Follow @southasiaanalys

Licensed Fishing in Sri Lankan Waters: Problems and Prospects

Paper No. 6142                                 Dated 07-Jul-2016

 by Prof. V. Suryanarayan

The Government of India and the Government of Sri Lanka are very keen to find a peaceful solution to the travails of fishermen living on both sides of the Palk Bay.

What is at stake is the livelihood of thousands of Indian Tamil and Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen. A clue to current Sri Lankan thinking on the subject was provided in a news item in the Hindu couple of days ago. Datelined Colombo the news report quotes the Defense Secretary Karunasena Hettiarchchi who mentioned that several options are being considered including “licensed fishing” to break the deadlock.

There are precedents to licensed fishing in the region. According to the 1976 Maritime Boundary Agreement which delimited the boundaries in the Gulf of Mannar and the Bay of Bengal, as a gesture of goodwill to Sri Lanka, India permitted Sri Lankan fishermen to continue fishing in the Wadge bank near Kanyakumari. . To quote from the 1976 Agreement: “Sri Lankan fishing vessels, duly licensed by the Government of India, may engage in fishing in the Wadge Bank, for a period of three years from the date of establishment of India of its Exclusive Economic Zone”.

It should also be pointed out that the Sri Lankan Government, in order to promote bilateral relations, agreed to consider proposals for licensed fishing in 2003. The press release issued at the end of Foreign Secretary level consultations on 25 July 2003 mentioned in paragraph 11: “The Indian side broached the possibility of licensed fishing for Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan waters, with a view to preventing illegal activities. Sri Lanka called for detailed proposals in this respect for its considered examination”.

Unfortunately the window of opportunity was not grasped by Chennai and New Delhi. It was for the first time that Colombo officially committed itself to consider proposals for licensed fishing. According to informed sources in New Delhi, the Government of Tamil Nadu did not seriously pursue the matter nor could New Delhi submit any credible proposals due to reservations expressed by the Ministry of Agriculture. Marine fisheries fall within the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Agriculture.

Since 1993, the Author had been suggesting licensed fishing as a possible solution to the travails of Indian fishermen in the Palk Bay.  The Sri Lankan fishermen do not fish in waters very near to the maritime boundary. Therefore, I suggested that the Government of Tamil Nadu should persuade New Delhi to make the suggestion to Sri Lanka that licensed Indian fishermen may be permitted to fish up to five nautical miles from the international maritime boundary line. If the principle was accepted, detailed procedures could be worked out between the two governments to not only regulate fishing, but also to ensure that the facilities were not misused. As a quid pro quo Sri Lankan fishermen could be permitted to fish in the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone, which is rich in tuna. 

The problem today has become more complex because Indian fishermen resort to bottom trawling which not only adversely affects the livelihood of Sri Lankan fishermen but also play havoc with marine ecology. The ball is in the Indian court today. The Government of India and the Government of Tamil Nadu should immediately take steps to de-commission the bottom trawlers from the Palk Bay. What is more, deep sea fishing should be started in a big way in Tamil Nadu and fishermen from the Palk Bay region should be encouraged to switch over to deep sea fishing. Fishermen are attached to the sea, but they have no special attachment to the coastal villages in which they live. They are migratory. In fact majority of Rameshwaram fishermen have migrated from southern part of Tamil Nadu.

The success of diplomacy consists in converting a crisis into an opportunity. The present strains in the Palk Bay could be overcome by looking at Palk Bay not as a contested territory, but as common heritage.  Historically the Palk Bay was never a barrier; it was a bridge which linked the peoples of both countries. New Delhi should suggest to  Colombo that a Palk Bay Authority should be constituted, consisting of representatives of both countries, which can determine the ideal sustainable catch, what type of fishing equipments can be used, how many days can Sri Lankan and Indian fishermen fish and how to jointly enrich the sea. What is more, instead of imposing a solution from above, a solution from below should be worked out. Fishermen of both countries should be closely associated in every stage of the dialogue. This will open a new era in India-Sri Lanka relations; it will also give a fillip to bilateral and regional co-operation.   

(Dr. V. Suryanarayan is Founding Director and former Senior Professor, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. His e mail id: