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Why does Indian fisherman often run into problem in Indian Ocean?

In a goodwill gesture towards the new PM, Narendra Modi, Pakistan has freed 151 Indian fishermen while Sri Lanka ordered the release of all detained Indian fishermen on the eve of the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister. Most of these prisoners are poor Indian fishermen who were arrested and brought for trespassing into Pakistani territorial waters.

Previous releases:

In March, Rajapaksa had ordered the release of arrested fishermen after India abstained from voting on an anti-Sri Lanka motion at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. 

India was one of the 12 nations that abstained from voting on the UNHRC resolution, which prescribed an international probe into Sri Lanka's alleged rights abuses.

Last year in August, Pakistan had released around 337 Indian prisoners from jails. Later on Diwali also, 15 Indian fishermen were released as a goodwill gesture. However, many questions remains answered for the Indian fisherman’s trouble in high sea.

Issues of fisherman in the sea water:

The issue of fishermen straying in each other’s territorial waters has come as a potential irritant in the bilateral relations between the neighbouring states. Indian fishermen are usually arrested on charges of trespassing. A total of 600 fishermen from India — all from Tamil Nadu — were arrested by the Sri Lankan Navy in 2013, a sharp increase compared to the last few years.

The issues are discussed as follows:

India and Sri-Lanka

A) There is no well defined boundary line between the two nations.

B) Territorial waters overlap in some areas: Maritime border between the two countries is about 400 kilometres spreading along three different areas: the Bay of Bengal in the north, the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar in the centre and the Indian Ocean in the south. In the Palk Bay region, distances between the coasts of the two countries varies between 16 and 45 kms. This means territorial waters of each country in some areas strays into the others if 12 nautical mile criteria is strictly applied.

C) LTTE issue has raised vigilance: The issue of fishermen came to existence with the emergence of violent ethnic conflict between the Tamil militants and the Sri Lankan government in the mid 1980s. Increased vigilance by the Sri Lankan Navy to check intermittent flow of Tamil refugees into India and flow of arms and supplies to Tamil militant groups made fishing difficult and risky. Due to these fishermen from both nations suffered.

D) Security concerns: The monitoring is still on which aimed at preventing possible return of LTTE cadres, who fled from the island during the height of the conflict in 2009, to revive the insurgency all over again. 

Thus the Indian fishermen, who thus far enjoyed monopoly of resource-rich waters, have now got competitors in massive numbers. At times, this leads to confrontations between the two fishing communities and in turn drawing intervention of either of naval forces. The main complaint of Sri Lankan fishermen has been against Indian mechanised trawlers that indulge in pair, mid-water, pelagic, and bottom trawling severely damaging marine resources and the sea bed. Ironically, most of the trawlers from Tamil Nadu are owned by merchant capitalists from non-fishing and other social backgrounds. The entry of ‘outsiders’ has not only threatened the local customary laws of fishing communities, but also turned several traditional fishermen from owners to labourers. Trawler sector in Tamil Nadu is also politically influential and financially sound making it more obdurate to solutions that could cut down its profit margins.

(E) Historical perspective: Both Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen have been fishing into Palk Bay area for centuries. Problem emerged only after a maritime agreement was signed by India and Sri Lanka in 1974. In fact, initially the 1974 border agreement did not affect fishing on either sides of the border. In 1976, through an exchange of letter, both India and Sri Lanka agreed to stop fishing in each other’s waters. However, the agreement could not stop the fishermen from fishing in these waters, as fishermen know no boundary. They go wherever they can get maximum number of catch. They, knowingly or unknowingly, often violate the International Maritime Boundary Lines in search of a good catch, at times at great personal risk.

Both India and Sri Lankan fishermen have been known for entering into each other’s waters. However, cases of arrest of Sri Lankan fishermen by Indian authorities are comparatively less since they mostly fish in the high seas by using multi-day crafts. On the other hand, due to the dearth of multi-day fishing capability, Indian fishermen cannot shift their fishing effort from the Palk Bay area to the offshore areas of the Indian waters or way beyond the continental shelf. Therefore, Indian fishermen have no other option but to fish into the Sri Lankan waters. While for the Sri Lankan authorities protecting their maritime boundary is important, for the Indian fishermen the priority is of securing their livelihood.

It is noteworthy that despite the signing of maritime boundary agreements, fishermen communities of both the countries continued their fishing in the Palk Bay area peacefully until the Eelam war broke out in 1983. Nonetheless, after the end of War in 2009, the Sri Lankan fishermen have been raising their objection to Indian fishermen fishing in their waters. 

Thus, the main problem with Indian fishermen is that a large number of them are dependent on fishing in Sri Lankan waters, which is prohibited by the 1976 Maritime Boundary Agreement. Also, a large number of Indian fishermen are dependent on trawling which is banned in Sri Lanka. 

India and Pakistan:

The practice of apprehending each other's fishermen, along with their boats, has been followed by Pakistani and Indian forces since the time of the partition. The Maritime Security Agency (MSA) of Pakistan is responsible for the arrest of Indian fishermen when they reportedly enter Pakistani waters while for India, the Coast Guard, Border Security Force(BSF), Customs or the Indian navy does the same to Pakistani fishermen. 

Most trespassing is common to Pakistani and Indian fishermen operating along the coastline of the Indian state of Gujarat and the Pakistani province of Sindh. Most violations occur due to the absence of a physical boundary between the nations. The problem is aggravated by the dispute over the Sir Creek in Kutch and the failure to officially determine the maritime boundary between the two nations. Most local fishermen possess no navigational tools and are unable or incapable of determine their location by longitudes or latitudes.

Further the punishment for crossing into the other country's water by fishing boats may be imprisonment for a few months but due to the hostility between the establishments/ruling classes of these countries, the fishermen languish for years in detention centers even after completing their imprisonment.

Steps taken:

The Indian government has undertaken a census of fishermen, preparing a database of information on fishermen and their boats to be used for more effective monitoring of fishing activities. The Indian Coast Guard has also begun installing tracking devices in fishing boats operating in the waters, developed by the ISRO, the tracking device has the ability to send out alerts for fires on board, a sinking vessel, a medical emergency and when the boat is apprehended by another country.

Possible solutions:

a) Avoid shooting incidents due to “mistaken identity”, ‘coordinated patrolling’ between marine forces

b) Developing fish farming extensively in Indian waters would prevent its fishermen from venturing into other waters in search of a ‘big catch’.

c) India can also consider leasing fishing blocks, especially those identified as ‘surplus total available catch’, from Sri Lanka. 

d) To preserve marine resources, impose strict and complete ban on mechanized trawlers. 

e) Proper fisheries resource management.

f) Educate the Indian fishermen to keep to the Indian side in the high sea. 


• "Fishermen are often treated and exchanged like prisoner of the war". Elaborate the statement with respect to territorial clashes between India and neighbouring countries and issue related to Indian fisherman. 

• Discuss the UNCLOS role in maritime boundary management. 

•  Sustainable management of fisheries is the key to solve issue of trespassing of fishermen in maritime waters. Illustrate.

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