Without GPS tracking device to locate the border and exclusive economic zones of India and Bangladesh at sea, many Bangladeshi fishermen lose their way and finally end up in Indian jails
In the first week of December 2018, Zafar Company's fishing trawler went to sea with 18 fishermen on board. In the hope of better catch, the trawler went further and further into the sea. Two weeks later, trawler owner Motaher Hossain got news the trawler had an accident.
The dead bodies of 11 fishermen were recovered from the trawler anchored on the coast of India. The remaining seven fishermen are still missing.
Motaher still believes the fishermen might have lost their way and fallen into a surge. The wind took them away towards India. He later brought back his boat from the neighbouring country after completing official formalities.
The bodies were buried on the coastal area on the Bangladesh side and Motaher went to West Bengal prison in search of the seven missing fishermen. But he did not find any of them.
"What I found is that there were around 100 fishermen from Bangladesh in a single prison in West Bengal," he said. But he did not get the chance to see all prisons in West Bengal.
Motaher, also a fisherman himself in Jahajmara union next to Nijhum Dwip in Hatiya upazila, said many Bangladeshi fishermen are languishing in the Indian prisons.
Fishermen leaders and officials claimed Bangladeshi fishermen do not intentionally go to another country's territory to catch fish. They do that by mistake.
Anwar Hossain Sikder, general secretary of Bangladesh Khudra Matshajibi Zela Samity, told The Business Standard there are at least 200 fishermen who are in different prisons in India right now for crossing the border. He said some fishermen have been in Indian prisons for even five years.
Usually, when any fisherman is arrested in India, Bangladeshi fishermen association leaders or Indian authorities notify the Ministry of Home Affairs of Bangladesh. Later, after scrutinising the fisherman's identity, the Ministry of Home Affairs sends papers to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to negotiate with India and bring back the fishermen to Bangladesh.
Anwar believes the main problem is that since there are no marked borders separating the countries and exclusive economic zones of the neighbouring states at sea, Bangladeshi fishermen, without GPS devices, lose their way and finally end up in Indian territories unknowingly.
"We want high officials of Bangladesh and India to hold a dialogue so that if fishermen mistakenly end up in India, they will not be jailed," he said.
"Though Bangladeshi fishermen go to another country's territory by mistake, foreign fishermen purposefully come to our exclusive economic zones to fish," claimed Rear Admiral Md Khurshed Alam (retd), secretary (marine affairs unit) to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
He said that Bangladesh does not have trawlers which can go to the deep sea. "The small wooden boats cannot go beyond 25 kilometres from the coast due to high waves. Bangladesh has 250 steel trawlers that can travel another 25 kilometres. Altogether, Bangladeshi trawlers are limited to travelling a maximum 60 to 70 kilometres."
"But we have 600 more kilometres to go. In the deep sea, we do not have any presence. That is the reality. As we lack modern fishing boats capable of going into the deep sea, a large part of our economic zones lays vacant, and foreign fishermen come to the zones to catch fish secretly," Khurshed explained.
"Our problem is that no one wants to invest in the sector to bring out modern fishing boats that can go into the deep sea," he said, adding that they are encouraging industrialists to invest in the sector.
Dr Abdul Wahab, team leader of Eco Fish project at Worldfish, told The Business Standard that foreign fishermen come into Bangladesh with the purpose of illegal fishing because they have large boats and the GPS system to mark their position.
"But Bangladeshi small boats do not have this kind of facility in their trawlers. They lose their way and go to Indian waters accidentally," he said.
Wahab said Bangladeshi navy and coast guard members constantly guard against the intrusion of foreign trawlers. They drive away foreign trawlers and fishermen.
According to the statistics of Bangladesh Navy, its members arrested 99 fishermen and recovered eight trawlers from January 2019 to February 2020 for illegally entering and fishing in Bangladesh. They also drove away 414 boats and trawlers.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh Coast Guard arrested 32 fishermen for illegally entering Bangladesh last year. Lieutenant Commander Hayat Ibna Siddique, media officer of Bangladesh Coast Guard, told The Business Standard that in most cases, foreign fishermen come to Bangladeshi coastal areas after losing their way.
"Sometimes, some fishermen illegally come to Bangladesh to catch fish. Bangladesh Coast Guard remains vigilant to prevent the entrance of foreign trawlers and fishermen," he said.
Bagerhat district jail officials told The Business Standard that 42 fishermen are in the prison for entering Bangladesh illegally.
Rear Admiral Khurshed said according to international law, no country can put another country's fishermen in jail and seize the boat.
"What they [law enforcement agency members] can do is seize only the fish," he said.
According to Article 73 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, arrested vessels and their crews should be promptly released upon the posting of a reasonable bond or other security.
Experts said that by putting fishermen in prison, the countries of the Bay of Bengal are undermining the international law.