It almost seemed as if External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris went to New Delhi with the CHOGM invitation in one hand, and a warning in the other. On Sunday, the day he arrived, he informed Indian media of Sri Lanka’s intention to prosecute 106 Indian fishermen who are under arrest for crossing the International Maritime [...]


Don’t rock the boat, just confiscate the trawler


It almost seemed as if External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris went to New Delhi with the CHOGM invitation in one hand, and a warning in the other.

On Sunday, the day he arrived, he informed Indian media of Sri Lanka’s intention to prosecute 106 Indian fishermen who are under arrest for crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) and poaching in Sri Lankan waters. The practice earlier had been to quickly release them without completing the legal procedure. A full one third of the Sri Lankan High Commission’s media release on Peiris’s visit was devoted to his discussions with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the proposed ‘tougher line’ on the fishermen’s issue.

And now before the week is out, we have Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne saying the Government is considering confiscating the trawlers instead, and releasing the ‘innocent’ fishermen. It is the boat owners who are to blame for encouraging the fishermen to trespass, he is reported as saying. A trawler cannot be charged in court after all. And it leaves no tell-tale legal records behind.
According to the High Commission’s media release Peiris had explained that 400-500 Indian fishing boats consisting of about 1,500 Indian fishermen continue to cross over to Sri Lanka territorial waters during the fishing season on a daily basis with no reduction in numbers. He said that the matter is aggravated by the fishing methods used by the Indian fishermen such as use of multi-day fishing boats and nylon nets and bottom trawling which cause damage to the sea bed and marine eco system. He described how the Indian fishermen no longer confine themselves to the Palk Bay area but venture close to the eastern seaboard, Mullaitivu, Mannar and Point Pedro. He stressed that producing them in court and charging a fine was a deterrent mechanism and that there was no intention of harassing or oppressing fishermen.

Big Brother’s influence 

Momentarily it looked as if the Government was finally calling a spade a spade with regard to this vexing issue that has bedeviled Indo Lanka relations since the end of the war. The Government’s sudden backpedalling on its position is evidence not only of Big Brother’s ‘influence,’ but also of the Government’s inability to anticipate the fallout of its overly-public and ill-timed diplomatic move. Earlier this month the Indian External Affairs Ministry summoned High Commissioner Prasad Kariyawasam to deliver a formal ‘demarche’ for the release of the arrested fishermen.

The consternation caused across the Palk Bay by Minister Peiris’s remarks on the fishermen’s issue is seen in the fact that India’s External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid was constrained to make a statement on the matter in the Rajya Sabha on Thursday. It repeated the usual fanciful allegations about “incidents of firing on or apprehension of our fishermen” and reassured the Indian Upper House that such reports were immediately taken up with the Government of Sri Lanka “to ensure that the Sri Lankan Navy acts with restraint and our fishermen are treated in a humane and pragmatic manner.” It should be remembered that India is heading for an election next year.

More interestingly, it was reported that Khurshid had said (in relation to the recent arrests) “…under this process, if the fishermen admitted guilt to crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line, then they will be released. But, based on their legal counsel, the Indian fishermen have twice refused to admit guilt and therefore their custody has been extended. Commending their move, Khurshid said if fishermen accepted guilt, it would have grave international legal implications for India.” (New Indian Express, 23.08.13) This raises the question as to whether India is insisting on a ‘no prosecution’ policy so that there will be no damning paper trail in Sri Lankan records, in the unlikely event this issue is taken up for arbitration in some international tribunal in the future.

2008 Agreement 

Khurshid referred to the 2008 joint statement with the Sri Lankan Government which said “both sides agreed to put in place practical arrangements to deal with bona fide Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line.”

This agreement was made when the war with the LTTE was ongoing, and restrictions were placed on the activities of Sri Lankan fishermen. Exploiting the situation, Indian fishermen got accustomed to pursuing the plentiful catch in Sri Lankan waters (which they now call their ‘traditional fishing grounds’). “As part of these practical arrangements, it was agreed that there would be no firing on Indian fishing vessels and Indian fishing vessels would not tread into sensitive areas designated by the Government of Sri Lanka along its coastline.”

Seeing that the 2008 agreement was the outcome of the extraordinary circumstances of the war, it’s pertinent to ask if it is any longer relevant. The areas that Indian fishing vessels must not ‘tread into,’ now encompass the entirety of Sri Lanka’s territorial waters, and not just ‘sensitive areas along its coastline.’ Shouldn’t this agreement be reviewed in the light of present day realities?

On the positive side it may be seen that there is admission now in sections of the Indian media, that Indian fishermen are to be blamed for crossing the IMBL. Reports now recognise that Sri Lanka’s Northern fishermen suffer as a result, at a time when they most need support in rebuilding their livelihoods after decades of disruption. This is an advance from some months ago when the general perception projected in Indian media seemed to be that the Sri Lanka Navy randomly attacked Indian fishermen for no particular reason. This change for the better may have something to do with the increased attention being given to the subject by the highly professional Indian journalist community based in Colombo.

A ‘Hindu’ newspaper editorial on Friday, calling for India to host an overdue meeting of the Joint Working Group on Fisheries said “A key priority will be to ensure that Tamil fishermen in northern Sri Lanka, who were robbed of their livelihood during the war years, be given a chance to reclaim their maritime resources.” It ended saying “Instead of crying foul over routine arrests, the Tamil Nadu government must strengthen measures to wean its fishermen away from unsustainable fishing practices, encourage deep-sea fishing and come up with livelihood solutions for those left out.”

While there is admittedly a need for greater awareness-raising, it would seem unlikely that ‘talks among fishermen’ could resolve this thorny issue, as it is sometimes suggested. What incentive is there for Indian fishermen to make any change in the status quo when, according to reports citing Minister Senaratne, they rake in US$19.72 million per year for shrimp caught in Sri Lankan waters, and US$78.9 million for other fish and aquatic resources? There is no symmetry in the scale of fishing operations on either side. Sri Lanka needs to negotiate an honourable government-to-government resolution of this issue, with justice and fair play based on the Law of the Sea.

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