India-­Sri Lanka Cooperation in Joint Sea Exploration
(VIF-Pathfinder joint paper)


India and Sri Lanka are strategically located at a crossroads within the Indian Ocean; a body of water 68.5 million sq. km in extent and the third largest of the world’s oceans, after the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Their unique location provides ample opportunities for the two South Asian neighbours to embark upon a cooperative approach in joint sea exploration. India has a vast costal line of more than 7517 km, with Sri Lanka adding its coastline of 1340 km. The prospect becomes still more impressive, if the Maldives is included in the concept of joint exploration of their combined wealth of sea resources. However, it is not quite clear if Maldives is yet ready to fully join a broad based cooperative venture in a tri­lateral format for a variety of reasons although, as elaborated in the later part of this paper, it has been part of the ongoing negotiations and discussions on certain aspects of the agenda.

Notwithstanding this, it must be recognized that eventually the entire expanse of sea under our combined coastlines would assume tremendous significance, calling for closer cooperation among the states of the ‘Indo­ Asia Pacific region’, which is set to become the future theatre of economic growth and the resultant power­play. Accordingly, this joint–paper by the Vivekananda International Foundation, (New Delhi) and the Pathfinder Foundation (Colombo), proposes to cover a broad spectrum of issues and ideas relating to expanded cooperation in joint sea exploration, development and preservation of the marine resources wealth of the region.

While this has been a work in progress for some time, during his recent three day visit to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka in March this year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi added special significance to it by strongly advocating expanded cooperative efforts in developing ‘Blue Economy’; a multi­disciplinary and multi­faceted approach for exploration for hydrocarbons and other marine resources; deep­sea fishing, preservation of marine ecology and mitigating impact of climate change by addressing environmental issues. In his address to the Sri Lankan Parliament, PM Modi emphasized the point when he said, ‘21st century would be determined by the currents of the Indian Ocean. Shaping its direction is a responsibility for the countries in the region”. In this context, joint cooperation between the three countries could also include further strengthening of ongoing maritime security cooperation between India, Sri Lanka and Maldives with exchange of know how in science and technology and disaster management.

Sri Lanka has the potential to claim an area 20 times as large as its landmass with all the oil, gas and mineral resources in the seabed, once its claim under the Law of the Sea is recognized. Sri Lanka has to draw up a plan to develop its policies and conclude arrangements for exploration and exploitation of these natural resources for the benefit of its population.

Ongoing Initiatives:

As detailed in the succeeding paragraphs, considerable amount of work in this direction has been done primarily on bilateral basis. However, trilateral consultations on these issues had commenced in 2011 at the level of National Security Advisors. These talks included Maldives in addition to India and Sri Lanka. The three sides had agreed that in the current maritime security environment in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), it was important to raise the level of maritime cooperation between the three countries. In this context, it was also agreed to explore the possibility of expanding the scope of the initiative to include other Indian Ocean littoral states as well.

During the second NSA­level trilateral meeting in Colombo on July 8, 2013, the three sides discussed a wide range of topics including enhancing cooperation in Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) through provision of Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) services,MDA training and Merchant Ship Information System (MSIS) through software developed by India, sharing of Automatic Identification System (AIS) data; strengthening coordination of maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) including SAR training; promoting marine oil pollution response cooperation; expanding bilateral ‘DOSTI’ (friendship) exercises through holding of table top exercises; further enhancing sharing of information on illegal maritime activities through existing points of contact; and forming a trilateral sub­group focused on legal and policy issues related to piracy. The roadmap for future cooperation in all these areas was confirmed as outlined below:

a. Sri Lanka and Maldives to utilize the existing facility of the Indian Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) Data Centre to monitor and track merchant vessels owned by or sailing under their flags. Sri Lanka and Maldives would provide required details as per International Maritime Organisation (IMO) regulations through diplomatic channels.

