan boats.
There seems no evidence that the Indian authorities
had taken any steps to restrict the fishing vessels
of Sri Lanka similarly. The Indian Coastguard,
with a mandate to protect India’s EEZ, came into being
only in 1979, and if any action had to be taken,
it was possible only after that.
2.6 The civil war and its consequence
The start of the civil war in 1983 completely altered
the nature of the problem, and produced tragic consequences
for the fishermen. The Liberation Tigers
of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which had open support
from various political organizations in Tamil Nadu
prior to the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) operations
(and even after), was receiving supplies
from the Tamil Nadu coast. The LTTE also developed
its own naval wing called the ’Sea Tigers’,
which mounted deadly attacks at times on the Sri
Lankan Navy. The Sri Lankan Navy had to expand
its fleet and intensify patrolling to counter
this threat. Innocent Indian fishermen have become
victims of the war and many incidents have occurred
in the last 15 years wherein Indian fishermen
have been shot dead and many more wherein
Indian fishermen have been taken into custody by
Sri Lankan authorities and kept for months in detention
in Sri Lanka.
Despite the mechanization of fishing and motorization
of artisanal vessels, navigation is entirely
based on fishermen’s traditional skills and, in the
absence of charts, it is difficult for the fishermen
to pinpoint their location at sea. Modern communication
equipment is non-existent and the fishermen
normally do not know even the rudiments of
signalling. This means that a patrol vessel cannot
find out from a distance whether a vessel is a genuine
fishing vessel or not. This increases chances
of misidentification at night and shooting by jittery
naval personnel.
From 1983 to 2001, 105 fishermen have been
killed in firing by the Sri Lanka Navy, 286 fishermen
injured and hundreds of fishermen arrested.
Though the number of firings has come down since
January 1997, the problem still remains intractable.
2.7 The affected area and fishermen
The Palk Bay is clearly the most affected area, as
far as Indian fishermen are concerned. This is undoubtedly
due to the earlier mentioned proximity.
Even in the Palk Bay, the most affected place is
the Rameswaram Island (in Ramanathapuram District),
which is extremely close to Sri Lanka. Here
both the mechanized boats (all using trawl nets)
and the traditional canoes (Tuticorin-type vallams,
with or without motors) can easily cross the IBL and
get into trouble. Over 75 per cent of incidents involving
shooting and arrest of fishermen by the Sri
Lankan Navy relate to the Rameswaram Island.
As far as the rest of the Palk Bay is concerned,
Jagadapattinam, an important mechanized landing
centre in Pudukottai District, is the next affected
centre, which has reported occasional incidents
of shooting and arrest of Indian fishermen
by the Sri Lankan Navy. Kottaipattinam, another
mechanized boat centre, is also at times affected.
Jagadapattinam and Kottaipattinam are around 32
km from the IBL.
Nagapattinam District also has a part of its
coastline in the Palk Bay and a few incidents affecting
centres of that district have also been reported.
Kodikarai (Point Calimere), the northern end of the
Palk Bay on the Indian side, is just 24 km from the
As far as the Bay of Bengal is concerned, it is
generally unaffected but for the southern extreme
of the coast close to the Palk Bay. Some fishing
centres of Nagapattinam District and Karaikal (in
the Union Territory of Pondicherry) have also, in
the past, recorded incidents involving Indian fishermen
and the Sri Lankan Navy.
As far as the Gulf of Mannar is concerned, if
there is a problem, it is essentially on the northern
end, south of Rameswaram. Boats from Mandapam
that go fishing in the Gulf of Mannar have
chances of reaching or crossing the IBL and hence
are sometimes affected. Further down the coast,
there are virtually no recorded incidents involving
the Indian fishermen and the Sri Lankan Navy.
It must, however, be mentioned that the Arabian
sea coast has had some incidents of artisanal
fishing craft drifting to the Sri Lanka shores due to
engine failure or natural causes in view of the deepseagoing
aptitude of the Kanyakumari fishermen
and the risks they take. These incidents, of course,
do not normally involve shooting or arrests.
To sum up, the affected area is essentially
the Rameswaram-Mandapam area, with most incidents
taking place in the Palk Bay and a few in
the Gulf of Mannar. Jagadapattinam, Kottaipattinam
and a few other centres of the Palk Bay are also
occasionally affected. A few fishing centres on the
southern end of the Bay of Bengal have also been
The type of fishing vessel that gets affected is
normally the small mechanized trawler (32-42 footers)
that dominates the fishing in the affected areas.
In Rameswaram Island, however, even the traditional
canoes from the Pamban area are among
those affected, in view of the proximity to the IBL
and the use of large drift-nets. Occasionally, one
hears of kattumarams also being affected. Both the
mechanized boats and the vallams have a five-man
crew, while the kattumarams have just one or two
persons on board. While the fishermen on vallams
and kattumarams are locals, the crew of mechanized
boats might come from distant centres and may, at
times, include fishermen from castes not traditionally
involved in fishing.
