Sri Lankan licence for TN fishermen had approval of the highest authorities

By P. K. Balachandran

COLOMBO – Sri Lankan Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda on Tuesday (March 30) revealed a government proposal to issue licences to Tamil Nadu fishermen to fish in Sri Lankan waters in order to regulate fishing and preserve the aquatic resources in the narrow channel.

The minister said he would be holding talks with the Tamil Nadu government about a limited number of Indian vessels engaging in fishing in Sri Lankan waters on a weekly basis subject to a large levy. Nelson Edirisinghe, Media Secretary Ministry of Fisheries said the period assigned to each vessel would be one week and that bottom trawlers would not be allowed.

Though cabinet spokesman, Minister Udaya Gammanpila later denied any such decision has been made, it is reliably learnt the offer of licensed fishing had the approval of the highest authorities. The idea was to defuse the tense situation that had arisen in election-bound Tamil Nadu following the recent arrest of 54 fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy. It is learnt the fishermen were released on New Delhi’s insistence.

Significantly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is contesting 20 seats in the April 6 Tamil Nadu State Assembly elections in alliance with the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). It is a neck and neck race in which the fishermen’s votes would be crucial. The offer of licensed fishing appears to be the icing on the cake from the Sri Lankan side. However, whether these developments are indeed election-related or not will be clear from developments after polling.

Be that as it may, licensed fishing had been proposed by the Indian side a number of times before but always rejected by Sri Lankan fishermen. While the Tamil Nadu fishermen have been claiming a traditional right to fish in the narrow stretch of water that is the Palk Strait, Sri Lankan fishermen have always considered this an illegal and criminal intrusion into their legitimate domain.

Rajachandran, a leader of the fishermen in Karainagar, Jaffna, said Minister Devananda has “betrayed” Lankan fishermen by offering a licensing system. S. P. Anthonymuthu, belonging to a Catholic organization which had arranged meetings between Sri Lankan and Tamil Nadu fishermen in the past, said under the guise of licensed fishing, Tamil Nadu fishermen could bring contraband and hinted that the offer could have been made with a political motive but refused to elaborate.

Vivekanandan, Convenor of the Indian Association for Release of Innocent Fishermen (ARIF) said licensed fishing is an “impractical idea”. But Tamil Nadu ARIF leader U. Arulanandam said licensing was good in principle but added that he needs to know the conditions attached to it to be able to give a definitive reply. Asked if the move is meant to boost the electoral prospects of the AIADMK-BJP alliance in Tamil Nadu, Arulanandam evaded but said whenever the BJP has been in power in New Delhi, it has made constructive suggestions. “When Sushma Swarajwas Foreign Minister and Dr. Jaishankar was Foreign Secretary, they had made constructive suggestions,” he recalled.

One of the suggestions proffered is a ban on bottom trawling which scrapes the bottom of the sea and denudes it of all aquatic resources.  In July 2017, Sri Lanka became the first Asian country to ban bottom trawling. It carries a fine of Sri Lanka Rs 50,000 with two years of imprisonment.

On its part, India introduced a scheme to replace 2,000 trawlers by deep-sea tuna long liner-cum-gill-netter boats. The Tamil Nadu government had sought from the central government more than INR 16,500 million for the scheme. A part of the money did come, but the scheme never took off. “The concerned Tamil Nadu fishermen are not into deep sea fishing at all. They fish in shallow waters not more than 20 metre deep. They do not have the skills or the frame of mind to go to the mid-ocean and stay put out there for two or three months,” said Vivekanandan, adding, deep sea fishing also needs expensive equipment and the competition is tough, being international.

There have been several proposals to solve the fishing row between the two countries including former Tamil Nadu leader, late J. Jayalalithaa’s idea of India taking over Kachchativu island and a suggestion floated by Prof. V. Suryanarayan, one of India’s leading specialists in South and Southeast Asian Studies, , to take the island on lease.

Prior to the December 2004 tsunami, Indian fishermen had accepted that bottom trawling must be discontinued. They also agreed to (1) reduce the number of fishing days to two per week, (2) maintain a distance of three nautical miles from the shore so that the livelihoods of Sri Lankan fishermen were not affected, (3) reduce the fishing time to twelve hours per trip, and (4) introduce a monitoring and enforcement mechanism.

However, Suryanarayan points out that while New Delhi did not follow through on the agreement, poaching in Sri Lankan waters continued, leading to Sri Lankan fishermen losing their patience and, on occasion, taking the law into their hands.

He notes that in August 2010, negotiations resumed, with a reciprocal visit by Sri Lankan fishermen and adds, “This time, the Sri Lankan minister for fisheries supported the visit, and the government of Tamil Nadu agreed to send observers to the meeting. Tamil Nadu fishermen reported being harassed and intimidated by the Sri Lankan navy, expressing their desire to revive the 2004 agreement. Sri Lankan fishermen lamented the damage caused by bottom trawling and requested an immediate end to the practice. The Indian delegates had pointed out that unless their government introduced concrete steps to buy back trawlers, it would not be possible to stop trawling operations. Conclusions of the dialogue were submitted to government representatives, but the dispute remained unresolved.”

Anthonymuthu recalls the Indian fishermen had sought 70 days’ time to get rid of their trawlers. But the promise to replace them was not kept.

In 2005, the governments in New Delhi and Colombo formed a Joint Working Group on fishing. New Delhi raised the question of licensing Indian fishermen. But it met with stiff opposition from the Sri Lankan side. Sri Lanka had been consistently proposing joint patrolling by the Indian Coast Guard and the Sri Lankan navy, but this was not favoured by India apparently because this could alienate the Tamil Nadu fishermen from New Delhi. Colombo has dropped this demand.

Anthonymuthu, says a solution to the problem could come from an agreement between the two communities and the strict implementation of that agreement by the governments of the two countries. “The problem can be solved only diplomatically by the two countries,” he adds.

However, given the intractability of the problem, Indian diplomats have been focusing on ensuring the release of detained Indian fishermen and trawlers at the earliest. They have also been urging Colombo to treat the arrested fishermen humanely. Sri Lanka has a law to fines vessels. But this has not been applied to captured Indian fishermen. Boats are seized but they are given back under diplomatic pressure.

Suryanarayan has suggested that India and Sri Lanka view the Palk Bay region as a common heritage of the two countries and called for the setting up of a Palk Bay Authority, comprising fisheries experts, marine ecologists, fishermen’s representatives, strategic specialists, and government officials to determine the ideal sustainable catch, type of fishing equipment to be used, and the number of fishing dates for Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen.

“The focus should be on the enrichment of marine resources and a qualitative improvement of the lives of coastal people,” he says.


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