Finding Solutions for the Palk Bay Disagreement

Finding Solutions for the Palk Bay Disagreement

Palk Bay is a semi-enclosed or partly confined shallow water body located between the southeast coast of India and Sri Lanka.

· 8 min read

Finding Solutions for the Palk Bay Disagreement

After a gap of fifteen months, the India-Sri Lanka Joint Working Group (JWG) on fisheries recently held the infamous and much-awaited consideration (in virtual format) on March 25.

However between the 2 meetings of the JWG, a series of events and activities — much of it regrettable — occurred within the Palk Bay region that encircles the state of Tamil Nadu, India, and the Northern Province of Sri Lanka.

For example, the death of seven fishermen — five from Tamil Nadu and 2 from Sri Lanka, due to “mid-sea clashes”  at the Palk Bay has sparked outrage among both the nation, this forced JWG to look into the situation.

Just as the group of fishermen preliminary from the Palk Bay border region of Tamil Nadu continues to a misdemeanor the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL), eventually several of these trespassers (Indian Fishermen) get arrested, and their fishing motorboats impounded by the Sri Lankan authorities continue.

What has brought about the concerns that happened in early February, was the particular impounded fishing boats, about 140 in total (belonging to Indian fishermen), were unlawfully auctioned and sold without any concern from their respective owners and India Government, despite the bilateral knowledge and agreement on the issue, already in practice.

Photo by Kamal Preet Kaur / Unsplash

Brief Background associated with India- Sri Lankan? Fishing areas

  1. For centuries Palk Bay has witnessed both Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen make their livelihood from the bay, without any trouble.
  2. Palk Bay is a semi-enclosed or partly confined shallow water body located between the southeast coast of India and Sri Lanka.
  3. Issues arose only right after a maritime contract was signed between India and Sri Lanka in the mid-1970s.
I remember the chilly winds blowing on that early morning, such a beautiful experience. After that was, boat ride and watching dolphins family enjoying in sea.
Photo by Vivek Wagh / Unsplash

In fact, at first, the 1974 international border agreement did not necessarily affect fishing on either side of the border. However, in 1976, both India and Sri Lanka reached an agreement to stop fishing in each other's waters.

To make it globally formal, both India and Sri Lanka signed treaties in 1974 and 1976 in order to demarcate and mark off the Internal Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL).

The treaties also ended up making the Palk Strait connecting India and Sri Lanka a ‘two-nation pond’, under the relevant United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) rules to the exclusion of all third nations. Simply put, the bilateral arrangement bans international fishing and shipping.

Team work at the port in Kochi
Photo by ( d f y b ) TRAVEL CAPTURES / Unsplash

Government’s Initiative for Fishermen

Providing all essential support

This includes clothes, toiletries, treats & snacks, and dry essentials in addition to masks, besides assisting calls to family members and relatives. Arrangement for legal representation.

Check their Well-being and Welfare

In the situation of one angler (fisherman) who was indisposed (unwell), the Indian Consular Officer has gone to him in the particular visit him in the hospital to check and verify his welfare.

Issue of an earlier release of the  fishermen and motorboats

The Indian High Commission located in Sri Lanka had taken up the matter to release the fishermen and their boats with the Government of Sri Lanka at its earliest.

Bottom Trawler a Matter of Concern

Fishing boat detail. The side of a prawn trawler boat in Cairns Australia.
Photo by David Clode / Unsplash
  1. Apart from transgressing in the territorial waters of Sri Lanka, the heavy use of the mechanized bottom trawlers is another matter of concern, that has become a core of the dispute between the fishermen of the two countries; the disagreement is not just between the two neighboring states.
  2. Bottom Trawler, an industrial method of fishing, which was once encouraged and aided by the government of India, is now being labeled extremely adverse and harmful to marine biology and thus same has been clearly acknowledged by India.
  3. The behavior and actions of the Tamil Nadu fishermen negatively affect their correlative in the Northern Province who are also majorly struggling to come to favorable terms with life after their civil war.
  4. Also, the most recent series of the ongoing economic predicaments in the island nation of Sri Lanka has only worsened their troubles.
  5. Although, the fishermen of Tamil Nadu put forward their serious concerns, i.e. little or no fishing areas subsequent to the demarcation or mark-off, of the IMBL in June 1974.
  6. The Indian water body in the southeast of TN is firstly shallow, and secondly rocky & coral reefs. Thus, the Tamil Nadu fishermen are disadvantageous if they confined themselves to only Indian water territory,  
  7. Moreover, the distance between Dhanushkodi (Tamil Nadu) and the International Maritime Boundry Line (IMBL) is nine nautical miles (NM) i.e. 16.6 km, while the maximum distance between Devipattinam and the International Maritime Boundry Line (IMBL) is 34 NM i.e. 62.9 km
  8. One more contradicting situation that puzzles the fisherman is the Tamil Nadu Marine Fishing Regulation Act 1983, which mentions mechanized fishing boats or trawlers can fish only beyond 3 NM, i.e.e 5.5 km from the Tamil Nadu coast. This contradiction perfectly explains, why frequently and very often the fishermen have to cross the IMBL.
  9. Both states are advantageous to a certain level, the state of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka are culturally almost the same, in terms of food habits, language, and religion. These soft arsenals can be used consciously to resolve any dispute in the Palk Bay
  10. It is because of this and the unfortunate situation of the fishermen in the Northern Province, that the governments of both nations are very likely to solve the situation from a humanitarian and livelihood perspective.

