In what looks like an administrative faux pas, top Ministers of India & Sri Lankahave vowed to create a ‘new mechanism’ to address bilateral fishing issue

In what looks like an administrative faux pas on either side, or both, top Ministers of India and Sri Lanka, meeting in New Delhi over the week-end, have vowed to create a ‘new mechanism’ to address the bilateral fishing issue, for which the very same mechanism already exists. India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and her Sri Lankan counterpart Mangala Samaraweera have resolved to form a Joint Working Group (JWG) of top officials for the purpose.

Going by media reports, one such JWG is/was already in existence, though rendered dysfunctional owing to the very same causes and effects sought to be addressed now. Already, fishers’ associations in Tamil Nadu have said that the new JWG could go the old way, without any periodic meetings as planned and promised now.

Yet, it’s some beginning after a long lapse to address fishers’ concerns on either side, especially after Sushma Swaraj had committed to the same and in favour of the Indian fishers’ during the Tamil Nadu leg of her election campaign in 2014. With expectations of a Narendra Modi-led BJP-NDA Government, the State BJP even launched a ‘Sea Lotus’ (‘Kadal Thamarai’) campaign for her at Rameswaram, which is at the centre of the Palk Strait fishing issue.

As may be recalled, the fourth meeting of the ‘outgoing’ JWG, if it could be dubbed so, had met in Colombo on January 15, 2012. Then Indian External Affairs Minister S M Krishna was on a three-day visit to Sri Lanka at the time, though the JWG meeting did not directly involve him.

The ‘outgoing’ JWG was tasked to meet once a year, but invariably it did not happen, for a variety of reasons. Prior to the January 2012 meeting, it had not met for two or three years at a stretch.

New beginning

According to a joint press release, issued after Saturday’s (5 November 2016) ministerial meeting, the new JWG will meet every three months, and the two Foreign Ministers every six months. Given the troubled history of the earlier JWG, the Governments concerned, including that in the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu, need to put their hearts into it, to produce results.

If the earlier JWG did not really take off, it might have also owed to the fact that high officials on both sides were anyway in near-daily touch over the arrests and harassment charges, especially flowing from the Indian side. More importantly, in the troubled atmosphere of arrests and harassments, no meaningful negotiations on a permanent solution would have been possible, either.

The Delhi meeting now will be remembered for a few other tactical shifts from the immediate past. Three days ahead of the ministerial meeting, representatives of the fishing associations and federations from the two countries met in Delhi. The Indian fishers reiterated their 85-day fishing facilitation/rights in a year in Sri Lankan waters, while their Sri Lankan counterparts wanted an immediate end to bottom-trawling.

The ministerial meeting did not address the Indian/TN fishers’ demand in this context, which is in principle against the Centre’s known position independent of the party in power. The Ministers, however, resolved against the use of military to resolve the issue.

Already, a Sri Lankan commitment against naval attacks/killing of Indian fishers crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL), into their waters, remains. The commitment was made in writing by Basil Rajapaksa, MP and Special Advisor to the then Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in New Delhi, according to a Joint Press Release dated 26 October 2008. If the new understanding also involved non-arrest of Indian fishers by the Sri Lanka Navy in their waters, it has not been spelt out in clear terms.

Joint patrol

Needless to say, the joint press release after Saturday’s ministerial meeting reiterated the bilateral resolve to address the issue arrests of fishers and boats (mostly involving victims from the Indian side, both Tamil Nadu and Puducherry). On this score, as also occasional Sri Lankan fishers’ attacks on their Indian brethren, progress has to be seen to be believed.

The ministers also resolved to set up a hot-line between the Coast Guards of the two nations, even without which they are believed to be communicating and consulting each other effectively. On the more important decision for the Coast Guards of the two countries to jointly patrol their waters, the Press Release did not reveal if it would be done only through the hot-line, on either side of the IMBL, or would their vessels travel together, or with their men on each other’s vessel.

Sri Lanka had made the proposal for ‘joint patrol’ earlier, and had reiterated time and again. However, India had reservations for more reasons than one, it used to be reported. Apart from core issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity, the Indian reservations reportedly involved the recorded sighting of a large number of Indian fishing vessels, starting with banned bottom-trawlers, on the other side of the IMBL, in Sri Lankan waters.

Change of venue

But between the last round of talks and the present one involving fishers associations from the two countries at an Indian venue, the Centre seems to have decided to shift the alternating Indian venue from Chennai to Delhi. The last time fishers’ talks were held in Chennai, much time was lost in the form of the form of the joint press release, though the content implied continuing stalemate.

