By Kumar Chellappan
The death of Bristo, a 21-year-old fisherman from Thankachimadom, a fishing hamlet in southern Tamil Nadu, has once again brought to surface some stark realities. Fishermen who were engaged in fishing with Bristo at Palk Bay alleged he was shot at by Sri Lanka Navy, while they were inside the territorial waters of India. Sri Lanka Navy, however, denied the allegation.
As the dispute rages over the location where the Indian fisherman was shot at, a senior Indian Coast Guard official said the Tamil Nadu government official who alerted them over the incident could not provide any information about the exact location. “He had informed us about the incident after 10 pm and we were helpless in locating the boat,” the ICG official said.
Captain Hariharan Balakrishnan, a war veteran, who knows the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean like the back of his hand, was blunt in pointing out that the Tamil Nadu fishermen had been poaching in the Sri Lankan waters for decades.
“There is no fish in the Indian side of the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) as the fishermen from Tamil Nadu has fully exploited the marine wealth in the region by bottom trawling. “The Tamil Nadu fisheries department deputy director himself has accepted it publicly. It is for the government of Tamil Nadu to restrain fishermen from violating the IMBL and poaching in the territorial waters of another sovereign country,” Capt Balakrishnan said.
It took nearly three hours for the mechanised trawler in which Bristo and others were fishing to reach the fishing jetty at Rameshwaram. “This also proves that the Tamil Nadu fishermen had trespassed into the Sri Lankan territory,” said the former captain. He said Tamil Nadu political leaders were reluctant to admit that it fishermen poached in Sri Lankan water for fear of losing fisher community votes.
But a leading authority on the Law of the Sea has warned New Delhi about the consequences if Sri Lanka took up the poaching issue at any of the international fora like the United Nations. “If Sri Lanka complains to the UN or the World Trade Organisation, there is a strong possibility of India getting blacklisted by the countries which import marine products from us,” said Yugraj Singh Yadava, director of the Bay of Bengal Programme, an inter-governmental organisation promoting regional cooperation on fishing.
He warned that India may have to pay a big price for the Tamil Nadu fishermen’s poaching in Sri Lankan waters. “What they are doing is Illegal, Unauthorised and Unregulated fishing, which is a cardinal sin as per global standards. The countries with which India has marine trade will not differentiate between fishermen from Kerala or Tamil Nadu or Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh or any other States in the union. They will put a blanket ban on fisheries imports from India as a result, the entire Indian economy would suffer,” Mr. Yadava said.
Captain Balakrishnan who served the Indian Navy for more than three decades said the Sri Lankan Navy would never resort to firing at the fishermen from Tamil Nadu or any other Indian states. “But the truth is that Tamil Nadu fishermen do not respect international treaties entered into by two sovereign countries. Fish do not have territorial boundaries but nations have and one has to respect it,” he said.
It may be noted that the Indian Coast Guard has told the highest courts in the country that Tamil Nadu fishermen are notorious for violating and trespassing the IMBL. The Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Service, a state-run research establishment specialising in oceanic research, has the technology to help the fishermen to identify the IMBL and track their movements. But Tamil Nadu fishermen have not accepted the system because they fear that they may be caught red handed if they trespass into Lankan waters.