In Deep Wa­ter

Man’s next en­emy: Food in­se­cu­rity

Southasia - - Contents - By Ta­hera Sa­jid

Fish­ing is a pop­u­lar means of liveli­hood in parts of In­dia and Sri Lanka due to ram­pant poverty and lack of other avail­able skills. Many fish­er­men have in­her­ited the pro­fes­sion from their fore­fa­thers and proudly claim it as an es­sen­tial part of their iden­tity. Hence, any­thing that is per­ceived as a threat to ei­ther their sur­vival or to their sense of self is nat­u­rally deemed per­sonal.

A highly charged fish­ing dis­pute be­tween In­dia and Sri Lanka has ex­isted for the past many years due to a num­ber of fac­tors. The main rea­son re­volves around the own­er­ship sta­tus of the small is­land in the Palk Bay area, called Katchatheevu. Ac­cord­ing

to some re­ports, the 1974 agree­ment saw In­dia and Sri Lanka agree on a maritime bound­ary whereby In­dia ceded the Is­land’s rights to Sri Lanka and ne­go­ti­ated away fish­ing rights for its own fish­er­men. How­ever, the In­dian side ar­gues that the word­ing of the agree­ment has been ma­nip­u­lated by the Sri Lankan au­thor­i­ties and that In­dian fish­er­men are be­ing de­nied even their le­git­i­mate rights of fish­ing in the area.

His­tor­i­cally, In­dian Tamil fish­er­men had faced no is­sues fish­ing near the is­land, and many times would go into the Sri Lankan wa­ters. Though the Sri Lankan side wasn’t sup­port­ive of the move, no se­ri­ous reper­cus­sions fol­lowed ex­cept an is­suance of warn­ings. How­ever, when the civil war broke in 1983, it com­pli­cated things for the Sri Lankan Navy that was al­ready try­ing to keep up with the fight against the in­sur­gents, the Lib­er­a­tion Tigers of Tamil Ee­lam (LTTE). Any con­nec­tion be­tween the In­dian Tamils and the LTTE was ve­he­mently de­nied by the In­dian side. How­ever, the fact that the Tamils of In­dia’s south­ern state of Tamil Nadu have close eth­nic and cul­tural ties to Tamils in Sri Lanka, led the Army to sus­pect that they had a hand in pro­vid­ing ma­te­rial sup­port and fuelling the in­sur­gency.

It be­came in­creas­ingly hard for the Sri Lankan Navy to dis­tin­guish be­tween reg­u­lar fish­ing boats and boats that were be­ing used for smug­gling weapons and other goods for Sri Lankan Tamil mil­i­tants. Most times, the Navy ended up putting com­plete fish­ing re­stric­tions on their own fish­er­men. The In­dian boats how­ever con­tin­ued to fish in the area and were of­ten caught in the cross fire re­sult­ing in se­ri­ous rifts and ten­sion be­tween the two coun­tries. De­spite the hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis ris­ing from this sit­u­a­tion, In­dian boats were blamed for bring­ing it upon them­selves by il­le­gally cross­ing the in­ter­na­tional bound­ary. A New York Times ar­ti­cle quoted Sugeeswara Se­nad­hira, Con­sul Gen­eral at the Sri Lankan Em­bassy in New Delhi, as­sert­ing that it was in­evitable be­cause “They can­not fish around the is­land.”

Ac­cord­ing to some me­dia re­ports, over a pe­riod of 25 to 30 years, some 100 In­dian fish­er­men have died, many have been beaten and their boats and catch con­fis­cated. How­ever, ac­cord­ing to the ver­sion given by the Sri Lankan side, when the num­bers of those hurt are placed against those that continue to ven­ture out to the Sri Lankan wa­ters, the per­cent­age re­mains small as In­dian trawlers have used the wa­ters ex­clu­sively for years. The anger though has built among the In­dian Tamils who have at­tacked Sri Lankan pil­grims in re­tal­i­a­tion.

When Sri Lankan fish­er­men fi­nally re­sumed their fish­ing ac­tiv­i­ties dur­ing the cease­fire from 2002-2004, they re­sented the threat to their liveli­hood from the over fish­ing of In­dian trawlers which had caused a re­duc­tion in fish sup­ply. For years, the In­dian side had ex­ploited the lack of com­pe­ti­tion and op­por­tu­nity to cross over and fish deep into the Lankan wa­ters with an ex­panded fleet. Af­ter the end of the civil war in 2009, when the small Sri Lankan fish­er­men re­turned in large num­bers they found In­dian trawlers to be a hin­drance to their sur­vival.

On the other hand, a sim­i­lar dilemma and hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis un­folded on the In­dian side. Sri Lankan fish­ing boats had been fish­ing deep in the In­dian wa­ters and caus­ing a sim­i­lar dan­ger to the fish pop­u­la­tion, while smaller In­dian fish­er­men suf­fered. Fish­ing is the only liveli­hood avail­able to the lo­cals and fish­er­men in Vel­la­pal­lam, In­dia who com­plain of harass­ment by the Sri Lankan Navy and strug­gle with find­ing al­ter­nate means of liveli­hood. Nearly all of the vil­lage fish­er­men use small boats and not big trawlers.

The pre­vi­ous un­of­fi­cial ar­range­ment of let­ting small boats go un­harmed seems to have changed now. If caught, small boat fish­er­men from both sides re­ceive harsh treat­ment with their equip­ment and catch con­fis­cated by the In­dian or Sri Lankan Forces. Re­ports sug­gest that some­times fish­er­men are even kid­napped. A bi­lat­eral agree­ment be­tween the two coun­tries pro­hibits such treat­ment, but as things tense up, the small boats are not spared and face grim fates.

It is clear that griev­ances ex­ist on both sides. Find­ing a long-term so­lu­tion that ben­e­fits all con­cerned par­ties has to be based on rec­og­niz­ing the hu­man­i­tar­ian as­pect of the sit­u­a­tion than sim­ply set­tling scores. Now that the LTTE in­sur­gency is over and the se­cu­rity is­sue is no more, small boats man­aged by poor fish­er­men who fish solely to ful­fill the needs of their fam­i­lies must be given their liveli­hood back. What needs to be se­ri­ously looked into is the is­sue of trawlers and multi-day fish­ing boats that are de­plet­ing fish pop­u­la­tions in the area.

Both coun­tries must un­der­take a gen­uine di­a­logue that could lead to a work­able joint ar­range­ment with mu­tual con­sul­ta­tion for small fish­er­men based on manag­ing fish­ing pop­u­la­tions. A process aimed at find­ing a so­lu­tion and not merely a po­lit­i­cal vic­tory for ei­ther coun­try can go a long way to­wards peace in the re­gion. Ta­hera Sa­jid is a free­lance jour­nal­ist who lives in Mas­sachusetts, USA. She is a community builder and an ac­tive ad­vo­cate for interfaith re­la­tions.

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