Also, in the past, the Tamils-centric Northern Provincial administration in Sri Lanka was not directly involved in the fishers negotiations. However, if Chennai were to remain a constant venue for such negotiations in the future, it was not unlikely that the NP administration, under an elected Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran too might have demanded such honours/responsibilities.

Ahead of the last two rounds of talks at the fishers-level, in Chennai and Colombo respectively, the Sri Lankan Government and the nation’s Fisheries Minister had met with representatives of Tamil fishers nearer home, in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. This happened this time, too. But it’s unlikely that the Sri Lankan Centre was ready for, or prepared to do it.

Politicians in focus

Saturday’s ministerial discussions would also be noted for another reason, at times more important than most decisions that were arrived at. The Sri Lankan delegation, which included Fisheries Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, also had Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian, M A Sumanthiran on board. From the Indian side, Minister of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare Radha Mohan Singh, and Minister of State for Road Transport, Highways & Shipping Pon Radhakrishnan were on the Sushma’s delegation.

Sumanthiran was there only as a parliamentarian and politician. It is however unclear Radharkishnan was included in the Indian team, because he is MoS (Shipping), or as the only MP and minister of the ruling BJP from Tamil Nadu.

The immediate preceding rounds of the ‘outgoing’ JWG, unlike the earlier ones, had involved State Government officials, not ministers. This was expected to improve two/three-way communication, and also to present TN sentiments to other stake-holders, effectively.

If anything, Tamil Nadu Ministers were known to have been on the sidelines of the fishers’ talks in Chennai, when it began to be held with official blessings. Yet, they were not known to have participated in the talks. Nor did any politician join fishers-level talks or JWG discussions in Colombo – or, even Delhi.

Expediting transition?

TNA parliamentarian Sumanthiran had presented a Bill for a legal ban on bottom-trawling in Sri Lankan waters, against an Executive Order, which alone is in force at present. Twice over the past two years, both in the present Parliament and its predecessor, Sumanthiran had moved the Bill, with all-round support, starting with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

As is known, bottom-trawling is banned in Sri Lanka, and is enforced, as against India, where it’s violated with impunity. The terms of reference of the JWG includes “expediting the transition towards ending the practice of bottom trawling at the earliest”, as well as framing procedures for returning fishermen arrested by both sides, and the possibility of joint patrolling.

Throughout the negotiations at their level, starting with the first, unofficial session, at Chennai in 2010, the Sri Lankan (Tamil) fishers’ representatives have insisted on an end to bottom-trawling. They had however given in-principle attestation for the TN fishers’ demand for 85-day fishing in a year, but this was not acceptable to their counterparts and also the government, back home.

The Sri Lankan fishers have also continued to insist on not giving any (more) transition time for the Indian fishers, especially from Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, any more time for ‘transition’ (from bottom-trawling to deep-sea fishing and the like). The latter had started with 10 years informally, and later reduced it to five and now three.

Tactical shift-back

In putting the External Affairs Minister and thus the MEA in charge of the fishers’ negotiations with Sri Lanka, India has shifted back gears from the last months of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s UPA-II Government’s decision to give a lead-role to the Union Agriculture Ministry, and thus the Fisheries Department.

This was reportedly expected to help lay greater stress on the ‘livelihood issues’ pertaining to Indian fishers, apart from not crowding the bilateral diplomatic table with a near-exclusive, unending issue for diplomats on both sides to address eternally, without being able to see much light at the end of the tunnel.

In this background, then Sri Lankan Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne even called on then Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar in Delhi, end-2013, and invited the latter to his country, for further talks. This tactical shift-back to the MEA as the ‘nodal ministry’ on fishers’ issue could mean that there may be more to be achieved on arrests and harassment before serious negotiations on a permanent solution could go on stream.

Jaya’s initiative

Independent of her tough position on TN fishers’ ‘traditional rights’ in their ‘historic waters’ and also on the ‘Katchchativu issue’, the 2011 budget of the Tamil Nadu Government under Chief Minister Jayalalithaa had proposed a 25-percent grant for converting bottom-trawlers into deep-sea vessels. It was hiked to 50 percent in the 2013 budget.

In between, Jaya had submitted a proposal to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in their first meeting in June 2014, for Central grants for such conversion, which only the State Government is equipped to implement and verify at the ground-level. She had repeated the demand in a subsequent memorandum and also missives to Modi since, but to not any known avail.

After Saturday’s Delhi talks, newspapers quoted Minister Radhakrishnan that the Centre had begun with token-funding for the Mookaiyoor fishing-port, an alternate launch-pad for deep-sea fishers, mooted by Tamil Nadu for long and reiterated by Jayalalithaa in her memoranda/missives to PM Modi. He spoke about deep-sea fishing only in terms of training and the like, and not on the Tamil Nadu Government’s demand for Central grants.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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