b. Utilize the Merchant Ship Information System (MSIS) for exchange of unclassified information on white shipping;

c. Share Automatic Identification System (AIS) data in a trilateral format over the MSIS platform;

d. Undergo Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) training in India;

e. Strengthen maritime linkages in the field of Search and Rescue (SAR) including SAR operations, acquire expertise and technical capabilities with Indian assistance in setting up Maritime Rescue Coordination Centers (MRCCs) in Sri Lanka and Maldives, coordinate in relaying and receiving distress alerts and safety messages and receive SAR training in India;

f. Strengthen mechanisms for Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) surveillance and providing additional support and assets on a case by case basis;

g. Maintain lines of communication on illegal maritime activities between identified Points of Contact and exchanging messages on a regular basis;

h. Strengthen marine pollution response cooperation through conduct of IMO Level I and Level II courses in India, formulate contingency plans for pollution response, capacity building, and participate in India’s National Pollution Response Exercise (NATPOLREX), as observers;

i. Strengthen biennial and trilateral exercise ‘DOSTI’ by conducting table top exercises and seminars on maritime issues in every alternate year

j. Share Tsunami warnings simultaneously to agreed Points of Contact in addition to the designated National Tsunami Warning Centers;

k. Set up a trilateral a sub­group focused on legal and policy issues related to piracy.1

It was noted that Sri Lanka was already an active member of a voluntary Indian maritime security initiative called ‘Indian Ocean Naval Symposium’ (IONS) that seeks to increase maritime co­operation among navies of the littoral states of the Indian Ocean Region by providing an open and inclusive forum for discussion of regionally relevant maritime issues.2 In this context it is also noteworthy that since 2010 Sri Lanka has initiated ‘Galle Dialogue’, an annual international conference, where issues relating to maritime domain, including maritime security are discussed by representatives of nearly 30 countries within and outside the region.

Seabed Mineral Resources:

Many countries have ventured into the sea in their quest of exploiting the newly discovered mineral resources that include multi­element­enriched manganese nodules and encrustations, metalliferous sediments, placer minerals including diamonds, petroleum resources and the recently discovered seafloor massive sulphides (SMS), gas hydrates and rare earth metals.3 Mention also may be made of the recent discovery of one of the richest CH4 hydrates in the world in the K­G­M basins and in the Andaman sea of India. Hence joint studies for seabed exploration on the eastern side of Sri Lanka’s EEZ and around Andaman Sea of India may prove useful and could also form an area of our joint cooperation.

Maritime pollution:

Maritime pollution not only has the ability to destroy the marine environment but also has considerable security implications. One of the busiest sea­lanes in the world connecting the Suez Canal with the Malacca Straits pass through the Indian Ocean south of Sri Lankan waters. Consequently both India and Sri Lanka have a legitimate interest in safeguarding security and in maintaining an environment devoid of pollution. India has a model to predict the movement of oil during spills, developed for the coasts of Mumbai and Chennai. With the Indian Coast Guard being one of the few maritime agencies capable of tackling oil pollution, there is a considerable scope for promoting marine oil pollution response cooperation with Sri Lankan agencies.

A number of harmful algal blooms have been reported in various coastal waters of India during late winter monsoon and early fall inter­monsoon, which are bound to have harmful impact on the fishery sector and biochemical cycles. A joint mechanism between India and Sri Lanka to study and suggest measures to reverse this phenomenon can be extremely useful for both countries in the long run. It is presumed that some work in this area has already been carried out and both countries should be able to draw from their experiences.

Island Development Activities:

India is carrying out a number of island development activities in Andaman­Nicobar and Lakshadweep islands. These include ornamental fish culture established in 2009 (Kavaratti), live­bait culture, pearl culture, biodiversity studies etc. in Lakshadweep. Black­pearl production in the Andaman Islands has been strengthened by imparting training to local people on nucleus implantation. Development, deployment and testing of open sea cage for farming of fin­fishes in mainland and A&N Islands have also been undertaken. Mass culture of micro­algae in photo­bioreactor at Kavaratti Islands, Lakshadweep and utilizing deep ocean water up­welled by the Low Temperature Thermal Desalination plant for extraction of biochemical has been initiated.4 Sri Lanka can avail from India’s experience and also contribute in such initiatives for mutual benefit.

