Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 122, 8 July 2020

Post lockdown, Indian trawlers make a comeback in large numbers in Sri Lankan waters
Ruwanthi Jayasekara

In the news

The recent reports on the increase in the numbers of Indian trawlers in the Sri Lankan waters have put the focus back on the unsolved dispute over the fishermen issue between India and Sri Lanka. The reports of trawlers breaching the international maritime boundary and entering the Sri Lankan waters did not slow down during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. But even though the trespassing of the illegal fishermen were very less when India was under lockdown, the numbers have witnessed a further increase with the easing of the lockdown.

Issues at large

First, the historical nature of the dispute. The maritime boundary between India and Sri Lanka is limited to 24 nautical miles in the Palk Bay and the Palk Strait. Despite having strict laws and regulations by Sri Lanka on trawlers, bottom nets and catch, the Indian fishermen have frequently resorted to utilizing more and more trawlers and bottom nets to scoop up marine varieties, which have led to the loss of maritime resources. Approximately, there are 300 Indian boats per day entering Sri Lankan waters that have been identified by the Sri Lanka Navy and Coastguard on every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Even though, the frequent trespassing marks a violation of international maritime law, the historical nature of the claims of the Indian fishermen on the Sri Lankan has remained unresolved and have led to frequent clashes between the two countries.  

Second, no arrests of trespassers with fear of COVID-19 spread. As infections are increasing in India, there is a possibility of the spread of COVID-19 back in Sri Lanka through Indian fishermen. Therefore, currently, no arrests of Indian fishermen are taking place; instead, they are being chased away. This same old issue has redefined its threats as it can directly impact the overall health security apparatus of Sri Lanka, at a time when Sri Lanka has been able to manage the pandemic better than the other regional countries. However, lack of arrests have encouraged the Indian fishermen to engage more in IUU fishing in the Sri Lankan waters.

In perspective

First, the northern fishing community in Sri Lanka keeps complaining to the authorities about IUU fishing by Indians in the Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar. This has posed direct threats to their livelihoods. Arresting fishermen become a temporary solution to the decade long fishing dispute, as, by the time they are released, another set of fishermen are arrested. 

Second, the issue of IUU fishing is linked with various other issues such as smuggling of goods, human smuggling, maritime terrorism and marine pollution. In the long-term, this poses a critical issue in violation of sovereignty. Although there have been formal bi-lateral discussions, they have not met with success. It is necessary that Sri Lanka balances its relations with India while finding solutions to the dispute.

Ruwanthi Jayasekara is a Research Assistant at the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL), Colombo. 

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