Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

A lack of political will to end the Palk Bay conflict


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Not much

Mains level: Paper 2- Palk Bay conflict


The arrest of 68 Indian fishermen by the Sri Lankan authorities between December 18 and 20 and the impounding of 10 boats for “poaching” in the territorial waters of Sri Lanka has flared up the conflict between the two countries.

About Palk Bay

  • Palk Bay is home to diverse resources including 580 species of fish, extends from Point Calimere of Nagapattinam district to Mandapam-Dhanushkodi of Ramanathapuram district over about 250 km.
  • Source of dispute: It is an important marine zone between south-eastern India and northern Sri Lanka, has been a source of dispute for long.

About the conflict

  • Negotiations: The genesis of the dispute can be traced to the October 1921 negotiations between representatives of the Governments of Madras and Ceylon, on the need for the delimitation of the Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar.
  • Delimitation: It was in the mid-1970s that two agreements were signed by India and Sri Lanka, under which the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) came into being.
  • Instead of settling the issues, the pacts gave way to new problems, including the recurring incidents of Tamil Nadu fishermen crossing the IMBL and getting caught by the Sri Lankan authorities.

Cause of the problem

  • Different fishing practices: The asymmetric nature of fishing practices in Tamil Nadu and the Northern Province of Sri Lanka is said to be the cause of the problem.
  • While Tamil Nadu’s fishing community uses mechanised bottom trawlers, its counterpart uses conventional forms of fishing, as trawling is banned in Sri Lanka.
  • Difference in resources: The fishermen of Tamil Nadu continue to cross the IMBL, as the Sri Lankan side of the Bay is considered to have more fishery resources than the Indian side.

Way forward

  • Weak away fishermen from trawling: The deep-sea fishing project,  to wean away the fishermen of Tamil Nadu from bottom trawling, launched in July 2017, has not yielded the desired results.
  • Relaxation of norms of the project is under the consideration of the Union Government, to draw greater response from the fishermen.
  • Motivation for deep-sea fishing: Given the fact that deep sea fishing takes longer duration and has a higher recurring cost per voyage than what the fishing community experiences currently, the need for providing continuous motivation to the fisherfolk assumes critical importance.
  • Other strategies: Various strategies, including the promotion of seaweed cultivation, open sea cage cultivation, seaweed cultivation and processing, and sea/ocean ranching should be adopted.
  • Forming FPOs: There is a view that if the community is encouraged to form fish farmer producer organisations, it may take to sustainable fishing practices.
  • Institution of stakeholders: A section of specialists favours the creation of an international institution of stakeholders for regulating the fishing sector in the Bay.

Consider the question “What leads to the dispute between India and Sri Lanka over the Palk Bay? Suggest the way forward for fishermen in Tamil Nadu.”


For all this to happen, sustained public pressure and political will are a must.

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Back2Basics: What is bottom trawling?

  • A bottom trawl consists of a large tapered net with a wide mouth and a small enclosed end.
  • The mouth of a trawl net has two weighted doors that serve not only to keep the net open, but also to keep the net on the ocean floor.
  • These doors can weigh several tons.
  • In addition to the heavy doors, the bottom of the net is a thick metal cable (footrope) studded with heavy steel balls or rubber bobbins that effectively crush everything in their path.
  • As the net drags along the seafloor, living habitat in its path is crushed, ripped up, or smothered as the seabed is turned over.

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