2.8 Crossing the border: fisheries
The closeness of the IBL to Rameswaram has been
already discussed. When this fact is combined with
the lack of proper equipment on board the Indian
vessels, one may believe that this explains the inevitability
of accidental border crossing by the Indian
fishermen. However, such a scenario only
provides a partial picture. Fishing vessels crossing
over by mistake cover only a small percentage
of the cases. The vast majority of border crossings
is intentional and involves travelling deep
into Sri Lankan waters. It is an open secret that
Rameswaram fishing vessels, especially trawlers,
find good fishing grounds only on the Sri Lankan
side and, therefore, do most of their fishing on that
side. Fishing takes place in Indian waters only in
the season for oil sardines, when most trawlers do
pair trawling with pelagic trawl nets. Prawns, the
mainstay of the trawler fleet of Rameswaram, are
mainly obtained in the Sri Lankan waters. Every alternate
day, around 500 Rameswaram trawlers routinely
cross the IBL into Sri Lankan waters to conduct
fishing operations.
Behind this routine incursion into Sri Lankan
waters lie the following factors:
1. the limited trawling grounds available on the
Indian side;
2. the growth of the trawler fleet at
Rameswaram to a level that has depleted the
Indian grounds, so much so that its survival
depends on fishing in Sri Lankan waters; and
3. the virtual collapse of the fishing operations
on the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Bay due
to the civil war, leaving the fishing grounds
open to the Indian vessels without any competition.
The growth of the Rameswaram fleet and the
increase in fish landings after the civil war started
in 1983, provide validation for the above analysis.
A. J. Vijayan has termed it “unnatural growth in
the midst of severe constraints” in his report, An
Overview of the Marine Fisheries and Fishers in and
around Rameswaram. The table from his report (Table
1) is revealing:
While the landings of Tamil Nadu increased
during the 16 years under analysis, the growth of
the fish landings in Palk Bay has been very significant
and higher than for the other regions of Tamil
Nadu. This is undoubtedly due to the additional
fish resources and grounds tapped by the Palk Bay
boats in the Sri Lanka waters due to the decline of
fishing effort on the Sri Lankan side.
An important conclusion one can arrive from
this analysis is that the Sri Lankan authorities are
not strict in restricting Indian fishing vessels and
that the few vessels captured each year are not normally
for fisheries violations. The various incidents
of capture and shooting are related to the situation
created by the civil war that is still raging. Only
when the civil war ends will the fisheries issues
come to the fore.
2.9 The problems of Sri Lankan fishermen
It is worth noting that the above historical background
is not of much consequence in understanding
the problem of Sri Lankan fishermen arrested in
Indian waters. This problem appears to have different
origins altogether and needs to be analyzed separately.
It is significant that the fishermen arrested
by the Indian Coastguard do not come from the
Palk Bay area, which is the area affected by the civil
war. The phenomenon of Sri Lankan fishermen
caught in Indian waters is also mostly a post-1990
phenomenon, long after the Indian Coastguard and
the Maritime Zones of India (MZI) Act of 1981 came
into existence. (This act deals with foreign fishing
vessels in Indian territory.)
2.10 The affected area and fishermen in Sri
As mentioned, the Sri Lankan boats and fishermen
regularly captured by the Indian Coastguard do not
come from the Palk Bay, which is close to the IBL,
but from other areas. The state of fishing, as well as
the plight of the fishermen in the Palk Bay areas of
SriLanka, is pathetic. The civil war has meant that
there are severe restrictions on fishing, and fuel for
mechanized operations is unavailable. Whenever
they go fishing, the Sri Lanka vessels set out for
short distances and come back soon. Similar is the
case of fishermen on the war-affected east coast. It
is only on the western coast (south of Mannar) and
the south coast that fishing is normal and fisheries
Table 1: Coastal Regionwise Estimation of
Marine Fish Production in Tamil Nadu
Year Coromandal
coast (35.0)*
Palk Bay
Gulf of Mannar
West Coast
1980-84 57,850 (24.3)** 59875 (25.2) 66,559 (27.9) 53,858 (22.6) 238,142
1984-88 51,196 (20.5) 66,848 (26.7) 69,386 (27.8) 62,535 (25.0) 249,965
1988-92 67,527 (23.3) 101,116 (34.9) 87,948 (30.3) 33,265 (11.5) 289,856
1992-96 92,780 (28.6) 118,890 (36.7) 84,158 (25.9) 28,450 (8.8) 324,278
* per cent share of Tamil Nadu’s coastline
** per cent share of Tamil Nadu catches in brackets
Source : S. Durairaj et al, Dept. of Fisheries, Govt. of Tamil Nadu, March 1997.
development has been taking place during the civil
war period.
