Book review: India’s maritime troubles —by Khaled Ahmed
By Charu Gupta & Mukul Sharma
Pp251; Price Indian Rs 650
Available in bookstores in Pakistan
South Asia has unresolved border disputes with consequences for human beings living alongside these disputed lines. It also has unresolved maritime problems with consequences for fishermen who go to the sea to catch fish and are caught because they have crossed lines they can’t see.
The tragedy is that the people who catch them also can’t see where the national boundary is. Fishermen therefore have become a symbol of the immaturity of the nation states in South Asia. It is a shame that imprisoned fishermen are dramatically “exchanged” every now and then as a reluctant confidence-building measure with which to dupe the world.
Gupta and Sharma have written a very important book and its importance lies in its humanist involvement in the plight of fishermen. The book also contains the best account in one place of the three big maritime muddles that bring a bad name to the subcontinent.
Sadly, nationalisms have become attached to the Sir Creek dispute between Pakistan and India; and if you ask a Pakistani or an Indian what the quarrel is all about, he doesn’t know. Yet he supports governments who don’t want to resolve the dispute but in fact use Sir Creek as one of the grounds on which to condemn the ‘enemy’ country.
India has a coastline 7,417 km long, out of which the Gujarat state has 1,663 km, which is one-third of the entire coastline, which makes Gujarat the principal maritime state of India. Because of a rich delta, Gujarat has the best fishing, and the Gulf of Kutch has the best fish known in India. Next to Gujarat is Pakistan, and there are no agreed maritime frontiers between the two. The Maritime Zones Act of India 1976 and 1981 under which the fishermen are caught and punished doesn’t conform to the United Nations Convention on Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), which India has signed. Pakistan is guilty of the same non-conformity.
The rival geographies of India and Pakistan are symbolised by the rival cartographies relating to Sir Creek, which is a 100 km long estuary in the marshes of the Rann of Kutch between Gujarat and Sindh. Sir Creek is not a flowing creek but a tidal channel which has no officially demarcated boundary separating Pakistan and India. Till 1954 there was free movement across the Creek. Then came the issue of finding out where the border lay. And this border was also to decide where in the Arabian Sea the line will be drawn separating Indian waters from Pakistani waters.
Till these two issues are resolved, the two countries cannot set up their continental shelves up to 350 nautical miles and describe their economic zones up to 200 nautical miles. The deadline for doing so falls in 2009. This is the area where the two could find oil and gas deposits. They can’t exploit these deposits without first sorting out the maritime boundary dispute. And the line that is drawn to describe the national frontier along Sir Creek will decide who gets how much of the sea off the Gulf of Kutch. That explains why there is no ‘give and take’ in the bilateral negotiations.