India’s new INR 16,210 million ($ 250.9 million) plan to enable Tamil Nadu fishermen to exit fishing in the Palk Bay in three years from this year could end its decades-long row with Sri Lanka over poaching in Sri Lankan waters.
Announced by the Governments of India and Tamil Nadu on Tuesday, it is a three-year scheme to supply 2000 deep sea going tuna long liners to Tamil Nadu fishermen between 2017 and 2020 so that they stop poaching in Sri Lankan waters in the Palk Bay, and go to the deep sea in the Bay of Bengal and beyond into the Indian Ocean.
An order issued by the Tamil Nadu Government in Chennai said that in the first phase (from 2017 to 2018) 500 tuna long liners cum gill netters will be made available at a total cost of INR 4050 million ($ 62.6 million). The cost will be shared by the Governments of India and Tamil Nadu with the Central Government giving INR 2 billion ($ 30.8 million), the Tamil Nadu Government putting in INR 850 million ($ 13 million) and the beneficiaries putting in INR 400 million ($ 6.1 million). The institutional funding (from banks) will be INR 800 million ($ 12.3 million).
In the second phase (2018-2019), another 500 boats will be supplied. In the third and final phase, 1000 boats will be delivered at the same cost.
The total liability for the Indian Government will be INR 8 billion ($ 123.8 million), and for the Tamil Nadu Government it will be INR 3.2 billion ($ 49.5 million). The fisher beneficiaries will be providing INR 1.6 billion ($ 24.7 million). Institutional borrowing will be INR 3200 million ($ 49.5 million) and the subsistence allowance for the families will be INR 210 million ($ 3.2 million).
As indicated above, the Tamil Nadu Government will play a monthly subsistence allowance to the families of fishermen who have opted to switch over from trawlers to deep sea fishing boats.
This step had to be taken as the fishermen of the south Indian state had been experiencing anxiety over the frequent apprehension of their boats by the Sri Lankan authorities while fishing in the Palk Bay, a Government statement said. It also noted that the fishermen had themselves said that they were ready to switch to deep sea fishing if given three years’ time to do that.
Relief to Sri Lanka
The latest measure will bring great relief to Sri Lanka. Minister for Fisheries Mahinda Amaraweera has said many times that the island nation loses Rs. 9 billion ($ 59 million) a year, due to poaching by Tamil Nadu fishermen. To prevent this, he threatened to slap a heavy fine up to Rs. 150 million ($ 980,000) per vessel.
To deter Tamil Nadu fishermen from crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) and poaching in Sri Lankan waters, the Sri Lankan Government introduced the practice of seizing their boats and not releasing them. As on date, there are over 130 Tamil Nadu boats in Sri Lankan custody. While the crew are released on humanitarian grounds on appeal from the Government of India, the boats are not.
This has reduced encroachment, but has not eliminated it by any means. The fact is, Tamil Nadu fishermen have no option but to poach in Sri Lankan waters as they have fully exhausted the resources on the Indian side of the IMBL.
Because these trawlers had cost their owners several hundreds of thousands of Indian rupees, they had been consistently and loudly demanding the return of the boats. But to no avail. This was partly because the Indian Government also believed that seizure of the boats and their non-release had brought down encroachment markedly.
The Tamil Nadu fishermen would deny that they crossed the IMBL and would charge that the Sri Lankan Navy attacked them in Indian waters near Kachchativu. They would also argue that they had the right to fish in Sri Lankan waters as per the 1974 India-Sri Lanka Agreement which allowed fishermen of the two countries to exercise their “traditional rights”. But the Tamil Nadu fishermen would conveniently forget that the subsequent 1976 Agreement had nullified this right.
In 2003, the Tamil Nadu Government proposed “licensed fishing” in certain areas of the Palk Strait and Palk Bay where Sri Lankans did not fish. New Delhi took it up with Colombo. The Sri Lankan Government promised to consider it, but there was no follow up.
The Indian and Tamil Nadu Governments’ scheme regarding switching over to deep sea fishing announced this week is only a follow-up of the proposals put forward, and even partially implemented, by the late J. Jayalalithaa from 2011 onwards, when she was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.
Sadly, it has taken the Indian Government six years to respond to her fervent pleas for financial help. Replacing an estimated 2,000 trawlers with multi-day ocean-going boats is not an easy thing to do. It needs finances to buy the boats, train the fishermen and provide the right kind of harbours and technical infrastructure.
When the expected finances did not come from the Union Government, Jayalalithaa started implementing her own scheme. In the 2011 Tamil Nadu budget, she proposed a subsidy of 25% for conversion and in the 2013 budget, she hiked it to 50%. She also sought INR 15,200 million ($ 235.2 million) as grant from the Indian Government for her scheme.
Under the Tamil Nadu scheme, 171 tuna long liners were built by mid-2016.
Tamil Nadu has now got more than it had asked for, namely, INR. 16,210 million ($ 250.9 million). But there is now a need to see that the scheme is implemented. The Union Government should release the funds on time, the Tamil Nadu Government should implement it, and the fishermen should show enthusiasm for the conversion and shed their fear of the deep blue sea.
Vigilance on the part of the Indian, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan Governments is called for, as international studies show that fishermen tend to go back to seas and techniques familiar to them even after a “switching over”. The success rate of a switchover to deep sea fishing, internationally, is said to be only 5%.
Basically, it will be the Tamil Nadu Government’s responsibility to see the conversion through, and for that it needs the necessary political will to discipline and motivate the fishermen who are not easy to deal with.