The fishing vessels of Sri Lanka can be broadly
categorized into non-motorized craft, motorized
craft and mechanized (multi-day) boats. The nonmotorized
craft are kattumarams, outrigger canoes
(oru) and small canoes (vallam). The motorized
craft are small 18-foot fibreglass reinforced plastic
(FRP) boats with outboard motors (OBMs), which
operate a variety of gear in the coastal waters. The
mechanized vessels are essentially 40-50 foot vessels
(wooden and FRP), that go deep into the ocean
for long voyages of 2-3 weeks, operating longlines
and gill-nets for offshore pelagic resources like tuna
and pelagic sharks.
On the western and southern coasts, nonmotorized
fishing has become marginal in most
places as the artisanal fishermen have shifted to the
FRP motorized craft, which the government promoted
with subsides during the 1960s and 1970s.
These FRP boats are used with many small gill-nets
and handlines for coastal fishing on the continental
shelf. With Sri Lanka being a small island country
with a narrow continental shelf, it is no wonder that
the limit to fisheries development was being felt in
the early 1980s itself. The artisanal fishermen of
the west coast used to migrate during the lean season
to the north and east before the civil war. This
stopped after 1983, and the fishing pressure has,
therefore, increased in the shelf areas of the western
and southern coasts. The government, aware
of the dangers of this, has promoted a new class
of vessels that can fish in the deeper waters and
go after untapped resources. These vessels called
’multi-day fishing boats’ are 40-50 foot vessels with
good insulated fish-holds and have the capacity for
staying up to a month at sea. Almost all of them
have good navigation aids like the Global Positioning
System (GPS) and navigational charts. They are
also equipped with radio equipment that enables
them to communicate with other vessels at sea as
well as their home base. The fishing methods are
passive and most vessels use a large drift-net in
combination with a pelagic longline. The fishing
is entirely in the deep sea, and mainly for tuna and
It is the growth of this multi-day fishing boat
fleet that has contributed to the problem of Sri
Lankan fishermen getting caught by the Indian
Coastguard. Except for the rare FRP boat that drifts
accidentally towards the Indian coast in the Gulf
of Mannar, the Sri Lankan vessels captured are all
multi-day fishing boats, which are found operating
in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. A number
of them are caught near the Andamans and the
Lakshwadeep Islands. It is worth mentioning that
the Sri Lankan boats are caught even as far as in the
Maldives and Seychelles.
The current fleet strength of multi-day fishing
boats is around 1,500 and they are spread over half
a dozen landing centres on the west and southern
coasts of Sri Lanka. The government provides up
to 50 per cent subsidy for these vessels and the
fleet is still growing. In the early phase, the vessels
were smaller and the ownership was with artisanal
fishermen who graduated from FRP boats.
But now the size is increasing and even 60-footers,
each costing over Rs50 lakhs (nearly US$100,000),
have made their entry, and are owned by rich entrepreneurial
fishermen. There are clear indications
that this large fleet cannot survive on just the tuna
and shark resources of Sri Lanka’s EEZ and have to
necessarily poach in other waters for survival. It is
interesting that these vessels often make a beeline
for island territories, where there is an aggregation
of tuna resources.
The Indian Coastguard is very strict in the
implementation of the MZI Act, and Sri Lankan
fishing vessels inside India’s EEZ are caught and
handed over to civilian authorities on shore.
Thus, it is the multi-day vessels from the west
and south coasts of Sri Lanka that are caught in
Indian waters, and it is worth noting that they
are manned by traditional, predominantly Sinhala,
2.11 Concluding observations on the
problem of IBL crossing
It will be obvious from the above detailed history of
the problem that the crossing of the IBL by the Sri
Lankan and Indian fishing vessels are rarely due to
honest mistakes or unavoidable reasons like engine
failure, natural causes, etc. By and large, the IBL
crossing is deliberate and meant for better fishing
opportunities. In both cases, the respective governments
(of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka) have actively
promoted the development of fishing fleets
that cannot fish profitably in their own grounds and
whose economics depend on ’poaching’ in foreign
3 Fate of Captured/Arrested Fishermen
The fate of fishermen captured/arrested when
found beyond the IBL of their respective countries
varies considerably, as both countries have different
approaches to the problem and the internal systems
of managing such problems differ substantially.
The administrative structures, legal system
and political dynamics are all different, leading to
different results.
3.1 Indian fishermen in Sri Lanka
As discussed earlier, the Indian fishermen cross the
IBL in large numbers routinely in the Palk Bay and
are generally ignored by the Sri Lankan Navy. It
is only on certain occasions that they are caught,
normally for security-related concerns. It should
be understood that the primary task of the Sri
Lankan Navy is related to the civil war, and the
large number of fishing boats are a major distraction
as well as an impediment to achieving military
goals. The Sri Lankan side has controlled this
problem by severely curbing fishing operations in
the north and east. There are times when fishing
is completely prohibited for the Sri Lankan fishermen
in the affected areas. At other times, there are
very strict regulations on durations and distances
for fishing. The loss of livelihoods and incomes of
the fishermen in the north and east, and the acute
distress caused by this is one of the untold stories
of our time. Such restrictions on the Indian boats
are not feasible and practical, given the Indian situation.
