Colombo Telegraph

No Anchor For A Sinking Catamaran

By Kumar David

Prof Kumar David

Impecunious fishermen drown in deep waters: No anchor for a sinking catamaran

It will be no mean feat to reach a resolution of the fishing dispute in the waters between India and Lanka. First there is the wrangle between impoverished fishermen struggling to haul in a catch and provide an income for their families; second, fat-cat businessmen (mudalilis) on both sides own trawlers that roam the seas in search of return-on-investment.  The depleted oceans can feign yield sufficient to satisfy the latter, though if it was a dispute between fishermen alone, resolution is reachable. As it stands the quarrel is set to drag on interminably. Much has been written in recent weeks so I will not to repeat well known facts.

The loss of life and the number of arrests and detentions is large and would have led to military clashes if confrontation on this scale had occurred between India and another neighbour – Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal or Burma. Indian National Fish-workers’ Forum President M. Illango claims that 800 fishermen have been killed, another 800 seriously injured, and hundreds of boats confiscated by the Lankan side in the last 30 years. These numbers are wildly exaggerated but even the lower estimate of 100 deaths made by Fisheries Management Resource Centre expert Vivikenandan (sic initials omitted by publisher) in Himal magazine is troubling; a potential flash point.

No one is quite sure how many Lankan fishermen have been arrested and detained by the Indian authorities but probably right now it is more than 200. From time to time the two governments arrange farcical prisoner exchanges; then tempers cool for a while. There was accelerated detention by both sides recently in honour of a bilateral meeting scheduled for Monday (20); both want as many tradable objects as possible to barter! I am not being facetious; many spokesmen say this. Those locked up in Lanka are almost exclusively Indian Tamils, but in India mostly Lankan Tamil, but a number of Sinhalese too are in detention. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha moved first last week and ordered release of 180 held in her state; Rajitha refused to take the gambit unless 50 held in other states are also freed.

An Indo-Lanka Joint Working Group, set up long ago as a consultative forum, is dysfunctional having never met (or hardly met) in the last eight years! Indian fishermen are threatening to boycott the Lok Sabaha elections due in May. Agitated Jayalalitha and firebrand Tamil nationalist Vaiko are kicking up a commotion with the Centre (Delhi) demanding the following:

a)     Joint fishing rights be recognised in border seas

b)     An Indo-Lanka Fishing Authority be established to resolve disputes

c)     Steps be taken to recover Kachchatheevu

The Lankan position is straightforward assertion of territorial rights. There is an agreed maritime boundary, Indian vessels crossing it are committing an offence and that’s that. There are no disputed or shared maritime regions; there is no need for a fishing rights authority; Kachchatheevu was transferred to Lanka by an international agreement in 1974 and that’s the end of the matter. Therefore a little history is called for; so here goes.

About Kachchatheevu

This is a tiny (285 acre) uninhabited islet halfway between Delft and Rameswaram and currently, obviously, on the Lankan side of the Indo-Lanka Maritime Boundary (ILMB). Of course, but for the 1974 transfer, Kachchatheevu would be on the Indian side of the ILMB. To see the effect imagine Map 2 with the boundary indented to go round equidistantly between Delft and Kachchatheevu with the latter on the Indian side. A substantial area of disputed fish-rich waters now owned by Lanka would pass to India. Hence, the significance of Kachchatheevu is the adjustment of the ILMB, not the parched and uninhabited dollop in the sea. The islet also contains the 100+ year old church of St Anthony; the only time folks visit it is once a year for a three-day feast; no passports or visas needed for the pilgrimage.

Ownership of the islet is a straightforward matter in the Lankan mind, but it is a complicated and embarrassing headache for India. To be truthful, Kachchatheevu was not ceded by India to Lanka but, in a manner of speaking, gifted by Indira to Sirima. There was a personal bond between the two ladies and it is said that on a visit to Delhi, Sirima who was having a hard time at home, asked akka for something to take back and win credibility. What makes this anecdote plausible is that the Indian government never took it to parliament for ratification. It is a pity that Lanka’s relationship with a billion people across a narrow strip of water has been despoiled by later leaders JR, Premadasa and Rajapakse.

Hence the legality of the transfer is contested in India, especially in Tamil Nadu. Jayalalitha, on assuming the Chief Ministership, took it to the Supreme Court which held that transfer of Indian territory requires parliamentary endorsement and amendment of the Constitution. Discomfiture for Congress is amplified by squeamishness to turn back an Indira Gandhi Prime Ministerial concession. For Lanka the worry is that should the BJP win the elections (with Jayalalitha in tow) the new government may wind back the clock, embarrass Congress, and score brownie points with Tamil and Indian nationalists. It is hard to see how this wind may blow. Lanka can go further back in history and petition international courts that the British should not have handed the islet to India at the time of independence, but there is another complication. The agreement is badly and loosely worded and fishing rights for Indian fishermen in the surrounding waters have been included in less than watertight terms – pardon the silly pun.

The size of the problem

The dispute is all about overfishing. Indian trawlers use an illegal technique, bottom-trawling, that destroys breeding grounds and the sheer quantity taken is horrendous. Every day over a hundred mechanised boats, say 20,000 to 40,000 trips a year, set out from Indian ports for the fish-rich waters of Palk Bay, Gulf of Mannar and Palk Strait. Overfishing is a ubiquitous problem depleting the world’s oceans – the Japanese are the worst offenders – but in this little corner it is putting two communities at loggerheads. The pain of humble fishermen is acute. The stake of mudalilis who own or rent trawlers is the usual, profit maximisation – and damn long-term consequences like logging companies that raze the forest and move to greener pastures – sic I am having involuntary pun convulsions today.

But it is never simple. The mechanised boats are manned by none other than the impecunious, slaving at low wages, for moneybags. Oh well, life is never simple; the underdog stays underdog. The fishermen versus fishermen conflict has another dimension. During the war there were restrictions on movement of boats which have been lifted and the government now encourages fishing; good. Hundreds have returned to their trade and there are no security related limits. Indian and Lankan fishermen run up against each other; the irony is that northern fishermen now look to the navy as allies to chase away their Indian counterparts. Sinnaiya Thevaratnam, President of the Northern Province Fisheries Alliance for example, complains that the government is not making the navy strong enough to expel intruders. The struggle for survival turns worker against worker. Fishermen of all nations unite seems rather a far-off motto. Lanka’s fishermen see a more immediate enemy.

Overfishing has to be prevented, vessels bigger than a certain size have to be prohibited in these waters, and the ban on bottom-trawling has to be enforced. Then small fishermen from the two sides will be able to talk to each other and there is a possibility they will be able to sort out a deal amicably. Big money capitalist trawling is a menace in these small time waters and environs. Here is one case in which the productivity gains from economies of scale enhance social conflict. Expect the two delegations and their side supporters at tomorrows meeting, if it is not called-off at the last minute, to fight like viragos in a fish market. Oh damn, another stupid pun! Not my day; time to call it a day. Again!

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