Shoreline Management:

Under the programme of shoreline management, problems of coastal erosion along various Indian coasts have been studied with the aid of extensive oceanographic data to provide solutions to the respective states. This too could form an area of cooperation between the two countries.

Sri Lanka has recently become the first nation in the world to take measures for protection of its mangroves with active involvement of the local communities. Mangroves, as is well known, work as an important natural mechanism of protection against climate change as they sequester up to five times more carbon than other forests. They protect coastlines against flooding, including tsunamis and provide vital habitat for marine animals.5 India can learn from Sri Lanka’s experience and both can further work together on possible engineering solutions to stabilize coastlines of the two countries.

Drugs from the Sea:

A programme is being implemented by India to harness the bioactive principals from the marine biota for human therapeutic purposes with participation of several research labs and universities. Over 2,000 extracts of marine samples were screened for wide spectrum bioactivity including anti­diabetic, anti­hyperlipidemic, anti­malarial, anti­leishmanial, anti­bacterial, anti­fungal, anti­filarial, anti­trypanosomal, anti­HIV, anti­cancer, anti­osteoporosis, anti­tubercular, and neurobehavioral effects of marine samples.6 Exchange of indigenous knowledge and joint studies and R&D can help in advancing the gains already made in this domain.

Fisheries sector:

Tamil Nadu is one of the leading states of India in marine fish production. The marine fisheries potential of the state is estimated at 0.719 million tonnes (0.369 million tonnes from less than 50mt. depth and 0.35 million tonnes beyond 50 mt. depth). The state contributes 10­12 % to the total marine fish production in India. The export of marine products from the state during 2007­08 was 72,644 mts. valued at Rs.181314 lakhs. In India, fisheries and aquaculture contribute 1.07 per cent to the national GDP and 5.30 per cent to the agriculture and allied activities, apart from contributing to food security and providing direct employment to over 1.5 m fishermen.

In comparison, fisheries sector in Sri Lanka account for 1.8 percent of GDP at the current market prices and 1.3 percent at constant (2002)prices in 2014. Total fish production in 2014 amounted to 535.05 metric tons and its value addition was over Rs. 176 million (US$ 1,350 mn). Growth rate of fisheries sector in 2014 was recorded as 4.5 percent at constant prices and it was 12.7 percent at current market prices against 2013.

In Sri Lanka,around 272,140 active fishermen are engaged in both marine and inland fisheries sectors with 1,023,780 members of their household dependent on the income generated through fishing and related activities. Around 32,025 of motorized boats and 21,963 of non­motorized boats have been operating in marine fishing. Out of motorized boats around 4,447 boats have been operated in offshore fishing.

Fisheries sector has generated Rs. 34,797 million (US$ 266.5 Mn.) of export earnings in the year 2014 and it was accounted for 2.4 percent of total export earnings. A positive trade balance of Rs. 15,937 million (US$ 122 mn.) was indicated for external trading of fish and fishery products. Sri Lanka was one of the biggest exporters of high value fishery products to the European Union such as swordfish and tuna valued at $ 94 million in 2013. However, the EU has faulted the island for permitting illegal fishing and introduced a ban on imports, which Sri Lankan authorities are currently addressing.

These figures provide some insight into the importance of the fisheries and marine sectors not only in the context of economies of the two countries but also explain the humanitarian aspects of the problem. There are, however, several contentious issues affecting maritime cooperation. Those include accidental/deliberate straying in to the legally established IMBL of the two countries and also engaging in illegal fishing by fishermen of the two countries. While accidental crossing of IMBL should be handled judiciously, it is the deliberate crossing of IMBL, particularly in the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar by Tamil Nadu fishermen that has become an irritant to bilateral relations.