At the time of the IPKF operations, the option
of banning/regulating fishing was seriously considered
by the Indian Navy and Coastguard, but
given up as impractical, due to the large numbers
whose livelihoods would have been affected and
the high political costs of such an action.
A major problem at sea is the difficulty in distinguishing
between genuine fishing boats and those
that are involved in nefarious activities. The absence
of communication and signalling systems on
board the Indian vessels, and the difficulty in distinguishing
Indian fishermen from Sri Lankan fishermen
(all Tamils), create conditions for genuine
fishing boats to be apprehended by the Sri Lankan
Navy. The unpredictability of the LTTE and fear
of its methods have also led to a policy of ’shoot
first, question later’. Analyzing the incidents of firings
and capture reveals the following reasons attributed
by the fishermen themselves for their occurrence:
1. suspicious behaviour on the part of Indian
fishing boats when approached by Sri Lankan
naval vessels, which, in turn, might stem
from fear of the intentions of the Sri Lankan
2. mere trigger-happy response on the part of
Sri Lankan naval personnel at times of tension.
3. venting of anger on Indian vessels in retaliation
for LTTE actions.
Once again, it must be emphasized that the capture
of Indian fishing vessels is a rare event in
the overall scheme of things, but even these rare
events have tragic consequences and vitiate the atmosphere.
The frequency of such incidents also
tends to fluctuate from time to time and may have
some connection with the course of the civil war in
Sri Lanka. Table 2 gives the number of firings and
casualities over the years.
The actual number affected is likely to rise by
around 10 per cent, if incidents outside the Palk
Bay are also accounted for. Since 1998, the number
of incidents has gone down. This is attributed by
the Coastguard to the various discussions between
the Indian and Sri Lankan naval authorities, as a result
of which the Sri Lankan Navy has been asked
to restrain itself when dealing with Indian fishing
Table 2: Incidents Involving Death or Injury
to Fishermen in the Palk Bay
(1983 – 2000)
Year No. of No. of Fishermen Boats Sunk
Incidents Killed Missing Injured
1983 2 5
1984 4 1 5
1985 33 4 87
1986 2 2
1987 4 3 4
1988 4 1 7
1989 2 5
1990 11 6 37
1991 17 13 18
1992 7 23
1993 8 8 5
1994 10 8 8
1995 10 6 13
1996 31 7 12 20 5
1997 15 13 2 11 1
1998 4 6 1
1999 7 7 2
2000 5 2 3
Total 176 85 14 276 6
Source: Computed from information provided by the Asst. Director of Fisheries, Rameswaram
The actual incidents of shooting recalled by the
survivors are harrowing and heart-rending. In one
of the incidents, the lone survivor escaped as he
was covered with others’ blood and was given up
for dead.
Those who survived and those who were taken
into custody without being shot at are then sent to
Sri Lanka’s nearest port and handed over to the local
police. The main centres where they are taken
are Kankesanthurai, Mannar, Vavunia and Jaffna,
depending on where they are caught. In many
cases, the fishermen are kept in military custody for
a day or two, until arrangements can be made to
hand them over to the police. One has to remember
that a war is being fought in the areas where
the fishermen are taken into custody.
3.2 From arrest to release: the process
In some instances, the boat and crew are released in
a few days, after a mere enquiry, without charging
the fishermen. In such cases, if the boat is in good
condition, the fishermen may straightaway return
by sea to Rameswaram. However, once charges are
made, they are then taken to the court at Anuradhapura.
In the first few weeks, the fishermen might
be shunted from location to location and kept in
more than one jail. Normally, after they are produced
in the Anuradhapura court, they are taken
to jails in the west and south of the country. One of
the jails where most fishermen are kept is the Kalutara
prison, south of Colombo. The charges are
normally for illegal entry into Sri Lankan territory.
Quite often, the charges may be under the Prevention
of Terrorism Act.
The actual court case and the entire litigation
process vary considerably from case to case. The
Immigration Department and the Attorney General’s
office are normally the two government departments
that are concerned with the cases. If
the pressure from the Indian side is strong enough,
the cases are often withdrawn or compromised so
that the fishermen can be released. In the last four
years, local NGOs who are in touch with Indian
NGOs have intervened with legal assistance and
have helped to expedite the release in many cases.
While there may be, in some cases, genuine reasons
to suspect smuggling and other nefarious activities,
in most cases, the actual charges need not necessarily
indicate the real situation. In some cases, where
the charges (true or false) are serious and require
punishment, the fishermen have been let off with
nominal fines of a few thousand rupees per head.
