Key data, economic, cultural, political stakes

As early as in the 1960s, South Indian fishermen were encouraged to use trawlers to increase fisheries exports. The use of trawlers have since boomed, resulting in the near complete extinction of fish in the Indian part of the sea. Due to the decline in catch in their own territorial zones, fishing boats from Tamil Nadu have for long coveted fishing zones in the Sri Lankan territorial waters.

By the last count, Tamil Nadu’s fishing community is about 7,00,000 strong in 591 fishing villages strung along the coastline of 1,076 km stretching from Pulicat, north of Chennai, down to Kanyakumari. They set out to ply their trade in almost 60,000 craft. Even during the Eelam war, according to Sri Lankan estimates, as much as a quarter of these boats were regularly detected in their waters.

Sri Lankan fishermen had earlier largely tolerated cross-border operations from the Indian side, in relation with the traditional friendly relations between the fishing communities of the two countries (both the Lankan fishermen from the north and the Indians speak Tamil). As the Indian fishers increasingly began to use trawlers, there has been, since the early 2000s, a growing resistance to intrusions as this was seen as affecting the yield of the Sri Lankans who continued to use less sophisticated equipment.  This has seen Indian fishers cope with sporadic attacks on boats from naval authorities and with detention for fishing in Sri Lankan waters. Earlier, the Tamil Nadu fishermen used to be repatriated back to India. Since ethnic conflict erupted in Sri Lanka, however, suspected of being LTTE sympathisers, the fishermen are also shot at.

 Even though regulatory bodies and agreements pertaining to fishing in these areas exist, they have not been implemented with any degree of effectiveness. This has resulted in a non-policed free-for-all taking place between fishermen that culminated in over 130 Indian fishermen being captured by their Sri Lankan counterparts in Feb 2011.


Sept 1996     

Murari Committee’s 21 recommandations. Major recommendations of the Murari included :

  • ensuring an adequate supply of fuel at subsidised rates to fisherfolk
  • the formulation of marine fishing regulations in the entire Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ),
  • an end to joint ventures with foreign entities, and banning foreign fishing vessels from Indian waters
  • implementation of Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification and ensuring traditional and customary right of the fishing community in the coastal zone;


creation of the Joint Working Group (JWG) on Fishing

Oct 2008       

India-Sri Lanka Joint Statement on Fishing Arrangements. The statement put in place practical arrangements to deal with bonafide Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen who cross the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL).

  • Indian fishing vessels will not venture into High Security Zones
  • there will be no firing on Indian fishing vessels.
  • Indian fishermen would carry with them valid registration/permit and also identity cards issued by the Government of Tamil Nadu
  • a welcome reference was made to the positive role played by the fishermen of both the countries to arrive at an amicable settlement

Aug 2010      

Fishermen from both countries agreed for 11 points signing to a memorandum of understanding between two fisher organizations over the cross boarder fishing issue. These included the Sri Lankan fishermen agreeing to let Indian fishermen into their borders for a total of 70 days in the next year, provided that the Indians phase out the practice of trawling during that time.

 However, the agreement among the fishermen was not welcomed by the governmental agencies. The government representative at the meeting, a director general of the Fisheries Department, refused to endorse the proposals saying that Sri Lanka could not allow Indian fishermen into Sri Lankan maritime borders at all.

Jan 2011       

The deaths of 2 Indian fishermen, believed to be caused by Sri Lankan Navy personnel in waters close to the maritime boundary between the two countries led to a measure of bilateral discord. The Sri Lankan government denied that its navy had a hand in the incidents and speaks of a “conspiracy” to disturb relations between the two countries, while the Indian government has registered a strong note of protest on the deaths.

Feb 2011      

abduction of 136 Tamil Nadu fishermen in Sri Lankan waters off Point Pedro and Maadakal  by Jaffna fishermen.

March 2011

Resolutions passed by the fishermen from Karaikal and Nagapattinam, the most important being that henceforth they will not cross the International Maritime Boundary Line (IBML). Any breach of this would invite penalty and the fisherman concerned will be forbidden from venturing into the sea for not less than a month.

Countries positions

In Tamil Nadu, the issue is being exploited in a year when the state is braced to conduct elections to the state assembly. There are twelve costal districts having sizable fishermen population and in terms of votes every political party may like to woo the fishing community by highlighting their plight. Most political parties are using the deaths of the Indian fishermen to whip up passions that are still running high over the callous actions by the Sri Lankan Army.

 After the January deaths involving the Sri Lankan Navy, the Indian side accused the Sri Lankan navy for the cold-blooded murder of two fishermen from Tamil Nadu, an act denied by the Sri Lankan government. The Sri Lankan Navy was expected to understand that the accord enabled the gradual reduction of the operation of Indian trawlers in Sri Lankan waters and that in the interim it was to be tolerant of Indian fishing activities.

On the other side, Sri Lanka expected the government of India to facilitate the process of transition from trawler fishing to other boats by the fishermen of Tamil Nadu.

NGOs, Institutions

Alliance for release of innocent fishermen (ARIF), India

All India Fishers and Fisheries Workers Federation (AIFFWF)

International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF)
South Indian Federation of Fisher men Societies(SIFFS), India

Sri Lankan Fishermen Association of Northern Province

Sri Lankan fisheries and Aquatic Resources

National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO), India

World Forum of Fisher People

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