Despite the 1974 and 1976 agreements between India and Sri Lanka that clearly demarcated the maritime borders of the two countries, Tamil Nadu fishermen maintain that they have a right to engage in fishing in the Sri Lankan waters where they have traditionally fished for many years. While it is accepted that it is a livelihood issue for the Tamil Nadu fishermen, it has to be recognized that it is also a livelihood issue for the fishermen of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, who had suffered and been marginalized during the three decades long armed conflict in Sri Lanka. As such, both governments have a responsibility to address the livelihood issue of their fishermen, without harming the interests of the fishermen in the neighbouring country.

Another matter of serious concern relates to the Indian trawlers, illegally fishing in the Sri Lankan waters, carrying out unsustainable practices such as bottom trawling. To make matters worse, they use fishing gears banned in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan fishermen allege that Indian trawlers damage their fishing gear and take away millions of dollars worth of fisheries resources each year. Recognizing the adverse impact of this issue on the bilateral relations and on the northern fishing community economically and ecologically, if unsustainable fishing practices are continued unchecked, both governments should engage in serious negotiations to find solutions to this perennial issue and come up with a robust plan for maritime cooperation.

The Indian government and the Tamil Nadu State government have taken steps to introduce certain measures to address the situation. These include encouraging fishermen operating in the Palk Bay to venture into deep sea fishing and introducing a buy­back arrangement with a view to reducing the number of trawlers operating in the Palk Bay. These measures need to be stepped up as well as new and innovative measures introduced to minimize the impact of unsustainable fishing practices on the fragile eco system in the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar. Issuing of identity cards, introducing GPS systems to fishing vessels and establishing no fishing zones on both sides of the IMBL to prevent accidental straying, employing the coastguard to prevent illegal crossing of IMBL, enacting legislation with penalties for deliberate crossing for fishing across the IMBL and engaging in environmentally unsustainable fishing practices, are some other measures that could be introduced by both countries to address this contentious issue. India and Sri Lanka have a shared vision to be the leaders in the field of conservation and sustainable utilization of fisheries and aquatic resources. It is time to put this vision to practice.

There could be other solutions to address issues relating to illegal and unsustainable fishing across the IMBL in the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar. Rather than expecting the fisheries societies to resolve these contentious issues, it is prudent to establish a Joint Mechanism to address all issues relating to disputes between the two countries and that can come up with prudent and workable solutions. It is noteworthy in this regard that Sri Lanka Cabinet of Ministers recently agreed to, in addition several other measures; impose heavy fines up to SLR. 250 million against foreign vessels depending on the storage capacity and the catch of the vessel.


India, Sri Lanka and Maldives have huge combined stakes in the Indian Ocean in a variety of activities mentioned in the foregoing paragraphs. The conventional approach would be for them to pursue their individual interests independent of each other in their respective areas of the ocean. Such an approach would obviously produce limited dividends. A more mature way in today’s context should be to evolve joint cooperative approach under which the three countries pool in their combined resources, capabilities, capacities and assets towards joint exploration and eventual exploitation. It may be mentioned here that together, the three countries have a vast area of the sea under their respective EEZ with India accounting for 23.7 lakh square kilometers (Ministry of Earth Science, GoI), Sri Lanka's EEZ being 5.17 lakh (Sunday Observer, June 9, 2013) and Maldives contributing around 1 million (details not readily available). The combined EEZs of all the three nations could well be around 3.887 million sq. km.

The long­term economic and strategic interests necessitate the three nations to get involved in intense cooperative engagement in the Indian Ocean Region. Encouraging cooperative efforts are already under way as detailed above. These have to be pursued with greater vigour and a sense of urgency as the task before them is of high priority.


  1. MEA, GoI Outcome Document of the Second NSA-Level Meeting on Trilateral Cooperation on Maritime Security between India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka

  6. MOES, 4

Published Date: 26th November 2015, Image Source:

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