Once the cases are withdrawn or settled, the
fishermen are then taken to the Mirihana camp in
Colombo, where foreigners of all nationalities are
kept until they are repatriated. It is an open-air
camp, with considerable freedom of movement. Inmates
who have been there for months may even
go outside for a cup of tea or to buy some personal
articles. Once in the camp, it is for the Indian
government and the Indian High Commission
in Colombo to work out details of repatriation. For
long, the fishermen would be flown to the north of
Sri Lanka and taken to the places where their boats
are in custody. From there, they are allowed to sail
back to India. Another variation of this used to be
the taking of the fishermen by a naval vessel and
transfer to the vessels of the Indian Navy or Coastguard
at mid-sea. Quite often, the fishermen would
return to India after months in Sri Lanka, only to be
confronted with the problem of getting their boats
back. There have been years when getting the boat
back has been extremely difficult and many a boat
has been damaged beyond salvage. Generally, after
considerable amount of negotiations between the
Indian and Sri Lankan authorities, the order for taking
the boat back is received. Then, a large group
of Indian fishermen is permitted to sail across to Sri
Lanka and bring back the boat in custody, after the
necessary repairs.
In the last couple of years, the transfer of the released
fishermen from Mirihana camp to the north
of Sri Lanka and the mid-sea transfer of fishermen
have more or less stopped. This appears to be due
to security problems and the unwillingness of the
Sri Lankan authorities to spare the necessary aeroplanes
and naval vessels. Hence, in recent times,
the fishermen have to be sent by commercial flight
from Colombo to Trivandrum, which is the nearest
Indian airport. The Indian High Commission
issues a temporary passport and buys the fishermen
air tickets and sends them home. The expense
for the air ticket is normally treated as a loan to the
fishermen. This is just for the record and no fisherman
ever repays the loan. Perhaps if they have
to approach the passport office in India for a permanent
passport, they may be asked to repay the
loan. Once back in India, the fishermen will then
have to work to get the boat back from wherever it
is anchored in the north of Sri Lanka.
The total time involved can vary considerably
for the entire process to take place. The lucky fishermen
are those who are released in a few days,
without having to go through the entire process.
For the rest, the process may take a few weeks or
many months. With the exception of fishermen
who are sentenced for smuggling or other offences,
the time spent by an Indian fisherman before he is
free ranges from three months to a maximum of one
Some fishermen who have spent time in the Sri
Lankan police stations and prisons have had bitter
experiences. In the initial enquiry after capture,
third-degree methods are often used. This is undoubtedly
due to the war situation and the suspicion
that Sri Lankan military or police have of Indian
fishermen abetting the LTTE. Even in the regular
prisons, the fishermen have, at times, faced
problems. There are many hardcore LTTE cadres
in some of the prisons and Indian fishermen may
get caught in the tensions that exist between the jail
authorities and the Tamil militants.
3.3 Sri Lankan fishermen in India
As explained in the previous section, the Sri
Lankan fishermen who end up in Indian prisons
are entirely from the west and the south, with a few
from the east of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan fishermen
from the north and the northeast are never
involved in this process, as a rule. Inevitably, it is
the multi-day fishing boat that is captured in Indian
waters. In some seasons, the arrests are mostly in
the Gulf of Mannar, while, in other months, it takes
place in the Arabian Sea. Some boats, especially
those from the east, are captured in the Bay of Bengal.
Another area of arrest is near the Andaman
The Indian Coastguard tries to strictly implement
the MZI Act and captures Sri Lankan boats
that are clearly in the Indian EEZ. Given the vastness
of the ocean and the difficulty of identifying
small boats, it is quite likely that only some of the
boats that enter the Indian waters are actually captured
by the Indian Coastguard. The Coastguard
is, however, very strict and there is no question of
sending back the Sri Lankan boats. The boats are
captured, the fishermen arrested and brought to the
nearest Coastguard base. On shore, the fishermen
and boats are promptly handed over to civilian authorities.
Tuticorin, on the Gulf of Mannar coast,
and Kochi (Cochin), on the Arabian coast, are the
most common centres where the arrested fishermen
are brought. The Thermalnagar Police Station in
Tuticorin and the Cochin Harbour Police Station are
normally the police stations that take charge of the
fishermen. After preliminary enquiries, the fishermen
are produced before the designated court for
MZI offences in Ramanathapuram or Cochin, as the
case may be. They are then remanded until a final
decision is taken. The fishermen are periodically
brought to the court and remanded until the
Indian authorities decide to release the fishermen
or to prosecute them. Normally, the charges are for
violating the MZI Act, Passport Act and Foreigners’
Once in the Indian jail, it takes a long time before
the authorities take a decision on the fate of
the fishermen. India’s federal set-up ensues that
both the State and Central governments have to
co-ordinate between themselves to take a decision.
