State sovereignty and the market

Climate & Natural resources04 Nov 2013Ahilan Kadirgamar

The fishing dispute between India and Sri Lanka is not only an issue of sovereignty, but also reflects social and economic problems.

The Palk Bay area between Sri Lanka and India has become the site of a conflict, fuelling tensions between fishers from Northern Sri Lanka and the State of Tamil Nadu in India. In addition to having transpired into a border conflict between two nations, it is further complicated by decades of civil war in Sri Lanka, during which Tamil fisher-folk as well as the smaller population of Muslim fisher-folk were restricted from fishing and suffered in the face of armed brutality in the Northern coastal areas. In Tamil Nadu, politicians and the fishing community claim to be supportive of the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka. However, in the post-war context, Tamil fishermen in Northern Sri Lanka have become increasingly vocal and have taken drastic steps, including the capture of a number of Indian trawlers, to confront the Tamil Nadu fishermen for poaching with bottom trawling which undermines sustainable fishing in Palk Bay.

On one level, this cross-border conflict is about marine resources and has gained international momentum with high level discussions being held between the Sri Lankan and Indian governments. At another level, it is a class conflict between Indian trawler owners and small-scale fishers from Northern Sri Lanka. These two aspects of spatial and temporal proportions, reflected by damage to increasingly larger parts of the sea with increasing intensity over time, have received attention from researchers.

The international and, to a larger extent, national framing of this issue has been reduced to questions about complying with the territorial border between two sovereign states. This is also being explored as an issue of managing resources, particularly the fish stock which moves fluidly across these borders. I argue that this focus on sovereignty, territorial borders, governance and management limits the understanding of challenges facing small scale fishers. This point about framing is of general importance, where in an increasingly securitized neoliberal world problems are seen through the lens of international law and sovereignty to the detriment of critical analysis of social relations, including those of ethnicity, caste, class and the market. Neoliberal development increasingly merges with state security, but masks questions of exploitation.

During conversations with small-scale fishers in Jaffna, a strong emphasis was placed on the devastation of marine resources and the fishers’ inability to go to the sea for three days a week when Indian trawlers are present, for fear that the trawlers will damage their nets. Many of the fishermen have lost nets worth of earnings. They also stressed how low prices for their catch make it difficult for them to earn a decent living, all the more so with the increasing prices of essential items. In other words, they are facing the brunt of the market, where an exploitative economic order does not compensate them adequately for their labour and the cost of reproducing their labour with essential items is much higher, forcing them into debt or other types of livelihood, including day labour in construction. They often refer to a golden age of fishing before the war in the 1970s and early 1980s, when state policies and favourable market conditions led to accumulation in the fisheries sector and enhanced their social well-being and mobility. While a current priority is a solution to the poaching, the damaging bottom trawling and the sustainability of marine resources, this alone may not address the social and economic problems facing small scale fishers.

The fishing community is increasingly frustrated by the silence with respect to their predicament by the Tamil political leadership, which is dominated by middle class landowning farming castes. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the dominant Northern Tamil political formation, has been largely silent on the issue of poaching by Indian trawlers. They want to appease Tamil Nadu for its political support towards Indian pressure on Sri Lanka with respect to a political solution for the ethnic problem. The exception is a recent interview by the TNA’s Chief Ministerial candidate who was finally willing to take on Tamil Nadu, but he is a retired Supreme Court Judge and new to Tamil politics.

The longer-term solution, some of the fishers claim, is deep sea fishing in multi-day boats which requires higher levels of capital investment. However, many in the bottom rung of the fishing community are not optimistic; indeed, the fishing community in Jaffna, and more generally in the North, are also differentiated by class and sub-castes. The most impoverished sections of the fishing community are saddled with day to day issues of food, possible electrification of their homes, and education for the next generation as a way out of their economic predicament. For such fishermen, addressing social exclusion based on caste and class as well as challenging the dispossessing dynamic of the market so that they can gain a just wage for their labour is a priority. The fundamental question is about political economic alternatives, whether it be redistribution, subsidies or constraints on market fluctuations and prices, which can ensure the social reproduction of fishermen while ensuring economic justice and political dignity.

All this means researchers and policy-makers have to understand the limitations of issue framing in areas of international relations and international law, which reduces problems, conflicts and their solutions to state sovereignty and governance. Furthermore, they have to confront the idea of a neutral market and the inherently political role of the state in relation to class formation and the market.

Want to read more on the fishing dispute in the Palk Bay? Read the article by Joeri Scholtens, Johny Stephen and Ajit Menon in The Broker’s Power dynamics and natural resources dossier.[/tekstvak]