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The War Rages On: India-Sri Lanka Marine Dispute


The recent emergence of dead bodies of four Tamil fishermen on the coast of Sri Lanka has added more fuel to the dispute between India and Sri Lanka over marine depletion which continues to range for decades claiming countless lives in the process. Another set of fishermen, who set sail alongside the boat carrying the victims alleged that the quartet was attacked by the Sri Lankan Navy while fishing mid-sea. The rumoured killings took place after the visit of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar to Sri Lanka. As a result, the centre faced criticism from the Chief Minister and opposition parties of Tamil Nadu for remaining a silent spectator and not taking the necessary measures to prevent such incidents. Through this piece, we will briefly discuss and analyse this tussle between two seemingly friendly neighbours in South Asia, India and Sri Lanka.

Historical Overview

Katchatheevu is an uninhabited island of approximately 285 acres, formed as a result of a volcanic eruption in the 14th century, which is administered by Sri Lanka and was a disputed territory claimed by India till 1976. The island, which is strategically important for fishing activities was owned by the Raja of Ramnad (Ramanathapuram) and later became part of the Madras Presidency after the delimitation of the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Strait during British rule between the then governments of Madras and Ceylon. In 1974, under the leadership of Indira Gandhi, the island of Katchatheevu was ceded to Sri Lanka through the Indo-Sri Lankan Maritime agreement to settle the maritime boundary in the Palk Strait, with her Sri Lankan counterpart Srimavo Bandaranaike.

As per the international maritime boundary line agreement(IMBL), India and Sri Lanka agreed that Indian pilgrims and fishermen will have the right to visit Katchatheevu without any need to obtain travel documents for these purposes by Sri Lanka. Then, in 1976 another agreement was concluded between the two countries to determine the boundary and set up exclusive economic zones in the Gulf of Mannar and Bay of Bengal respectively. Thus, this agreement restricted both the countries’ fishermen from fishing in the other’s waters.

 The problem came in Article 6 of the 1974  agreement as it vaguely states that vessels of both India and Sri Lanka will continue to enjoy their traditional rights before this agreement was concluded in each other’s waters. Moreover, the Tamil Nadu state government had also been against this agreement since its inception as according to them, the then Prime Minister taking advantage of the General Emergency in 1975 concluded the agreement without consultation of TN state government and thus, had deprived the Tamil fishermen of their livelihood.

During the years of the civil war in Sri Lanka (1983-2009), the government had restricted fishing by locals in the north and east because of security concerns, which allowed the Indian trawlers to freely continue fishing in the region, sometimes up to 2-3 nautical miles of the Sri Lankan shore. This situation was exploited by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who used Indian trawlers to ferry their cadres, fuel, explosives mainly from the southern Indian coast to the northern, north-western, and north-eastern coasts of Sri Lanka. In 1991, the Tamil Nadu Assembly adopted a resolution demanding the retrieval of the island. With the end of the conflict in Sri Lanka, and the gradual resettlement of displaced personnel, local fishermen wished to recommence their livelihood activities and what they encountered was a large hostile Tamil Nadu trawler fleet plundering their resources. This resulted in strengthened security at maritime boundaries by the Lankan government, who claimed that depletion of marine resources on its waters had affected the livelihood of fishermen.

Environmental implications of the conflict

Fueling the dispute over Kachchatheevu are the overuse of mechanized trawlers in the Palk Bay, the damaging environmental effects of trawling. The reformation in the fishing techniques by India due to the introduction of trawlers damaged marine ecology especially the fish reserves on a gigantic scale. This damage made the Indian side of the Palk Bay devoid of fish. Trawlers have since been referred to as the “hoovers of the shelf bottom” and “bulldozers mowing down fish and other benthic species.” To compensate for this loss, Indian fishermen started moving deep towards the Sri Lankan side that not only deprived the Sri Lankan fishermen-who use sustainable and traditional methods of fishing-devoid of their livelihood but also led to the habitable degradation of the Sri Lankan marine environment.

International legislations applicable to the Indo-Sri Lanka dispute

According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization’s definition of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated fishing, Indian fishermen are clearly violating the UNCLOS, which permits only the right to an innocent passage in another state’s territorial waters. Article 19.2 (i) of the UNCLOS makes proviso for any ‘fishing activities’ by foreign vessels to be regarded as an act of prejudice towards peace, good order, or security of the coastal state, thereby confirming that such passage is not innocent.” Further, Tamil Nadu fishermen do not declare the catch and location and carry out their activities in contravention of state responsibility to the conservation of living marine resources by engaging in destructive bottom trawling.


Despite diplomatic initiatives, JWGs and fishermen talk about the long-standing conflict remains. There is no common understanding between the two sides, on the one hand, Sri Lanka maintains that poaching and bottom trawling by Indian trawlers should not be permitted, whereas Indian demands licensing, limiting the number of trawlers and days, thereby not harming their fishermen in Sri Lankan waters. The issue continues to rage on till today without an amicable solution. In Minister of External Affairs for India, S. Jaishankar’s latest visit to Sri Lanka, the marine dispute emerged to be a key point of discussion after the fire-fighting exercise between the two nations that emerged in response to the recent incident. Though the outcome of the meeting is not known, Jaishankar assured that this was discussed in an “open and candid manner”.  The question remains, will we ever reach a solution that is amicable to the demands of both parties?

Pratul Chaturvedi and Amisha Singh are second-year students at Ashoka University, who are pursuing History & International Relations and Politics, Philosophy & Economics, respectively

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