Fisher-Level Talks are much needed in this Economic Adversity in Sri Lanka

A trawler with sparrows at Sunset, in Croatia
Photo by Arthur Goldstein / Unsplash
  1. With the problem having been looked after by the Joint Working Group (JWG), and the visit of India’s External Affairs Minister to Sri Lanka, in March as well, it is now the proper time for constructive steps to be taken to speed up and make the process forward.
  2. The current situation, which is otherwise very anxious and draining for Sri Lanka in the context of economic instability, can be utilized to bring the fishermen of the two countries to terms favorable to both countries.
  3. To ensure smooth negotiation on Palk  Bay, the Indian government ensured two months of fishing ban on the east coast of the country started on April 15.
  4. It is for Sri Lanks to decide now if they want to engage in peace talk and solve the Palk Bay issue once for an all because India is ready to resume fisherfolk-level consideration.
  5. All previous preceding meetings highlighted varied substantive issues that were ragged, the most recent and latest meeting was held in New Delhi in November 2016, thus only a small tweak is required.
  6. On the other hand, Indian fishermen can put forward the future milestone for their transition to deep water fishing and alternative fishing methods, the Sri Lankan counterpart has to opt for the expedient and realist approach, that such transition may not happen with immediate effect.
  7. Firstly, in order to evoke a friendly response from the fishermen of the Northern Province, Sri Lanka. Secondly, the Indian Fishermen from the east coast, Tamil Nadu has to maintain a disciplined transition under the watch of the Indian Government (Central and State).
  8. However, there is a bitter part to this negotiation, for any genuine complaint received, about fishermen from east-cost Tamil Nadu found engaged in an illicit activity of damaging the properties of fishermen of Northern Province, the Government of India has to compensate for every occurrence of such events to Sri Lanks through diplomatic channels.

Possible Solution

Need of a time, Deep-sea fishing should immediately replace the Bottom Trawlers

Con mal tiempo y el barco muy escorado, el contramaestre dirige la maniobra a pie de rampa, vigilando los golpes de mar que puedan entrar por popa.

With bad weather and the boat very heeled, the boatswain directs the maneuver at the foot of the ramp, watching the sea blows that may enter from the stern.
Photo by Fer Nando / Unsplash
  1. India will have to modify and update its existing scheme on deep-sea fishing to anticipate and accommodate the concerns of the fishermen from the southeast coast, particularly those from Ramanathapuram district, Tamil Nadu so that they exercise deep-sea fishing without any further reservation.
  2. To make the new revised scheme acceptable, it has to accommodate the concerns from both sides without hampering the livelihood of fishermen, especially the scheme for deep-sea fishing for the fishermen of the North Province.
  3. Also, there is a captivating need for the respective state government to deploy the Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana in an inclusive and proactive manner.
  4. The Scheme initiated two years ago, summarises the alternative measures for livelihood for fishermen, including sea-ocean ranching, seaweed/sea-herbs cultivation, and open sea cage cultivation.
  5. The Indian government signed the memorandum of understanding with Sri Lanka for the development of the fisheries harbours.
  6. The newer development in this scenario is very welcomed, and the Joint Working Group (JWG) planning to engage in research on fisheries, and this particular should be commissioned at its earliest.
  7. Both sides need to understand and share knowledge-based to educate fishermen on the adverse effects of bottom trawling in the Plak Bay region.

Future Scope

For the Plak Bay region, the two nations should continuously explore or find the newer possibilities for devising a multi-stake mechanism at the institutional level to overlook and regulate fisheries in the Plak Bay region.

Photo by Egle Sidaraviciute / Unsplash

On the other hand, Sri Lanks need to take a mature stand in this scenario and abstain from following the rigid rules from a legal perspective, concerning the release of arrested 16 Indian fishermen and impounded boats of these fishermen.

Any further delay in materializing the release will only attract sanctions and add bitterness to the bilateral relationship between the two nations, also considering the current economic disaster, Sri Lanks should consider the options made available by India.

There are numerous solutions available to immediately solve the Plak Bay dispute, and make the region dispute free through collaboration, thus the fisheries' disagreement over the bay is not an insurmountable problem.