[Burning Issue] India- Sri Lanka Fishermen Issues

2 days back, an article in Hindu caught our eyes. It was – “Indian trawlers are back, say Sri Lanka’s fishermen”. This is not a new issue, in fact, this news piece has it’s own way of making it back to the headlines again and again.

The conflict has also strained both countries’ bilateral ties, with talks at the highest levels and among fisher leaders on both sides proving futile for years.

So, today let us look at this news from a holistic point of view, through this edition of Burning Issue.

  • Indian boats have been fishing in the troubled waters for centuries and had a free run of the Bay of Bengal, the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar until 1974 and 1976 when treaties were signed between the two countries to demarcate the maritime boundary — the ‘International Maritime Boundary Line'(IMBL).
  • However, the treaties failed to factor in the hardship of thousands of traditional Indian fishermen who were forced to restrict themselves to a meager area in their fishing forays.
  • The small islet of Katchatheevu, hitherto used by them for sorting their catch and drying their nets, fell on the Lankan side of the IMBL.
  • Fishermen often risk their lives and cross the IMBL rather than return empty-handed, but the Sri Lankan Navy is on alert, and have either arrested or destroyed fishing nets and vessels of those who have crossed the line.

The Palk Bay

Historically, the shallow waters of the Palk Bay and geographical contiguity between India and Sri Lanka facilitated the movement of ideas, goods, and men.

  • The Palk Bay, a narrow strip of water separating the state of Tamil Nadu in India from the Northern Province of Sri Lanka.
  • The bay, which is 137 km in length and varies from 64 to 137 kilometers in width, is divided by the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL).
  • Bordering it are five Indian districts and three Sri Lankan districts.

Its significance

  • The bonds of ethnicity, language, and religion helped fishermen lead the lives of harmonious coexistence for several centuries.
  • Frequent migrations between India and Sri Lanka through the Palk Bay took place. Intermarriages were common.
  • However, over the last several decades, internal and bilateral relations have suffered from a range of issues from coastal insecurity to overfishing.

End of the civil war

  • The region has become a highly contested site in recent decades, with the conflict taking on a new dimension since the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2009.
  • Now the livelihood of Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen was at stake, thus, the Sri Lankan navy expanded and become more vigilant.
  • In India, the fisheries dispute chiefly began with an internal debate about sovereignty related to the ceding of the island of Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka.
  • The problem got exacerbated by the tension between fishermen practicing traditional fishing and those using trawlers.

What are the issues here?

The various dimensions of the fishermen issue between India and Sri Lanka can be encapsulated as follows:

1) Issue over Sovereignty

  • The maritime boundary agreements of 1974 and 1976 delimited international boundaries in the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar and Bay of Bengal, respectively.
  • They were concluded by the two governments in the name of good neighbourly relations, but they did not reflect realities on the ground because the people concerned, namely fishermen, were not consulted.
  • The principle of national sovereignty underpinned both agreements.
  • A close personal relationship between both prime ministers, Indira Gandhi and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, facilitated the successful conclusion.
  • However, from the perspective of Tamil Nadu, the ceding of the island of Katchatheevu in the Palk Bay to Sri Lanka was a grave mistake.

2) Poaching and Trawling

  • Fueling the dispute over Katchatheevu is the overuse of mechanized trawlers in the Palk Bay, the damaging environmental and economic effects of trawling.
  • To increase productivity and boost exports, the government of India embarked on a radical transformation of fishing techniques. The result was the introduction of trawlers.
  • Quick returns from prawns attracted many from non-fishing communities to invest in this profitable venture. As a result, numerous fishermen became wage labourers.
  • Trawlers have since been referred to as the “hoovers of the shelf bottom” and “bulldozers mowing down fish and other benthic species.
  • After their introduction, the Indian side of the Palk Bay quickly became devoid of fish.

3) Tougher laws

  • After some respite in the last couple of years, Sri Lanka introduced tougher laws banning bottom-trawling and put heavy fines for trespassing foreign vessels.
  • Crossing the IMBL poses a greater threat as Sri Lanka has amended its Foreign Fisheries Boats Regulation Act to increase the fine on Indian vessels found fishing in Sri Lankan waters to a minimum of LKR 6 million (about ₹25 lakh) and a maximum of LKR 175 million (about ₹17.5 Crore).