While it is the Home Department that takes up the
matter on behalf of the State government, at the
central level, the Ministries of Home, External Affairs
and Agriculture are all involved in deciding
the course of action. The State Government has to
make the necessary enquiries about the bona fides
of the fishermen and then send a report to the central
government. If all the three central ministries
give their ‘no objection’, the cases are withdrawn
and the fishermen sent back home.
Despite the charges made under the various
Acts, it is the Maritime Zones of India Act of 1981
(MZI) that is the most relevant Act. Seven courts
have been designated all over India to handle offences
under the MZI and these include the courts at
Cochin and Ramanathapuram. The MZI provides
for punishing the owner or the skipper of any foreign
fishing vessel found illegally fishing in India’s
EEZ. The crew, as such, are not punishable, but the
owner or skipper can be punished with a hefty fine.
The boat and its contents can also be confiscated.
The punishment is more severe, with provision for
imprisonment in the case of vessels that are found
within the territorial waters.
Until 1999, the general approach of the Government
of India has been to release the fishermen and
the boat without entering into prosecution. After
ascertaining that the fishermen are bona fide and
no other criminal offence is involved, the State Government
is advised to withdraw the cases and send
the fishermen back with their boats. The fact is that
India and Sri Lanka are friendly countries with an
excellent bilateral relationship. This has obviously
been the reason for not prosecuting the fishermen
and punishing them according to the provisions
of the MZI Act. This is in stark contrast to what
happens on the Indo-Pakistan border, where fishermen,
once arrested, are kept in jail for years and are
strictly prosecuted as per the MZI Act.
However, the withdrawal of cases is a long,
cumbersome process involving a great deal of red
tape. It is rare for an arrested Sri Lankan fisherman
to go back within three months. Often, the whole
process can take up to a year. The Sri Lankan High
Commission in India, as well as NGOs in India,
have been taking up the issue with the concerned
departments in an attempt to expedite the process.
In Tamil Nadu, the State Government has even set
up an inter-departmental committee to look into
cases against foreign fishermen and expedite the
cases. However, the time factor still remains a major
problem on the Indian side. It is extremely unfortunate
that fishermen are held up to a year in
prison on remand for offences that are not punishable
with imprisonment, or for offences that the
Government of India is not ready to prosecute.
Over the last year or so, the problem has become
more complicated with the Ministry of Agriculture,
which deals with MZI offences, insisting on prosecuting
the skippers. Earlier, all fishermen on the
multi-day fishing boats were treated as a homogenous
group and no distinction made between the
crew and skippers. But now, one of the fishermen
in charge of the operations, but who is otherwise
no different from the others in terms of work or
qualification, is prosecuted and punished. In one
case, the Cochin court gave orders for confiscation
of the boat and the payment of a fine of Rs100,000
(around US$2,000). As itwas beyond the capacity of
the fishermen to pay the fine, he had to undergo six
months imprisonment. This has raised a number
of legal issues, especially since the United Nations
Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) specifically
prohibits the incarceration of fishermen who
are found poaching.
Thus, the Sri Lankan fishermen who are arrested
in Indian waters face the process of a long
and uncomfortable stay in India. While there are no
other risks like those faced by the Indian fishermen
in Sri Lanka, the time period for returning home is
much longer and can lead to demoralization.
3.4 Efforts by NGOs
The increasing number of arrests on both sides has
led various NGOs concerned with the fishermen’s
welfare to get involved in the process. On the Indian
side, a trade union and NGO initiative led to
the formation of the Alliance for Release of Innocent
Fishermen (ARIF). ARIF is a loose network of
trade unions, NGOs and fishermen’s associations
that is equally committed to the release of bona
fide fishermen from India as well as Sri Lanka. On
the Sri Lankan side, there is no particular organization
or network that takes up the issue. How-
ever, there are a number of actors who get involved
and take effective action. While the Forum for
Human Dignity gets involved in providing legal
assistance to Indian fishermen, other NGOs, trade
unions and fishermen’s organizations get involved
in providing various kinds of information and support.
Since Sri Lanka is a much smaller country
and most things get decided at Colombo, the Sri
Lankan NGOs are more effective in getting Indian
fishermen released than the Indian NGOs in getting
Sri Lankan fishermen released. The last three to
four years have seen a great deal of action from the
side of NGOs and they have acquired considerable
knowledge and information about the nature of the
problem. Both the governments have recognized
the useful role played by the NGOs and often use
their help. The governments have their own limitations
in getting involved in court cases against
their nationals in other countries. They also do not
have much capacity for providing humanitarian assistance
when their nationals are in the jails of other
countries. Thus, the NGOs come in handy even for
the governments, in many situations.
