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Is Sri Lanka arm-twisting India into talks on fishermen's row?

By N Sathiya Moorthy
July 31, 2014 18:28 IST
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Any official-level talks between India and Sri Lanka, without any clear-cut understanding on the livelihood issues, could end up in India having to acknowledge bilaterally even more than what it had no hesitation in accepting in Parliament and outside, says N Sathiya Moorthy

Sri Lanka Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne’s repeated reference to the proposed official-level talks have raised doubts in Tamil Nadu that the continuing fishermen's arrest on the other side of the International Maritime Boundary Line was aimed at arm-twisting India into doing so, early on.

Senaratne had first made the proposal at a meeting with the then Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar earlier this year. Pawar was in charge of fisheries, and the meeting was seen as both sides seeking to differentiate livelihood issues from the mutual arrest-and-release of fishermen, being handled by the ministry of external affairs in the two countries.

As a part of the earlier proposal and even without it, fishermen's representatives of the two countries met under government facilitation, at Chennai in January and Colombo in May. As was to be expected under the circumstances, no decisive progress was made.

Senaratne said the governments would have to take forward the discussions, themselves, and set a June deadline.

With a new government taking over at the Centre in India, that could not have been the case anyway. It’s going past July, and Senaratne has indicated that they have not heard from India.

Opinion may be divided in India -- particularly in Tamil Nadu -- on the Sri Lankan position at the fishermen's talks in January and May. Yet, at their talks, fishermen were seeking to protect their existing turfs and ‘rights’.

In doing so, Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu and Puducherry readily cut down the change-over period for replacing trawlers and gears banned in Sri Lankan waters to deep-sea fishing, from five years to three. Sri Lankan fishermen from Tamil-exclusive northern province would have none of it. They wanted immediate stoppage of the same.

The Sri Lankan side also reportedly raised issues relating to Indian fishers crossing the IMBL that the two sides had agreed upon through bilateral agreements in 1974 and 1978.

The two national governments are on the same page, but successive dispensations in TN have refused to toe the line, which also involves the ownership and possession of the Katchchativu islet.

The proposed three-member official teams from the two sides are independent of the Joint Working Group on fishing that last met at Colombo in January 2012. The idea is for the official teams to work out a modality, based on the fishermen's talks, for the JWG to consider.

To the extent that the fishermen's talks are deadlocked, a final solution would have to rest on a negotiated settlement between the two governments, endorsed by their fishermen.

On the Indian side, enforcement would be in the hands of the Tamil Nadu authorities, who do not always share the views and proposals of the Centre.

There is thus meaning in Sri Lanka proposing to fast-track the official-level talks. Questions, however, remain if Sri Lanka will be in a mood to give away the concessions being sought by the TN fishermen, at least in the interim.

One problem is the perception that TN fishers and more so their government, have sought them as a ‘traditional right’ in ‘historic waters’, or vice versa. SL is wary of such claims.

From a Sri Lankan perspective, the arrest of 50 Nagapattinam fishermen with their trawlers off Point Pedro in Sri Lanka’s post-war, Tamil-exclusive northern province, for instance, did not involve ‘historic waters’ and ‘traditional rights’ of any kind.

They are also opposed to acknowledging the same in the Palk Strait region, off Rameswaram, in the light of the 1974/76 bilateral IMBL accords.

Any contestation to the contrary from the TN side, including post-accords demands over ownership and possession of Katchchativu islet is the other irksome issue, over which Sri Lanka becomes defensive.

Any official-level talks between the two sides, without any clear-cut understanding on the livelihood issues flagged in TN, could end up in India having to acknowledge bilaterally even more than what it had no hesitation in accepting in Parliament and outside, on the IMBL and Katchchativu decisions from the past.

The solution to the livelihood concerns of Indian fishermen dependent on the catch across the IMBL would have to wait. India may not be able to prepare itself for an early round of official-level talks without addressing these livelihood issues, which are an internal affair of the nation.

The governments at the Centre and the states will have to decide on ways and means to diversify domestic maritime fishing in the particular region, and pursue those goals with interest and involvement.

Deep-sea fishing and ‘mother ship’ fishing have been identified for long, but no serious effort has been initiated on these scores.

Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen and their government both see the Indian proposals as a diversionary or delaying tactic, and feel that TN in particular is more serious on the political than livelihood front.

The additional TN woe of SL ‘arresting’ boats and fishermen, and freeing only the latter seems to have flowed from a misunderstanding that most trawlers in those parts are owned by big-time politicians and other affluent people.

Long-term detention of boats by Sri Lanka may have to be linked to TN Chief Minister Jayalalithaa publicly comparing SL with Pakistan.

In one more of those famous letters to then prime minister Manmohan Singh, CM Jaya said that Sri Lanka Navy shot/shot at Indian fishers whereas India’s worst enemy in the neighbourhood only arrested the fishermen and their boats.

CM Jaya did not mention that Pakistan detained Indian fishermen for 10-15 years, often without trial. None on either side had raised the issue of ‘historic waters’ and ‘traditional rights’ in that case.

Also, seldom did Pakistan return the ‘arrested’ Indian boats even when the fishermen are sent back home after long years in captivity across the land borders.

In Gujarat, the state government is said to be reimbursing fishermen for boats taken away by Pakistan.

In TN, where deep-sea fishing is seen as a workable alternative, at least up to some extent, those monies could be first found, and then allocated first and diverted then, for funding deep-sea fishing craft and gears for the local fishers.

In more recent times, such detention of boats in Sri Lanka may also have to do with courts in India, particularly Andhra Pradesh, ordering hefty fines for the release of SL fishermen and their vessels.

As may be recalled, Andhra Pradesh, Odhisa, Andaman and Nicobar, and more recently Karnataka are other states in India where SL fishermen found violating the IMBL, are jailed.

They do not have their fishermen and boats being arrested in Sri Lankan waters, as TN fishermen and their government.

Hence, possibly, the insensitivity and consequent delay in freeing arrested ‘innocent’ SL fishermen, as has been the case mostly in and with TN.

N Sathiya Moorthy is director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter

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