The Palk Bay conflict is exacting a high toll, and cries for early resolution

The tragic death of four fishermen from Tamil Nadu one of them a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee living in India allegedly when the Sri Lankan Navy was about to arrest them last week, is yet another instance of the unresolved fisheries conflict in the Palk Bay taking an unacceptable toll of lives. While fishermen in Tamil Nadu say the four were killed in an attack by the Sri Lankan Navy, the latter maintains that they died when their trawler collided with a naval vessel while trying to avoid being apprehended. India has lodged a strong protest with the Sri Lankan authorities, who have set up a committee to find a permanent solution to the incursions by Indian fishermen. It was less than a month ago that the two countries resumed discussions through their Joint Working Group on fisheries after a three-year gap. India sought the early release of fishermen arrested in Sri Lankan waters, as well as the boats in Sri Lankan custody. Sri Lanka underscored the need to curb the illegal fishing, which adversely affects the livelihood of its war-affected fishermen. When the two sides decided to create a joint working group some years ago, they had agreed that there would be no violence or loss of life in the handling of the fishermen and that a hotline would be established between the respective Coast Guards. It is unfortunate that the hotline is yet to be operationalised, and deaths continue to occur.
The humanitarian approach that has been expected to be the cornerstone of the approach to this conflict has not always been discernible. The plan to wean away Tamil Nadu fishermen from the tendency to exploit the remaining fishery resources on the Sri Lankan side by replacing their trawlers with deep sea fishing vessels has not really taken off. Attempts to forge a negotiated settlement through direct talks involving fishermen from both sides have also reached a stalemate. Sri Lanka favours joint patrolling by both countries, and a ban on unsustainable fishing practices by Tamil Nadu fishermen such as bottom trawling but the latter want a lengthy phase-out period. Political leaders in Tamil Nadu rarely acknowledge that the States fishermen contribute immensely to the problem by crossing territorial waters. Nor is there sufficient recognition that the incursion into Sri Lankan waters is driven by trawler owners who force their poor employees to do so, who then get killed or arrested, leading to the festering conflict. So far there has not been enough political resolve to end this conflict. A comprehensive solution, one that would severely curtail unauthorised fishing and help in an orderly sharing of and sustainable use of resources by fishermen from both sides, is long overdue.