4) Fisherman’s concerns

  • There is a depletion of fisheries on the Indian side, so Indian fishermen cross into Sri Lankan waters thus denying the livelihood of their counterparts.
  • They deliberately cross the territorial waters even at the risk of getting arrested or shot dead by the Sri Lankan Navy.
  • Sri Lankan fishermen across Palk Bay are concerned over similar depletion on their side (where there is a ban for trawlers) because of poaching by their brethren from Tamil Nadu.
  • Apart from enforcing the trawler ban, the Sri Lankan Navy has also stepped up the monitoring of coasts, especially those that are proximate to India. The idea is to prevent any movement of remnant militants back into the island.

Implications on the fishermen

  • The ongoing dispute has escalated tensions between those fishermen using traditional methods and those using mechanized methods, as well as increased the infringement of territorial boundaries.
  • According to the government of Tamil Nadu, the sufferings of Indian Tamil fishermen is a direct consequence of ceding Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka and sacrificing the traditional fishing rights enjoyed by Indian fishermen.
  • In a defiant speech on August 15, 1991, Jayalalitha called on the people of Tamil Nadu to retrieve the island.

Averting a Crisis

  • The underlying issues of the fisheries dispute need to be addressed, so that relations between fishermen and their governments, between Tamil Nadu and New Delhi, and between Tamil Nadu and Colombo do not reach a crisis point.
  • Immediate actions should be taken to begin the phase-out of trawling and identify other fishing practices.
  • Katchatheevu Issue: The unilateral abrogation of the maritime boundary agreement on India’s part would cause irreparable damage to India’s image. Need to stay away from politics here.

Alternative solutions

  • Leasing: Two courses of action exist: (1) get back the island of Katchatheevu on “lease in perpetuity” or (2) permit licensed Indian fishermen to fish within a designated area of Sri Lankan waters and vice versa.
  • Licensing: The second course of action would persuade Colombo to permit licensed Indian fishermen to fish in Sri Lankan waters for five nautical miles from the IMBL.
  • There is precedent in the 1976 boundary agreement, which allowed licensed Sri Lankan fishermen to fish in the Wadge Bank (a fertile fishing ground located near Kanyakumari) for a period of three years.
  • Reconsidering old agreements: A window of opportunity opened at the end of India–Sri Lanka foreign secretary consultations in July 2003, when the Sri Lankan government agreed for the first time to consider proposals for licensed fishing. This can be revisited.

Looping in fishermen themselves

  • Though the idea of meetings among fishermen was conceptualized way back in 2003, it was not pursued seriously.
  • Arranging frequent meetings between fishing communities of both countries could be systematized so as to develop a friendlier atmosphere mid-seas during fishing.
  • Starting ferry services between India and Sri Lanka can improve people to people linkages. Mutual recognition of each other’s concerns and interests can improve the relationship between both countries.
  • Media personnel can be invited to witness those practical issues confronted by the fishermen in each country. This would make a qualitative difference in reporting.

Way Forward

  • Action should be taken immediately to end the use of mechanized trawlers within one year, and the government should implement a buy-back arrangement as soon as possible.
  • Through incentives and persuasion, fishermen from the Palk Bay could be encouraged to switch over to deep-sea fishing in the Indian exclusive economic zone and in international waters.
  • Social security reforms for the fishermen community is necessary to empower them.
  • Diversification of livelihood options of fishermen.
  • Improving the fishing industry by itself like there is huge untapped potential for processed foods which will not only boost infrastructure in this sector but also reduce wastages.


The success of diplomacy lies in converting a crisis into an opportunity. If New Delhi and Tamil Nadu are determined, they can create a win-win scenario in the Palk Bay.

Overall, if the fishermen issue is not approached holistically, the marine frontiers between India and Sri Lanka will remain fishy and troubled. Ultimately, India must view the Palk Bay region as a common heritage of the two countries and project this vision.










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