India- Sri Lanka in soft conflict

Fishing is the main lifeline for fishermen in Northern Sri Lanka. Limited stock of fish and total dependence on fishing has put local Tamil communities of Sri Lanka at loggerheads with India.


The maritime border that exists between Sri Lanka and India is a water body called the Palk Strait. It is a strip of ocean that separates Tamil Nadu in India from the Mannar district in Sri Lanka. The width of this is between 53 km and 80 km. Palk Strait is divided by the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL). Fishing is the most important source of livelihood for villages in northern Sri Lanka. When Sri Lankan fishermen returned to the sea, at the end of a ten-year-long civil war, they saw that their stock of fish had completely been expended.

India's quest for alternate sources to stimulate growth during the economic crisis in 1960s led to the adoption of a fishing technique called trawling. The unrestrained use of trawling began to deplete the fish supply and in the 1970s, Indian fishermen crossed an unguarded maritime border into Sri Lankan waters to meet the international demand. Now the Sri Lankan Navy is retaliating with force, making the relationship between the two communities tense. 


When the civil war in Sri Lanka began, the Sri Lankan Navy set up security zones in most of the waters as security precautions. It also banned most fishing activities and engine boats which resulted in the usage of canoes as the only viable option. While these steps were taken to weaken the Tamil Tigers, they ended up ruining the fishing-dependent economy of the country. Sri Lanka estimates that the annual losses incurred due to poaching lies between USD 16 - 40 million. 

This security drill significantly weakened the economy and deprived  the fishermen of their livelihood. The ban also helped India to increase its haul as it left Sri Lankan waters open for Indian trawlers. Sri Lanka may have wanted to protest against the encroachment, but India was a crucial ally against the LTTE. In the early 1980s when the ethnic conflict was at its worst, thousands of Sri Lankan refugees were ferried across Palk Bay into Tamil Nadu in India and given shelter. The majority of these refugees were Tamil fishermen from northern Sri Lanka who had fled fearing persecution by the Navy. They were even employed by the Indian Tamils on their trawlers, to give them a source of income.

It was only when the LTTE was defeated that the Sri Lankan Navy lifted the fishing ban. Following this, the Sri Lankan fishermen entered their waters again but found them to be dominated by the Indian trawlers. Coming out of an almost twenty-year-long fishing ban, the Sri Lankans had weaker boats and equipment. It was then that the Sri Lankan Navy focused its attention on the IMBL and began its crackdown on Indian fishermen, starting the fish war.

Indian fishermen have been arrested, detained and at times even beaten up by the Sri Lankan Naval command post that find them in Sri Lankan waters. The Indian government has had to intervene to ensure safe passage home of these detainees from Sri Lanka. 

The genesis of this  soft conflict goes back to 1952, when India signed an agreement with Norway to introduce trawlers and trawls to fishermen. Tamil Nadu’s  fishermen adopted it with fervour.  Trawls are akin to ploughs in the sea. Trawl nets go right to the bottom and remove the flora and fauna, the fish eggs and disrupt the cycle of life and the ecosystem. Fish and prawns are not able to procreate in such conditions and their presence gets depleted beyond permissible levels. 


India has an abundant reserve of Tuna fish like yellow fin, skipjack and bigeye which are available in plenty in the Indian Ocean and in the Andamans. India’s tuna potential is about 200,000 tonnes , but the harvest is currently pegged at just one fifth. The priority should be now to convert existing trawlers into tuna longliners, giving an incentive to the fishermen in Rameswaram to stay within Indian waters. While economically tuna does not sell as well as prawns, it gives the opportunity to stop depending solely on prawn fishing.


  • The construction of artificial reefs for the restoration of the coastal ecosystem and improvement of biodiversity, would increase maritime fish stock and thereby improve the livelihood of coastal fishing communities. The bio diversity of the bottom living biofoulers could be greatly enhanced by increasing the sea bottom substratum. Artificial reefs built in Japanese waters support a bio mass of fish which is 20 times greater than similarly sized natural reefs.  
  • The frequent violation of the IMBL by Indian fishermen is indeed a cause for worry. Ensuring that Sri Lankan territorial waters remain unviolated needs to be a primary concern, no matter the compulsions of local politics.
  • The ceding of Kachchatheevu island to Sri Lanka  has angered the Indian fishermen. Internal disputes between fishermen using old versus new forms of fishing in India have arisen. It is hence important to provide subsidies to this community and enhance the fishing techniques to get them at par. 
  • The seafood industry is vital for both local communities but more so for the respective countries. Both India and Sri Lanka contribute significantly to the world demand for seafood and resolving this conflict is important for both countries.  Sri Lanka too needs to invest in its fishermen and their equipment as it is a sea-based community and cannot afford sub-par techniques.
  • The handing over  of the Hambantota  port on a long term lease to the Chinese makes it evident  that the process for the creation of a Chinese naval outpost in India’s near-neighbourhood has just begun. With Sri Lanka keen on strengthening its relationship with China, India cannot afford to contribute to any reasons that would create a further rift. 


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