India has asked Sri Lanka to 'exercise caution' so as to prevent any casualties in the course of crackdowns on Indian fishing boats and requested the island nation to tackle the fisheries issue based on a humanitarian approach.
During a virtual meeting of the joint working group on fisheries on Friday, both countries agreed that the use of force could not be justified under any circumstances, and reiterated the importance of extending humane treatment to all fishermen, the Indian high commission in Colombo said in a statement.
"The Indian side asked the relevant Sri Lankan authorities to exercise caution so as to prevent any casualties in the course of crackdowns on fishing boats, and suggested using paramilitary to apprehend civilian fishermen," the statement said.
"Suggesting that relevant UN Convention on the Law of the Sea clauses are fishermen friendly in spirit and letter, the Indian government requested Sri Lankan authorities to tackle the fisheries issue based on humanitarian approach," it said.
The Sri Lankan side raised its concerns on the methods used by fishing vessels and stressed that it is imperative for the two countries to work together in drawing up effective measures to mitigate the loss of livelihood.
The Indian side took a constructive approach in its response and assured its assistance.
The Indian side also elaborated on the steps undertaken by the government to safeguard the marine environment and explained government measures to improve the fisheries order, including stationing coast guard vessels at key sea routes requested by the Sri Lankan side, creating awareness on environmentally damaging fishing operations, and providing education, financial support and guidance to Indian fishermen to migrate to longliners fishing.
The Indian side had earlier dispensed dry rations to Sri Lankan fisher families, reflecting continuing interest in the well-being of the fishermen.
In recent weeks, Sri Lanka fisher organisations had stepped up pressure on the government to take steps to stop the Indian fishermen from entering Sri Lankan waters.
The Sri Lankan delegation at the meeting was led by RMI Rathnayake, secretary, ministry of fisheries of Sri Lanka, and the Indian delegation was led by Jatindra Nath Swain, secretary (fisheries).
Both sides reviewed the developments since the last meeting of the Joint Working Group held in December 2020.
The fishermen issue is a contentious one in ties between the two countries.
In February, the issue of fishermen also figured in the talks between External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Sri Lankan counterpart G L Peiris in New Delhi.
Jaishankar will visit Sri Lanka from March 28 to March 30 for bilateral talks and BIMSTEC engagements.
There have been periodic instances of Indian fishermen being apprehended by Sri Lankan authorities for allegedly crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) and fishing in Sri Lankan waters.
There have been several incidents of Sri Lankan Navy personnel even firing at Indian fishermen in the Palk Strait and seizing their boats.
The Palk Strait, which is a narrow strip of water separating Tamil Nadu from Sri Lanka, is a rich fishing ground for fishermen from both countries.
According to available information, in the last three years, a total of 329 Indian fishermen were arrested by Sri Lankan authorities, of whom 305 were from Tamil Nadu. A total of 88 Indian fishing boats are in Sri Lankan custody.
India has been taking up the issue of the detained fishermen at the highest level (in Sri Lanka), including a "2+2" meeting between the foreign ministers and the fisheries ministers of the two countries.