Originally Published 2014-05-31 06:33:16 Published on May 31, 2014
New Indian Prime Minister and Sri Lankan President should attempt to take forward the fishers' talks, promised to be continued/revived by their respective Heads of Government at their Delhi meeting, and then have their officials create the structures and super-structures aimed at implementing those decisions.
Modi, Rajapaksa revive hopes on dead-locked fishers' talks
At their first meeting after the inauguration of the new government in New Delhi, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and visiting Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa discussed the "fishermen's issue". Official statements from both sides confirmed that the two leaders had agreed that the meeting between their fishermen's representatives and the joint committee of officials should continue, so as to find a permanent solution to the issue.

Both the fishermen's issue and the Heads of Government discussions in Delhi assume immediate, if not greater, significance in the light of the meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa at Delhi on June 3. Indications are that the discussions between the two leaders now, like with the Sri Lankan visitor, will touch upon the fishers' issue, as it involves fishermen from Tamil Nadu. More than the Sri Lankan 'ethnic issue', about which the divided TN polity is agitated even more, it's the livelihood issue of the State's fishers that is of greater consequence to the local population and for bilateral relations with Sri Lanka.

In her talks at Delhi, with PM Modi and his ministerial colleagues, Jayalalithaa is likely to refer to the killing and harassment of Tamil Nadu fishers in the seas, allegedly by Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) and fellow-Tamil fishers from the Tamil-majority Northern Province in the island-nation. It should however be pointed out that ahead of visiting Delhi for PM Modi's swearing-in, President Rajapaksa had ordered the release of all Indian fishers in Sri Lankan prisons. While the gesture might have been to the new Indian PM, fishers from Tamil Nadu are the beneficiaries.

If however there were no Indian fishers in Sri Lankan prisons, other than those charged with 'smuggling activities', it is because of earlier releases of the kind by the Sri Lankan Government, ahead of the two rounds of talks between fishers representatives, at Chennai and Colombo earlier this year, and periodic intervention by the Government of India, otherwise.

This time however, the 45-day 'fishing ban' period along the nation's eastern coast since 15 April to facilitate breeding at sea meant that no TN fisher was in the Sri Lankan waters, to be arrested for IMBL violation. The ban, imposed by the Centre and enforced by the State Governments, ended on May 31. TN fishers, as also officials from the State and the Centre, are keeping their fingers crossed, as Indian trawlers venture out into the seas from June, adhering to the 4-3 weekly pattern set for traditional and trawlers fishers.

Dead-locked talks

Modi's meeting with President Rajapaksa and the scheduled one with CM Jayalalithaa have come at a time when talks between fishers from the two countries was dead-locked, and no joint statement could be issued after the second round at Colombo on May 12. It was unlike the first round at Chennai on January 27, when the fishers' representatives issued a joint statement, on the limited progress made and promising to continue with their meetings.

The second round at Colombo flowed from that commitment. In this background, the commitment by President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Modi to continue with the fishers' meetings assumes greater significance and immediate relevance. Media reports had indicated that the Colombo talks floundered (after making limited progress) when a Sri Lankan official (there only as an 'observer') wanted the Indian fishers not to cross the international maritime border (IMBL).

Such a proposition was behind the scope of the fishers' talks, and could have been taken up only at the official-level. The high-level political commitment thus by the leaders of the two countries at Delhi has thus put the fishers' talks back on the track. Independent of the Sri Lankan "official's" concern - or, the 'official' Sri Lankan concern, if any - the two leaders also referred to the joint committee of officials too having to meet.

Limited progress

Taking off from the non-official 2010 bilateral fishers' agreement, as much as from the January talks in Chennai, Tamil Nadu fishers at Colombo reportedly promised to discontinue destructive pair-trawling and purseine nets at the earliest, and reduce their 'Palk Strait' fishing from three days a week to two, and also voluntarily slash their earlier time-line for ending bottom-trawling - also banned -- from five years to three.

For their part, and yet without a written commitment from their side on other discussed issues, representatives of Sri Lanka's northern Tamil fishers wanted bottom-trawling ended here and now. Surely, they would have known that 'transition arrangements' to end bottom-trawling would take time, and both sides may still have to be persuaded to take forward the 'deadlocked' negotiations.

Reports have indicated that fisher representatives from the two countries have desired to meet again at the earliest, to take forward the 'deadlocked' process. Flowing from an earlier decision between the Fisheries Ministers of the two countries at New Delhi in December last, Sri Lankan officials, both on the eve of the Colombo talks and afterward, said that the official-level, joint-committee talks would be held at Colombo in June.

Any discussion/decision at the official-level meeting will have to be taken up at the Joint Working Group (JWG) on the fisheries issue at the bilateral-level, in which officials from Tamil Nadu have recently been invited to participate, to understand the legalities and formalities involved. In turn, such participation would have also helped the Centre's officials in India - and their Sri Lankan counterparts -- to appreciate first-hand, where (all) the shoe pinched the TN fishers, a competitive polity and the considerate government.

Fine-tuning the mechanisms

Under the partially-successful current format, talks between the fishers' representatives can gain/regain momentum only if the governments get involved. With the Colombo talks clarifying the specific concerns - and more so, the specific commitments -- at the fisher-level, governments would have to engage internally before engaging each other at the bilateral-level, if they have to produce results. It is in this context that the bilateral commitment at the highest political-level in Delhi since has rejuvenated the consultation process at the fishers' level, to begin with.

