India-Sri Lanka Maritime dispute – Explained

Recently four fishermen from Tamil Nadu died while fishing in Palk Bay.  The cause of death is still not clear. But the Indian government has registered its strong protest with India-Sri Lanka.

The arrest and death of fishermen by the Sri-Lankan government is a frequent issue. A press note mentions, “between January 2015 to January 2018 alone, 185 Indian boats got seized, 188 Indian fishermen have been killed and 82 Indian fishermen are missing”

The Fishermen conflict is one of the main challenges in maintaining good bilateral relations between India-Sri Lanka.

What are the reasons for fisheries-related conflicts?

First, the maritime boundary line between both countries is not a well-defined one. For example, in the Palk Bay region, the distance between both countries is very less. It varies from 16Km to 45 km. Therefore, the application of 12 nautical mile criteria is difficult here.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) 12 nautical miles from the baseline of a country, is considered as its territorial water.


Second, The issues of Katchatheevu island: India, and Sri Lanka have signed two agreements (1974,1976) to demarcate the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) between them. But fishermen of Tamil Nadu are not accepting the agreements. Because of reasons, such as

    • According to the fishermen community, “their consultation was not considered during the signing of the agreement and Katchatheevu is a sovereign territory of India”.
    • Prior to the agreements, the fishermen of Tamil Nadu used the island for sorting their fishes, drying the nets, etc. They also used the dry net to catch fishes again while returning.
    • After the agreement, the island was included in the Sri Lankan side of the maritime boundary. This reduced the fishing area of Tamil Nadu fishermen.

All these factors led to the frequent border crossing of Indian Fishermen. The Sri Lankan Navy usually arrest them or destroy their fishing nets.

Third, Fishing method of the Fishermen of Tamil Nadu: TN Fishermen uses mechanized trawlers for performing bottom trawling method of fishing. But according to the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act of Sri Lanka, the practise of bottom trawling is an offence.

What is bottom trawling?

  • It is an ecologically destructive fishing practice. It involves trawlers dragging weighted nets along the sea-floor.
  • The major problem in bottom trawling is Bycatch (captures juvenile fish and other non-targeted fish species). This will cause great depletion of aquatic resources and affecting marine conservation efforts.

What are the challenges in resolving this dispute?

First, the non-agreement on terms between both the countries. In 2016 India and Sri Lanka agreed to set up a Joint Working Group (JWG) to find a permanent solution for fishermen issue. But the two rounds of talks did not provide any result. Because

    • India demanded a three-year grace period to move away from the bottom-trawling method to an effective, alternative method of fishing.
    • But the Sri Lankan side demanded an immediate end to bottom trawling practices.

Second,  arrest and seizure on a larger scale makes negotiations hard. The Indian fishermen do not have the financial capability and technology to involve in multi-day fishing. So they do fishing in nearby locations like Palk Bay, Gulf of Mannar. This lead to larger arrests and seizures. As a result, the conflict deepened, and hard to negotiate.

What are the other Challenges in India-Sri Lanka relations?

First, The increase of Chinese investment – China has extended billions of loans to the Sri Lankan government for infrastructure projects. Apart from that China has also got a 99-year lease for strategic Hambantota port.

However, with the recent ‘India first policy’ of Sri Lanka, the relations have started improving.

Second, The unresolved Tamil Eelam issue- Though the civil war ended in Sri Lanka, rehabilitation of Sri Lankan Tamil people is not yet complete. There are still Sri Lankan refugees present in India. There is also a close cultural association among the Tamil-speaking community in India and Sri Lanka. So, a few sections of Tamil community in Tamil Nadu are also in favour of autonomy to Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka.

Third, The issue of the trade imbalance- Indian exports to Sri Lanka was worth US$ 4.16billion in 2018. But the export from Sri Lanka to India is US$ 767 million. Sri Lanka wants to reduce this imbalance. So the Sri Lankan government is demanding greater access to Indian markets. 

Way forward:

First, Indian fishermen need to phase out the bottom trawling practices at the earliest.  It will not only improve the bilateral relationship but also prevent ecological destruction. The government can provide incentives and involve in persuasive techniques for fishermen to achieve the objective.

Second, the Government has to fast-track the Blue Revolution Scheme. The Scheme allocates Rs 1,500 crore over a period of time for the conversion of bottom trawling boats into deep-sea liners. Fishermen will use the deep-sea liners for deep-sea fishing.

What is deep-sea fishing?

Deep-sea fishing is the practice of catching fish that live in the deep parts of the sea/ocean. In this practice, the boats are designed in such a way that fishermen will get access to the deeper parts of the ocean and fish species. Also, there are no ecological damages associated with deep-sea fishing like that of bottom trawling.

This is practised worldwide, especially in the coastal areas.

Third, regarding the Katchatheevu island, both countries can work upon any of the two solutions. Such as

    • India can get back the island on “lease in perpetuity”(lease forever)
    • Both countries can permit licensed fishermen to fish within designated areas. For example, permitting both country fishermen within 5 nautical miles of IMBL.

Fourth, Both India and Sri Lanka can also work upon starting ferry services. This will improve the people to people connection and reduce the conflict in the long run.

Mutual recognition of each other’s concerns is the key to resolving the fishermen issue. Apart from that, India and Sri Lanka have to see the fisherman issue as a holistic one including Katchatheevu island. This will not only help in solving the fisherman dispute alone but also a good start for the new generation of  India -Sri Lanka relations.

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