Call it a coincidence or a deliberate act, Indo - Sri Lanka cricket is turning out to be a threat for Indian fishermen. They've been targeted at least twice after Sri Lankan cricket team lost to India. Four fishermen from Tamil Nadu were shot dead mid sea allegedly by Lankan navy soon after India's victory against Lanka to win the world cup in April last year. On Sunday Lankan navy arrested twenty three fishermen from Tamil Nadu and confiscated five of their boats. This after Sri Lanka lost to India on Saturday. The fishing community has renewed its demand for a ban on cricket ties with the island nation.
Historically, till a few decades ago, fishermen from both countries have been fishing across maritime boundaries. Fish available in Indian waters are sought after in Lanka and vice versa. Though such traditions would not be legally binding, India's gifting of the Katchatheevu Island to Lanka in 1974 severely reduced the space available for Indian fishermen to fish. The deal allows Indians to fish around the island and to dry nets in the island but Lankan navy does not permit it.
The reality is there is too little fish in Indian waters in this region. It would not be economically viable for the hundreds of boats operating from Rameswaram to return to shores without a good catch. With no alternative livelihood, it's a risk fishermen willingly take to intrude into Lankan waters now to keep fires burning back home.
In the eighties when the LTTE controlled Lanka's key coastal belt closer to Tamil Nadu, Lankan fishermen suspended fishing. Fishermen from Tamil Nadu also allegedly served as couriers to smuggle diesel, spares and even drugs to the LTTE. Since then more than two hundred Indian fishermen have fallen to Lankan navy's bullets.
Over the years political parties in the state, including Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, DMK Chief Karunanidhi, MDMK Chief Vaiko and others have been demanding retrieval of Katchatheevu. Jayalalithaa had also mooted the idea of a lease agreement between both countries that would allow Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu to fish in Lankan waters. Recently, after much discussion fishermen from both countries came out with a suggestion that fisher folk of both countries be allowed to fish in each other's waters on two days a week, for thirty six weeks in a year. Presently Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu venture into the sea three days in a week.
The Sri Lankan Ambassaddor to India had recently indicated in Chennai that his government was open to such agreements. But the Indian government does not seem to have seriously taken this forward with Lanka. This option of course would require allowing Lankan fishermen into Indian waters.
It's an issue that the Indian government can't afford to ignore for too long. Around thirty lakh people depend on fishing directly and indirectly in Ramanathapuram, Nagapattinam and Thanjavur districts of Tamil Nadu. In the drought prone Ramanathapuram district there's literally no alternative employment opportunity unlike other districts. The district alone accounts for a 200 KM coastal stretch. The sea between India's Rameswaram and Sri Lanka is a narrow 12 nautical mile unlike, for instance, waters between India and Pakistan. The issue requires a humane solution by both countries.
Captive fish breeding option too has not taken off in a promising way. There's no attempt to check proliferation of mechanised boats too nor has the government put in place any sustainable livelihood options for fishing communities in the region to gradually shift to.
China's increased presence in Lanka was seen to be the reason for India bending backwards on various issues. But its balancing act to check China's dominance in the region has not been successful. Despite India's supply of radars to Lanka, name sake protest when Lankan Air Force reportedly bombed Lankan Tamil civilian areas during the final phase of war against the LTTE and training of Lankan army personnel in India and Lanka, China only strengthened its presence in the island nation grabbing huge commercial contracts.
India's inability to resolve this issue over the last three decades is seen as a huge diplomatic failure. For the first time, earlier this year India voted against Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council, bowing to political pressure. This has no doubt angered Lanka. Still it's important the Indian government pursues Tamil Nadu fishermen's cause with Sri Lanka to protect their livelihood. Lest it strengthens their present suspicion that the centre has left them to fend for themselves.