4 Short-term and Long-term Solutions
for the Problem
It is very clear that the fishermen of both sides have
various compulsions to cross over and fish in the
waters of the neighbouring country. It can be even
argued that, in the case of the Palk Bay, the fishermen
have been unjustly deprived of fishing rights
they have traditionally enjoyed. The arrest of fishermen
leads to considerable suffering for the affected
households and also has significant local political
repercussions in both India and Sri Lanka. It
is, therefore, essential that both the governments
evolve creative solutions to tackle this particular
A major hurdle for finding solutions is the lack
of understanding of the causes for border crossing
at the policy-making levels of both countries. Officially,
both countries seem to subscribe to the myth
that fishermen are crossing the border at sea due to
ignorance or due to accident. That there are strong
fisheries compulsions to cross the borders is not
appreciated sufficiently. Moreover, it needs to be
understood that these fisheries compulsions are, in
turn, the result of the fisheries development policies
pursued by both the governments. Only if this
reality is squarely faced can practicable solutions
There are a number of options to solve the problem
associated with border crossing by the fishermen
of both countries. Which option is preferable
depends on the policy that appeals to the two countries.
The following are some of the options that can
be considered:
Option 1: Free access
This option is discussed first as it has been proposed
by many fishermen’s organizations like the
National Fishermen’s Forum (NFF) and the World
Forum of Fishworkers (WFF). The idea is that
fishermen of South Asia should have the freedom
to fish in each other’s waters. Most fishermen’s
groups are ready for such a solution, as there
seems to be very little animosity between fishermen
across borders. The small fishermen of Tamil Nadu
and Kerala who encounter the multi-day fishing
boats of Sri Lanka in the Arabian Sea do not see
them as outsiders, but even exchange rations with
them. In fact, the same small boats might be ready
to capture and burn an Indian trawler, as the fishing
method is considered harmful to the interest of
the small fishermen.
On the Sri Lankan side, such a free-access policy
actually exists in the Palk Bay. Close linguistic
and ethnic ties between fishermen on both sides
ensure that such an open-access policy is not a big
problem. It should, however, be understood that
the Sri Lankan fishermen in the Palk Bay are currently
unable to properly fish, on account of the
civil war. They are, in fact, unhappy with the largescale
trawling that is done in their waters by Indian
vessels. It is possible that if fishing restrictions on
Sri Lankan fishermen are removed, there may be a
clash of interest between the Indian and Sri Lankan
A major objection to this option is that it can endanger
the fish resources if no restriction is placed
on the number of units or type of fishing gear. Also,
the governments may not feel comfortable, given
the security concerns that exist in South Asia.
Option 2: Returning fishermen without any
This is perhaps not much different from the first option,
except that it does not involve the formal legalization
of border crossing by fishermen. It is also
close to the actual position that both governments
have been taking in most cases. Sri Lanka has
sent back many groups of fishermenwithout charging
them in a court of law. India, until recently,
has been routinely sending back Sri Lankan fishermen
without actually prosecuting them. What
both governments seem to be mainly interested in,
is to know whether the concerned fishermen are
genuine fishermen and whether there are any other
security-related problems. If this is so, then this can
be formalized, and mechanisms developed for the
quick release and return of the fishermen. All that
is needed is that the local police ensure that the fishermen
are bona fide, and seek permission to return
the fishermen from one nodal agency or authority
in the country. Fishermen could be sent back within
a week or two if this can be agreed upon, substantially
reducing the loss of income and other suffering
they have to otherwise undergo.
This solution also has the defect that it does not
consider the possible dangers to the fish resources.
However, it is something that can be useful in the
short term, until better approaches can be worked
out. If resource monitoring is done simultaneously,
the governments can step in with appropriate regulations
at the right time.
Option 3: Strict enforcement, but with a
humane approach
If the governments are unwilling to allow resource
exploitation by the fishermen of the neighbouring
country, and wish to be strict in enforcing the laws
regarding poaching, it can be done in a lot more
simple and humane manner. For example, the following
could be a typical scenario in this option:
Once a group of fishermen is brought to shore
for poaching, the local police should establish that
the group was only involved in fishing and is made
up of bona fide fishermen. Once this is established,
the crew, against whom no punishment is possible
in the national as well as international laws, should
be repatriated without any delay. This whole process
should not take more than a week or two, at the
most. Subsequently, the skipper is charged and presented
in a court of law. If he pleads guilty, no elaborate
trial is called for and a clear set of graded fines
can be enforced. For a first-time offence, the fine
could be Rs20,000. For a second offence, it could
be Rs50,000 and, in the case of the third time, the
boat may be confiscated. In the case of the firstand
second-time offences, the boat may be confiscated
only if the fine is not paid. In no case should
the skipper be punished with imprisonment, as the
skippers are only ordinary fishermen.
This is an eminently practical solution, but
whether this requires changes in the laws of the two
countries needs to be carefully studied. However,
a problem is that this solution may result in an unequal
situation. While the Indian Coastguard may
be able to apprehend the poachers and take the necessary
action, the Sri Lankan Navy may not be in a
position to enforce its law in the Palk Bay, where
poaching by Indian vessels normally takes place.
