By Dinouk Colombage
Colombo, Sri Lanka - Relations between the Asian powerhouse, India, and its southern neighbour Sri Lanka are facing growing pressure due to the ongoing issue of fishermen from each country straying in to the other’s waters.
Nearly every month, dozens of fishermen from the two countries are arrested by authorities for illegally poaching in the waters that do not belong to their country.
On Saturday, 71 Indian fishermen were arrested by the Sri Lankan navy. This followed detention of 12 Sri Lankan fishermen by the Indian authorities a day earlier for having strayed into Indian waters.
Last week, Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa ordered the release of 29 Indian fishermen that came barely a week after he ordered the release of all Indian fishermen as a "goodwill gesture" before he attended the inauguration of the new Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.
The fact that the issue of fishermen came up in the talks between Modi and Rajapaksa in New Delhi means that the two countries are concerned about the matter.
In the past year alone, an estimated 200 Indian fishermen have been arrested by the Sri Lankan authorities.
According to the Sri Lankan navy spokesperson, Commander Kosala Warnakulasuriya, on an average Indian fishermen enter these waters illegally thrice a week (Saturday, Monday and Wednesday).
"At this point in time, all Indian fishermen who had been detained, have been released, however we are maintaining a close watch," he told Al Jazeera.
The controversy surrounding the arrest of fishermen has resulted from the unclear nature of the sovereignty over the Palk Strait, a narrow strip of sea between the two countries.
According to fishermen living in the northern Mannar district in Sri Lanka, Indian fishing trawlers often come within 500 metres of the shoreline.
"They enter our waters in the hundreds, it is an unnerving sight and we refrain from going out ourselves," said Mannan Vaidhan a fisherman from Mannar who was released from a prison in India’s southern Tamil Nadu state in December last year after having spent eight months in jail for fishing illegally in Indian waters.
“It is difficult for us to fish because we do not know where Sri Lankan waters end and the Indian waters begin. With the large number of Indian fishermen entering our areas, we are forced to find new empty stretches of ocean to fish in. Without any GPS in our boats or markings in the ocean it is not difficult to stray in to India’s side," he told Al Jazeera.
"They threatened to shoot us if we tried to flee…. They yelled at us…, some of them accused us of being smugglers and one joked about sinking the boat and leaving us on it," he said.
Vaidhan along with 15 others were transported by the Indian navy back to Tamil Nadu where they were handed over to the police.
"They took our details down and transported us to a prison, we were all crammed in to one cell which was already occupied by several others," he said.
It was several weeks before Vaidhan or any of his compatriots were produced before a court, during that period they had limited contact with either the Sri Lankan authorities or their families.
"I spoke to my family only twice in that period. A representative from the Sri Lankan high commission visited us a couple of times and promised us they would have us released."
Fishermen like Vaidhan continue to risk the possibility of arrest and detention to earn a livelihood.
"I now mainly work on shore assisting fishermen who return from their trips, I have a young family to look after and if I was to be arrested and detained there would be no one to provide for them. We do not secure large enough catches to justify the risk, the waters are crowded with Indian fishermen," Vinod Balaatharun, another fisherman, said.
Balaatharun said that the number of Indian fishermen who are entering Sri Lankan waters is so high that the local fishermen are scared to venture out.
"I have gone out and been forced to turn back by Indian fishermen who have larger boats. There are too many of them and our navy is not always around to protect us."
Ever since Balaatharun gave up fishing, his monthly earnings have reduced, leaving him and his family struggling.
"I cannot return to fishing until there is greater protection afforded to the fishermen. It is a risky business and we do not need the added risk of being arrested. If the government secures our waters for us to fish then I will return to work, until then I am forced to find a new source of income," he said.
Media Secretary at the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resource Development, Narendra Rajapaksa, said that Sri Lanka and India are currently in the process of ministerial level discussions regarding the issue.
According to Rajapaksa, the Indian authorities are currently holding over 100 Sri Lankan fishermen and 20 vessels.
"Discussions are under way to secure the release of all Sri Lankan fishermen who are in Indian custody. The discussions will also focus on solving the ongoing crisis and ensure that the waters are safe for our fishermen," he said.
Fishing communities in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka are being educated on the safety of fishing to ensure they do not stray into Indian waters, the secretary said.
Joint Director of Fisheries in Tamil Nadu, G Arumugam, said that the fishermen in Tamil Nadu have been fishing in the Palk Strait for generations and would continue to do so.
"The size of the fishing community is increasing, and there is only a small area they can fish in. It is very easy for them to stray in to Sri Lankan waters because they have been fishing in those waters for years," he told Al Jazeera.
Arumugam said that only a clear demarcation of where Indian waters would ensure the arrests would cease, "as long as Sri Lankan fishermen stray in to our waters we will continue to arrest them".
The ongoing discussions between the two countries are expected to restart by the end of the month in the southern Indian city of Chennai.