Thanks to the government-facilitated fishers' talks and a fuller acknowledgement of the issues involved, there is now a greater acceptance of the need for the TN fishers (and also their Puducherry counterparts), to move away from the Sri Lankan waters, in the long-term livelihood interests of the community. Addressing these concerns should involve greater and more focussed consultations and cooperation between the Centre on the one hand, the Tamil Nadu and Puducheery Governments on the other, to help diversify the trade practices of the Indian fishers', which anyway are not among the best in the world.

Even while protesting loudly on the livelihood rights and protection for the lives and limbs of TN fishers in the mid-sea, CM Jayalalithaa began well after returning to power in 2011. The State Government budget that year extended a 25 percent subsidy for conversion of the banned bottom-trwalers into deep-sea fishing vessels, and allocated Rs 50 crore for the purpose in the first year. After re-evaluation over two years, this year's budget has increased the conversion-subsidy to 50 percent.

Likewise, the 2011 budget also promised the TN fishers a network of 20 storage plants across the State's coast, so that small-time fishers could store their catch, and negotiate a favourable price with traders, both overseas and nearer home. The Government at the time was also reportedly considering marketing education for the fishers. To this end and going beyond the same, Budget-2011 promised a Government-run fisheries university in the southern coastal town of Nagapattinam.

In the realm of possibility

All these are doable -- if the local administrations as 'enforcers' in India take an active and purposeful interest, going beyond the politics that it may continue to entail. The advent of a post-poll government in Delhi may have set the right political tone to the Centre-State discussions on the subject, for them to give a collective and purposeful direction to the fishers' talks and facilitate the kind of funding that the fishers would require to move away from improper trade practices, which Sri Lanka says are also illegal.

Neither the Sri Lankan Tamil fishers, nor their silent elected administration in the Northern Province have thus far taken any extraordinary interest in the fishers' issue, either way. Within the country, the northern Sri Lankan fishers having heard the climb-down proposals from their 'umbilical cord' brethren from across the Palk Strait at the Colombo talks, their Government at the Centre should use its persuasive skills to arrive at concessions and time-lines that are acceptable to all stake-holders. Everything within the framework of the Colombo talks is very much in the realm of possibility - and probability. They alone can be possible, if an enforceable solution acceptable to all stake-holders is to be found, signed and endorsed. Conversely, any back-dated reference to the IMBL can only send out wrong -- and not just confusing signals -- to India and the Indian fishers, as the latter had reportedly pointed out at the Colombo talks.

Security concerns and Kachchativu issue

Livelihood issues apart, there are security concerns to the person and the nation that the Indian fishers cannot be unaware of. Independent of the human angle, if any, the recent arrival of 10 Sri Lankan Tamils in two boats from that country, to the Indian shores near the temple-island of Rameswaram, has flagged the security-related perils of the sea to the Tamil Nadu fishers, and security agencies, both of the Centre and the State.

Interrogation showed that the adults among them have had LTTE connections, and one of them was even purported to have been killed by the Sri Lankan security forces long ago. Recent reports have also indicated that the sea-lane is being used again for large-scale smuggling of gold and drugs between the two countries, and their fishers would be among the natural suspects.

It's another matter that 'traditional fishing rights', whether politically acknowledged by host-governments or not, are acceptable to international law. In the reverse, the IMBL-linked 'Kachchativu ownership', with the enabling bilateral maritime border accords of 1974 and '76, are legal under the binding UN International Convention of the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).

As may be recalled, Jayalalithaa in her capacity as the General Secretary of the AIADMK, now ruling the State, has challenged the Katchchativu accords in the Supreme Court. So has rival DMK, since. The State Government under Jayalalithaa's care has also enjoined the SC proceedings. This is not unlikely to continue unnerving the Sri Lankan State, even as their Government agencies are seized of the fishers' livelihood issues for them to accept a negotiated solution between the tradesmen at sea. Minus the livelihood issue pertaining to TN fishers, there is nothing that links the Sri Lankan State and Government to the 'Katchchativu case' in the Indian Supreme Court.

It may sound ironical and flippant at the same time, but the Tamil Nadu Government and Legislature cannot call for a UN-sanctioned investigation into accountability issues on Sri Lanka's ethnic issue on the one hand, and not want to respect a bilateral accord, signed under the prevailing laws and practices of another arm of the UN. Likewise, Sri Lanka, while not wanting to accept an UNHRC probe into 'accountability' issues pertaining to alleged human rights violations, cannot seek to quote UNCLOS on Kachchativu alone. That way, the purported position of the Sri Lankan official's intervention (directly or otherwise) at the Colombo may have owed to legitimate concerns that link Katchchativu issue to the IMBL accords of 1974 and 1976.

Neither side can have the cake - and eat it, too. What they can instead attempt is to take forward the fishers' talks, promised to be continued / revived by their respective Heads of Government at their Delhi meeting, and then have their officials create the structures and super-structures aimed at implementing and/or enforcing those decisions. To the end that the two leaders want their fishers to continue their talks, PM Modi and CM Jayalalithaa at their 3 June meeting can also decide on setting a date for the third round of talks between the fishers, this time round again in India/Tamil Nadu, and invite the Sri Lankan fishers for the same, early on.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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