For one, the civil war is its priority rather than
protection of fish resources. Secondly, the largescale
incursion of Indian vessels makes enforcement
tricky and the political fallout in Tamil Nadu
and the consequent impact on Indo-Sri Lankan relations,
unpredictable. Let us not forget that public
opinion in Tamil Nadu has considerable influence
on Indo-Sri Lankan relations and the Sri Lankan
government may be loath to spoiling relations with
India for the sake of fish resources in the Palk Bay,
as long as the civil war is in progress.
Option 4: Reciprocal access
Given the reality of the Palk Bay situation and the
virtual impossibility of enforcing any rules in the
current situation, Sri Lanka could formally allow
Indian vessels to fish on its side of the Palk Bay,
making a virtue of necessity. It could, in turn, ask
for reciprocal access to its multi-day fishing boats
in the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Mannar and perhaps
the Bay of Bengal. The formula could be that if
500 Rameswaram boats are regularly fishing in the
Palk Bay, Sri Lanka could also be allowed to send
around 500 multi-day fishing boats into Indian waters.
The actual ratio will have to be thrashed out,
if this concept is acceptable. This option will involve
some kind of licensing or accreditation to fish
(without charging a sizeable fee), after the numbers
of boats have been fixed for both sides.
This option is a serious one and could be the basis
of a workable arrangement. It may be of particular
interest to the State of Tamil Nadu on the
Indian side, as its problems will get solved. For the
Sri Lankans, it is a reasonable solution, at least until
peace returns to its north and northeast of the country.
Sri Lanka’s problems may not be fully solved
if most of its 1,500-strong multi-day fishing fleet
is not accredited as part of the reciprocal arrangement.
The part of the fleet that fails to get accommodated
may be forced to continue as ’poachers’.
Some amount of fleet control will have to be exercised
by both India and Sri Lanka.
Option 5: Separate management regimes for
each ecosystem
From a purely fisheries perspective, it makes little
sense in having the same approach to the four different
seas: the Palk Bay, the Gulf of Mannar, the
Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. There are differences
in fish resources and their levels of exploitation.
The Palk Bay is, more or less, a shallow sea
with a practically closed ecosystem. The fishing is
entirely restricted to the continental shelf. Shrimp
and other demersal species are the main targets,
and trawl is the dominant gear. In the other seas,
the situation varies according to the depth and region.
It is, therefore, meaningful to have separate
management regimes for each sea, taking into account
the specificities of resources, their current exploitation,
technological options, fishermen interests,
In the Palk Bay, the narrowness of the sea makes
separate resource management by India and Sri
Lanka, on their respective sides of the IBL, an impossibility.
From a pure resource management perspective
(ignoring the civil war and politics), only
a joint management by India and Sri Lanka can ensure
proper exploitation and conservation. A joint
system of regulation and management is called for,
including restrictions on fleet size, gear regulations,
etc. Solutions, like each country’s fleet fishing on
alternate days, need to be considered. However, all
this is perhaps meaningless at the moment and will
have to wait for peace to return to Sri Lanka. Until
then, the status quo may have to be maintained
(that is, freedom for the Indian fleet to fish in the
In the other seas, the distances are vast and,
despite tuna and shark being common oceanic
resources, independent management regimes are
practical. In any case, it is the Indians who will
have to open up their seas to the Sri Lankans, at
least until a deep-sea fleet emerges in India. India
could enter into an Agreement with Sri Lanka,
providing licences to a specified number of multiday
fishing boats in each sea, taking into account
the resources available and India’s scope for exploiting
them. It needs to be understood that, with
the exception of the Thoothoor fishermen of Tamil
Nadu’s Kanyakumari District, India does not have
the skill to tap the resources beyond the continental
shelf, unlike the Sri Lankans. India has always
looked towards large-scale technologies from distant
countries (European countries, Taiwan, Thailand,
etc.) for exploiting its deep-sea resources and
has, time and again, run into resistance from its
own fishermen for such policies. It needs to look
at the relatively small-scale and passive technology
developed by Sri Lanka as a better alternative that
will cause less harm to its resources and arouse less
anger from its fishermen. India could safely provide
licences to the Sri Lankan fleet without endangering
its resources. A reasonable fee of Rs100,000-
200,000 could be charged per year per boat for fishing
in Indian waters.
India could even promote joint ventures (JVs)
between fishermen of both countries as alternative
to the JVs that are usually between large corporations.
Some of the adventurous fishermen in India
could learn many things from the Sri Lankans and
lay the foundation for India’s own deep-sea fleet,
with appropriate indigenous technology.
5 Conclusion
The problem of fishermen crossing borders is a serious
problem on the Indo-Sri Lankan maritime border.
It has led to great deal of suffering among
the fisherfolk on both sides. Both governments are
treating the problem without acknowledging the
real causes behind the problem. The problems need
to be squarely faced and creative solutions found so
that national interests, as well as fishermen’s livelihoods,
are protected.