On Monday, India and Sri Lanka held ministerial-level talks on their long-standing dispute over fishermen in the Palk Strait, the body of water running between India’s southeast coast and the northern tip of Sri Lanka.
Indian Minister of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare Radha Mohan Singh met with Sri Lanka’s Minister for Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development Mahinda Amaraweera.
According to an Indian readout of the meeting, the talks covered “possible mechanisms to help find a permanent solution to the fishermen issues.” The two sides each agreed to release fishermen in the other’s custody as well — a regular practice meant to establish goodwill, encouraging progress on the long-standing dispute.
The Indian side agreed to encourage Indian fishermen to avoid the practice of “bottom trawling” — an unsustainable mode of fishing that indiscriminately captures aquatic life, leading to overfishing.
The Indian External Affairs Ministry noted in its press release that “bottom trawling would be phased out in a graded time-bound manner within a practicable timeframe.”
Sri Lanka has long expressed concerns about illegal fishing by Indian fishermen within its territorial waters across the Palk Strait. The country regularly arrests Indian fishermen for cross the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) that demarcates Indian and Sri Lankan waters. India also detains Sri Lankan fishermen.
Later this month, Sri Lankan legislators are poised to debate two bills concerning the issue. One bill would increase fines for Indian fishermen caught fishing illegally in Sri Lankan waters and the other would ban mechanized bottom trawler. Sri Lankan lawmakers have not yet agreed on a fine, according to Amaraweera.
The dispute between the two countries is complicated by domestic political factors in India. A majority of Indian fishermen caught fishing illegally in Sri Lankan waters are ethnic Tamils from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and argue that the waters claimed by Sri Lanka have historically been exploited by Tamil fishermen. (Both India and Sri Lanka have signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which does not recognize maritime territory based on any historical claim.)
Moreover, as I explained in 2014, the issue of Katchatheevu Island also complicates the fishermen issue between the two countries. Katchatheevu is an uninhabited island that India ceded to Sri Lanka in 1974 that has since been declared sacred land by Sri Lanka in a 2009 proclamation.
Neither government officially disputes the status of the island, but Tamil politicians — notably the hugely influential and recently deceased leader of the All India Dravida Munnetra Khazagham (AIADMK) J. Jayalalithaa — condemned the move. For the Indian government, managing fishing-related disputes with Sri Lanka has been an exercise in balancing national interest-driven foreign policy with center-state political considerations.