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Internationalization of fisherman issue between India and Sri Lanka

Published: 27th Dec, 2021


Indian fishermen have recently been caught by the Sri Lankan navy for entering into its territory.

  • The fishermen from India have been moving in Sri Lankan waters involuntarily and as of now, the matter is usually resolved bilaterally between India and Sri Lanka.
  • However, recently Sri Lankan fisheries Minister has taken up this issue with US Ambassador which could have long term consequence on bilateral relations.


  • There is a long-persisting conflict in the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka.
  • Previously, there was no clear demarcation of maritime borders between Indian and Sri Lanka.
  • Later, in the 1970s, India and Sri Lanka concluded the maritime boundary agreements of 1974 and 1976, delimiting international boundaries in the Palk Bay, the Gulf of Mannar, and the Bay of Bengal, respectively.
    • Under the agreement, India ceded the island of Kachchatheevu in the Palk Bay by India to Sri Lanka which was protested by state of Tamil Nadu.
  • Indian fishermen have been fishing near the island for centuries and they continued fishing even after the bilateral agreement.
  • Earlier, Sri Lanka did not take much action against this activity due to civil war in the country.
  • However, after 2009, it has increased surveillance which has caused tensions between the two countries.


What is Kachchatheevu island?

  • Katchatheevu island is the centre of a long-standing dispute between the fishermen of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.
  • Katchatheevu is an uninhabited islet in the Palk Strait that was formed due to volcanic eruption in the 14th century.
  • The 285-acre land, strategically important for fishing activities, was owned by the Raja of Ramnad (Ramanathapuram) and later became part of the Madras Presidency after the delimitation of Gulf of Mannar and Palk Strait during British rule between the then governments of Madras and Ceylon.

The Church

About 4,000 devotees from Rameswaram visit the 110-year-old St Anthony’s Church on the island every year on average.

Why the island is the bone of contention?

  • In 1921, both Sri Lanka and India claimed this piece of land for fishing and the dispute remained unsettled.
  • Though the island is not strategically important for India, but for Indian fishermen it is a very important place associated with their livelihood since the surrounding seas of Kachachativu Island have an abundance of prawns.
  • In 1974, Katchatheevu was ceded to Sri Lanka through the Indo-Sri Lankan Maritime agreement to settle the maritime boundary in the Palk Strait.

How Tamil Nadu reacted?

  • The agreement made the state of Tamil Nadu angry with the decision. Concerns raised by the Tamil Nadu region remain unaddressed in the agreement.
  • The ceding of the island also exacerbated the tension between the fishermen practicing traditional fishing and those using huge modern mechanised trawlers.
  • In order to prevent the conflict, Tamil Nadu government enacted the Tamil Nadu Marine Fisheries Regulation Act in 1983.

Tamil Nadu Marine Fisheries Regulation Act, 1983

  • The Act required that trawlers or mechanised boats should not catch fish within three nautical miles from the coast.
  • It also stipulated that the three-nautical-mile area would exclusively be reserved for artisanal fishermen (those who practice the trade in a traditional or non-mechanized way).
  • However, the artisanal fishermen claim that the government has not done anything to enforce the three nautical mile stipulation.

Why Indian fishermen are there even after the agreement?

  • Though ceded to Sri Lanka, the agreement did not specify fishing rights.
  • Thus, it allowed Indian fishermen to fish around Katchatheevu and to dry their nets on the island.

The another agreement

  • During Emergency (1976), another agreement was finalized to determine the boundary in the Gulf of Mannar and Bay of Bengal.
  • It restricted both the countries’ fishermen from fishing in the other’s waters.
  • With the establishment of the Exclusive Economic Zones by the two countries, India and Sri Lanka will exercise sovereign rights over the living and non-living resources of their respective zones.
    • The fishing vessels and fishermen of India shall not engage in fishing in the historic waters, the territorial sea and the Exclusive Economic Zone of Sri Lanka
    • The fishing vessels and fishermen of Sri Lanka will not engage in fishing in the historic waters, the territorial sea and the Exclusive Economic Zone of India, without the express permission of Sri Lanka or India.

What are the points of conflicts?

  • Environmental issues: Apart from the above points of conflict, Sri Lanka also raises the environmental protection bogie against India.
    • Sri Lanka often complains that trawlers used by the Indian fishermen also damage the fragile ecosystem of the sea.
    • They allege that heavy nets used by the Indian fishermen badly affect the region's marine life.
  • Detainment of fishermen: The Sri Lankan navy personnel have detained thousands of Indian fishermen. Sometimes, the fishermen are released upon the intervention by the Indian government but both the sides have failed to find a long-lasting solution to this problem.

Why India and Sri Lanka are important to each other?

For India

  • Economic relations: Sri Lanka is one of the largest trade partners of India in the SAARC. In 2020, India was Sri Lanka’s 2nd largest trading partner with the bilateral merchandise trade amounting to about USD $ 3.6 billion.
  • Cultural relations and People-to-people ties
    • The Cultural Cooperation Agreement signed by the two countries in 1977 forms the basis for periodic Cultural Exchange Programmes between the two countries.
    • Buddhism is one of the strongest pillars connecting the two nations. In 2020, during the Virtual Bilateral Summit, Government of India announced USD 15 million grant assistance for protection and promotion of Buddhist ties between India and Sri Lanka.
  • Tourism: Government of India formally launched the e-Tourist Visa (eTV) scheme for Sri Lankan tourists in 2015. Sri Lankan tourists too are among the top ten sources for the Indian tourism market.
  • Strategic relevance-: Sri Lanka has geographic proximity to India and is located at a strategic location in the Indian Ocean. Thus, Sri Lanka’s political and security stability is in India’s interests.

For Sri Lanka

  • Economic relations: India has traditionally been among Sri Lanka’s largest trade partners in the SAARC India is also one of the largest contributors to FDI in Sri Lanka. The main investments from India are in the areas of petroleum retail, tourism & hotel, manufacturing, real estate, telecommunication, banking and financial services
  • Strategic relevance: Due to India’s strategic location, India can act a first response nation in case of any adversity in Sri Lanka. Secondly, India can act as a great balancer to China due to growing Chinese investments in Sri Lanka.
  • India’s support at the global forums: Sri Lanka is facing criticism on the issue of human rights at UNHRC, mainly occurred during the Sri Lankan civil war with LTTE. India’s support is crucial for Sri Lanka to ensure UNHRC Resolution would not go against it.

Challenges in India – Sri Lanka relationship

Apart from the recent issues discussed above, there are few long term issues between two nations that need a relook. These issues are-

  • Growing Chinese investments in Sri Lanka- Several projects were allocated to China led companies that reflects growing Chinese interference in Sri Lankan polity and further in Indian Ocean, thus hampering Indian interest
    • Hambantota port was allocated to China on a long term lease by Sri Lanka.
    • The contract for Jaffna Hybrid Energy Project was granted to China led company.
  • Cancellation of India led projects- Sri Lanka has cancelled ECT project to be developed at the Colombo Port jointly by India and Japan. It was signed in 2019 but later cancelled.

Way forward

  • Both India and Sri Lanka are crucial to each other. The historic ties as well as contemporary relations among the two makes it necessary that bilateral issues must be resolved amicably. The mechanism like annual summits and 2+2 dialogue can be explored for regular exchange of information.
  • Secondly, new means of cooperation can be explored at the regional and global level like reforms in United Nations, and South-South partnerships to ensure the plural and multi polar world order can be sustained.

The diversity in India Sri Lanka relations are a reflection of deep ties between the two. While some hurdles appear time and again, the mutual relationship should continue to grow in the interest of each other.

Verifying, please be patient.

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