At least the Mahinda-Modi bilateral talks in New Delhi last weekend were not a monologue of listening to the Indian leader’s homily on devolution and reconciliation with minorities in Sri Lanka. That Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was able to raise the issue of the incessant poaching in the Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar, [...]


The bigger issue behind the bait


At least the Mahinda-Modi bilateral talks in New Delhi last weekend were not a monologue of listening to the Indian leader’s homily on devolution and reconciliation with minorities in Sri Lanka.

That Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was able to raise the issue of the incessant poaching in the Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar, and the rape of marine and plant life in these Lankan waters is commendable. Sri Lankan political leaders, even the northern politicians have downplayed this continuing issue since the end of the ‘separatist war’ for far too long for fear of earning India’s displeasure.

The cost to Sri Lanka has been high, financially and otherwise. The weekly incursions by a flotilla of Indian fishing boats are estimated to cost Sri Lanka directly USD 40 million and indirectly USD 20 million annually. These amounts do not get credited, or debited to the official ledgers of the Treasury in Colombo. On the other hand, India offered a Prime Minister Rajapaksa a Line of Credit worth USD 50 million which got the soundbite; it was publicly announced – and thanked for.

What is more; a request is made to the Indian Government for a moratorium on the loans already taken from India. Whatever the case, a moratorium is only delaying the inevitable. A foreign loan has to be repaid someday. It is not asking for the debt to be written off the books. In the meantime, the country remains indebted to the country from which the request has been made.

In the absence of any joint communiqué at the end of the official talks between the two Prime Ministers in New Delhi, the billion Indian citizens and the 22 million Sri Lankans are not privy to what their leaders discussed. The Sri Lankan PM’s spokesperson has echoed the Indian PM’s line on the poaching issue using India’s lexicon that it is a “humanitarian” matter that involves “livelihoods”. That means two diametrically opposite things to the fishermen and the national economies of the two South Asian neighbours.

The Indian side has asked for time to wean their fishermen to other waters to ply their trade.  The joint talks between officials and fishermen’s cooperatives that were expected to settle matters have broken down; the last meeting was held as far back as 2018. Now Minister Douglas Devananda, who was part of the Sri Lankan delegation is said to have recommended a Palk Bay & Gulf of Mannar Joint Marine Fisheries Resources Management Authority, which at least now uses the terms “stop poaching in Sri Lankan waters” and to recognise the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) that divides the two countries. It is bound to face the same fate as that of the officials’ committee.

Sri Lanka has tried all types of indirect measures of arresting –or minimising poaching, short of taking Indians head-on. In 2018 the Foreign Vessels Act was amended. More than a hundred Indian vessels were taken into custody. The Indians retaliated by seizing 34 Sri Lankan vessels for trespassing into their waters. All that happens is a tit-for-tat game though the magnitudes are vastly different.

With this kind of political approach, the poaching will only end when the entire fishing zone is overfished by industrial fishing fleets – exactly what the Indian fishermen have done in their own waters. This is going to trigger further price hikes and shortages of fish for Lankan citizens, and loss of revenue for the Sri Lankan coffers.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has referred to the Palk Strait-Gulf of Mannar waters as ‘Hot Spot -7” on the world. According to its reports about 100,000 tons of fish are taken away to India by 2,600 trawlers annually. These trawlers are engaged in IUU (Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated) fishing that is banned by the European Union which is one of the biggest importers of fish from India. Meanwhile, the Tamil Nadu Fisheries Department refers to exports of its products to the EU. It also reports earning foreign exchange to the tune of Indian Rs. 4341.78 crores.

The ‘open border’ in these waters is also allowing gold smuggling and the import of tons of ‘Kerala ganja’ that is a social and humanitarian problem for the youth in Jaffna. It is also a security issue, for prospective terrorists to operate between India and Sri Lanka under the guise of fishermen, an issue the two leaders discussed.

In years gone by, there was a dispute over the islet of Kachchativu, and Sri Lankan diplomats successfully argued the case that the islet belonged to Sri Lanka. The IMBL became law in both countries. There was the political backing of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the then Sri Lankan Prime Minister who proved that when a country has a strong brief, it can argue its case vigorously, and yet, keep the friendliest of relations with a foreign country.

Power corrupts

 The Power and Energy Minister has got Cabinet approval to purchase emergency electricity as fears of a drought, which could trigger long power cuts, loom.

On the eve of Independence Day, an unannounced all-island two hour power cut was largely treated as an ‘everyday occurrence’. However, it was later found to have been the result of a dispute over unpaid bills between two state institutions viz., the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), both running at massive losses. The CPC just cut supplying fuel to CEB’s thermal plants.

That the energy sector is riddled with corruption and mismanagement is no secret. One group wants emergency power purchases so they can help favoured agents and another wants extensions to the ‘always breakdown’ Norochcholai coal plant. They eagerly wait for the water levels to drop so that the hydropower stations can no longer cope with the demand.

Countries that are trying to get rid of coal as unclean energy are trying to dump their plants here, and Trincomalee has been identified for geo-political considerations rather than fixing energy deficiencies. Now comes a signal from Russia that it is willing to engage in providing nuclear power plants when the world is moving away from that source due to the dangers from accidents as happened in Chernobyl and Fukushima.

So what about solar power and wind power? Renewable Green Energy is the way the world is going. But as the sun beats down on this island-nation aplenty, the CEB is being obstructionist and quibbling over storage issues and tariffs and tenders for solar power. Everyone is trying to make a quick buck while the sun shines and power cuts loom. Those who can literally make power while the sun shines are being shunned.


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