Resolving the India-Sri Lanka fishing dispute - Hindustan Times
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Resolving the India-Sri Lanka fishing dispute

Mar 28, 2024 04:47 PM IST

This article is authored by Diya Jose, research intern, Centre for Public Policy Research, New Delhi.

The prolonged dispute over fishing rights around Kachchatheevu Island in Palk Bay has been a source of tension between India and Sri Lanka for many years. The recent protests by Sri Lankan fishermen from Jaffna, Mullaitivu, and Mannar districts against Indian fishermen are indicative of the severity of the issue. The Sri Lankan navy has seized a total of 18 Indian boats and arrested 146 Indian fishermen since the beginning of 2024. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to address the issue through constructive negotiations with the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Nadu government to bring about a peaceful resolution to the matter.

Indian fisherman (HT Photo) PREMIUM
Indian fisherman (HT Photo)

The disagreement between both parties arose after signing two agreements in 1974 and 1976 on the maritime boundaries. According to the 1974 Indo-Lanka Maritime Agreement, the Indian Government ceded Kachchatheevu Island to Sri Lanka. However, Indian fishermen have been crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) unintentionally and have sometimes been apprehended or faced consequences from the Sri Lankan authorities. This situation has given rise to concerns within Tamil Nadu, as the traditional fishing rights of its people have been affected. These occurrences have raised concerns for the safety of Indian fishermen in Palk Bay and the issue of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. Consequently, it is crucial to take swift action to address these concerns and to call on both governments to engage in constructive dialogue to resolve the issue peacefully and diplomatically.

In 2016, the governments of India and Sri Lanka proposed the establishment of a Joint Working Group (JWG) to create a hotline in Palk Bay, which could contribute to better peace resolution. However, it is important to note that the Tamil Nadu state government was not consulted during the negotiations with Sri Lanka, and this could be seen as contradicting the principles of an inclusive federal State. Additionally, the 1983 Tamil Nadu Marine Fishing Regulation has exacerbated tensions in Palk Bay by placing constraints on fishermen, allowing them to fish only beyond three nautical miles. As a result, fishermen find themselves compelled to cross the IMBL to engage in their fishing activities.

India and Sri Lanka have both signed the United Nations Convention Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and it is crucial to consider Sri Lanka's claim that Indian fishermen engage in illegal fishing activities after crossing the IMBL. According to Article 19 of UNCLOS, vessels that engage in such activities in foreign territorial seas are considered a threat to the "peace, good order, or security of the coastal State." Additionally, Article 21 allows "coastal states to adopt laws and regulations" to prevent the infringement of their fisheries laws and regulations. It is essential to address these issues diplomatically to promote better relations between the two nations.

Creating a win-win situation requires a comprehensive approach and deep negotiation between the coast guards, navy, and other authorities of the Indian and Sri Lankan governments, with proper consultation with the Tamil Nadu government. It is imperative for the Indian government to carefully examine the factors that could be leading Indian fishermen to enter Sri Lankan waters despite the provision of 5,000 GPS devices to them in February 2023. It is equally important to assess the impact of providing GPS to the fishermen and take appropriate measures to address the matter constructively and effectively.

It is worth considering resolving the question concerning the ownership of Kachchatheevu Island in the Palk Bay between India and Sri Lanka through the establishment of a land lease agreement. A potential model for this could be the Tin Bigha case between India and Bangladesh, where the 1974 India-Bangladesh boundary agreement granted India sovereignty over Tin Bigha. Still, a lease agreement in perpetuity was later established to allow the Bangladeshis to utilise it for civilian purposes. This approach could be explored as a possible solution for the disputed territory, as it would provide a mutually beneficial outcome for both parties.

The governments of India and Sri Lanka have an opportunity to work together to enhance the maritime security of the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait, utilising digital solutions to ensure robust cyber security. This will help to prevent drug trafficking activities by smugglers from the Golden Crescent and the Golden Triangle and promote regional peace and stability in Palk Bay. It is important to take measures to prevent misunderstandings that may occur between Sri Lankan authorities and Indian fishermen and to avoid any unfortunate incidents. By leveraging advanced technologies such as satellite imagery and algorithms, fishing vessels can be accurately identified in real-time, even in remote areas. This will provide valuable insights for authorities to understand fishing patterns and take the necessary measures to maintain the region's security.

Both countries must approach this matter with sensitivity and a willingness to find mutually beneficial solutions. A comprehensive and holistic approach, taking into account the concerns of all stakeholders, including the human rights violations of Indian fishermen in Palk Strait, is necessary to resolve this issue.

This article is authored by Diya Jose, research intern, Centre for Public Policy Research, New Delhi.

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