First cousin to the manatee differentiated by its forked tail the dugong with its preference for subtropical and tropical climates inhabits waters to the North West of Sri Lanka. Dugongs are mainly herbivorous, feeding on sea grass, marine mammals frequenting the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait. Dugongs live to around 72 years attaining maturity after nine or ten. Though not great beauties in appearance their appealing timidity and caring behaviour has tugged at many a heart string. Dugongs were hunted for their meat, overkill caused the population to decline and recent sighting are rare. In 1970 legislation was enacted declaring the dugong a protected species under the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, where killing, harming or selling dugongs is illegal.
The Dugong habitat, the Strait North West of Sri Lanka is named after Robert Palk a former governor of Madras under the British Raj. The Maritime boundary between Sri Lanka and India is divided at the Bay of Bengal, the Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar. The average distance between both countries in the Palk Strait is 32 kilometres. The question determining the boundary between India and Sri Lanka began in 1918. The matter was finally solved in 1970. Prime Ministers Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Indira Gandhi agreed to a formal demarcation of maritime boundaries and recognised legislation enacted in 1974 and 1976. The much contested Kachchativu Island was given to Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka declared its maritime boundary on 15 January 1977. Both countries have signed bilateral agreements.
Today the Palk Strait is a bone of contention between Sri Lanka and India. Tamil Nadu (TN)’s mechanised trawlers invading Sri Lanka’s territorial waters and depleting its resources is the foremost cause of the argument. TN registered nearly 6,000 mechanised boats and 4,500 trawlers all of whom invade Sri Lanka’s waters. The boats and trawlers are located mainly in Ramanathapuram, Nagapattinam and Kanyakumari.
Mechanised boats and trawlers are vessels that pull a vertical wall of netting several hundred metres long running at right angles to the shore directing marine life towards the trap, the vessel speeds up to drive fish and other marine life into its net, ropes close, warps are winched and within one to two and a half hours over a mile and more of sea bed is swept clean of marine life. Mechanised boats vary in size and function but all have towing power and a mechanical hauling system. Bottom trawling is the cause of approximately over 1,500 by catch deaths daily of marine species. Sri Lanka has banned bottom trawlers in its waters.
In 2012 a judgment given by the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court indicated TN fishermen were violating Sri Lanka’s territorial waters. This, however, did not act as a deterrent to the TN fisherman.
Indian politicians draw attention to TN fishermen detained in Sri Lanka’s jails claiming they are the breadwinners and their incarceration inflicts trauma on their families, their continuous arrests and trawler confiscations makes Tamil Nadu angry.
In truth ‘tis all but a storm in a teacup! TN politicos capitalise on their fishermen’s woes and rather than ameliorating the problem utilise it as an electoral diving board for regional politics!
The strategic importance of Sri Lanka to Indian National Security
“India and Ceylon must have a common strategy and common defence strength and resources. It cannot be that Ceylon is in friendship with a group with which India is not friendly – not that Ceylon has no rights to make its own alignments and declare its own affiliations – but if there are two hostile groups in the world Ceylon and India are with one or the other of them and not with the same group it will be a bad day for both” -Dr. Pattabhi Sitaramayya, Former President of the Indian National Congress.