Originally Published 2014-09-26 00:00:00 Published on Sep 26, 2014
The much-publicised first round of the officials-level talks on resolving the India-Sri Lanka fishing issue has ended up as a non-starter. However, hopes still cannot be ruled out for a possible, if not early, solution.
Sri Lanka: Moving away from bottom-trawling still the way out for TN fishers?

The much-publicised first round of the officials-level talks on resolving the India-Sri Lanka fishing issue has ended up as a non-starter. However, hopes still cannot be ruled out for a possible, if not early, solution.

Under the evolved and existing circumstances, a solution should mainly involve governments in India - those in Tamil Nadu and at the Centre -- demonstrating on the ground, their medium and long-term intent to encourage southern coastal fishers to take to deep-sea fishing in a big way. In turn, both the Sri Lankan Government and the fishers in the Tamil-exclusive Northern Province will have to concede that their Indian counterparts will require reasonable time for effecting that ’conversion’ -- from banned trawler fishing, to non-interventionist deep-sea fishing, and act accordingly.

For the first-time, the bilateral, official-level talks were headed on either side by Fisheries Department officials. For historic reasons, linked to the arrest-and-release of TN fishers by Sri Lanka, and later on substantive issues relating to the IMBL, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had remained the nodal-point for such negotiations in both countries. It remained thus even when both countries had acknowledged it to be a ’livelihood issue’ and also began working on a MoU for bilateral cooperation in fisheries development in the shared Palk Strait and Gulf of Mannar in particular. There however exists an India-Sri Lanka Joint Working Group (JWG), also of officials. It met last in Colombo in January 2012. In the context of the newer officials’ forum, the JWG’s role may have to be reviewed / redefined.

Without authority?

Formed at the instance of Sri Lankan Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne, the officials’ forum (if it could be called so) was aimed at following up on two rounds of fishers’ negotiations at Chennai (January) and Colombo (May). With Sri Lanka remaining obstinate and no progress made at the fishers’ negotiations, it was unclear from the very beginning as to what the officials at the Delhi talks could achieve, in the absence of clear-cut political directives, particularly in the case of Sri Lanka.

Going by media reports, the Sri Lankan delegation at the Delhi talks on 29 August came without much authority to decide upon anything. Given the way the Executive Presidency system has worked in the country for close to four decades, and the way the political leadership at all levels retain much of the decision-making powers, it could not have been otherwise. The question thus arises if the national-level ministers in charge of Fisheries from the two countries should meet early on, and take it up to the level of the respective Heads of Government, if it has to be that way.

Proof of the pudding

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. There is nothing to show that the deep-sea conversion project in Tamil Nadu is working to any targets or deadlines after the incumbent Government of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa announced 25 percent subsidy for such conversion after returning to power in 2011 - and doubled it in Budget-2014. Only with emerging proof of such ’conversion’ may the Sri Lankan Government and its northern Tamil fishers consider interim concessions with confidence. Apart from bureaucratic delays down to the last official, the tentative nature of the State Government’s proposal owe to intermittent suggestions for facilitating/funding outright purchase of deep-sea vessels without ’conversion’. This could involve larger funding than Rs 1500 crores sought by the Chief Minister in a memorandum personally handed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi after his assuming office in May.

In the interim, the Sri Lankan Government will need to do more, if it’s serious about finding a negotiated settlement. Continuing arrests of Indian fishers without giving the governments in India, time for smooth transition away from the destructive and banned practice of bottom-trawling will be counter-productive. Ever since the TN Government started talking about deep-sea fishing, intermittent arrests of fishers and continuing detention of boats even when they are freed (almost always at the instance of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa) have only helped to keep the political and livelihood issues alive in Tamil Nadu in particular.

Maritime security and EEZ

Customary arguments based on ’historic waters’ and ’traditional rights’, as has been cited by successive governments in Tamil Nadu after the signing of the IMBL Pacts of 1974 and 1976, post-UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Laws of the Seas), has often unnerved Sri Lanka. Apart from security concerns linked to apprehensions of LTTE’s ’Sea Tigers’ revival, seeking to undo the ’Kachchativu Pact’, if the 1974 agreement could be called so, also challenges Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, in the nation’s perspective. The creation first, and the continuing negotiations now on the expansion of EEZ for nations have added a new dimension to the continuing Tamil Nadu discourse on ’historic waters’, ’traditional rights’, and also the ’Katchchativu issue’.

Even without ’Sea Tigers’ revival in one form or the other and where the High Security Zones (HSZ) remain years after the war, both Sri Lanka and India cannot ignore post-26/11 threats of maritime terrorism. For India, cooperating with the southern Sri Lankan island-neighbour on maritime and maritime security issues against non-State and non-territorial State players is thus not an option. It is a necessity - as much for the Government of Tamil Nadu as for the Government of India. The more recent Al-Qaeda threat of forming an India branch, Colombo-based Pakistani ISI attempts at anti-India terrorism and the arrest of the latter’s operatives in Tamil Nadu over the past weeks and months all indicative of the need.

New signals

There may be still light at the end of the tunnel, some new signals, on the fishing issue. Terrorism-threats of every kind underscores the need for monitored fishing in nearby waters, if it could be helped - or encouraging fishers to go deep sea. Requirements of fishing-ban laws in Sri Lanka, and the proven destruction of marine resources and the anxieties of the Tamil fishers of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province all are indicative of the ’livelihood issue’ taking a tail-spin.

Sri Lanka can take heart that the two Benches of the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court of India have not taken kindly to TN fishers crossing the IMBL. Recently, the Supreme Court observed that the fishers’ problem and the ’Katchchativu issue’ were bilateral in nature, to be taken up at the political and diplomatic levels - and not through courts. At the Supreme Court, the Government of India lawyer had earlier submitted that there was no way of taking back Katchchativu without ’going to war’. The court practically ruled out that option, too.

It still can cut both ways. The Centre might want to take heart in the court’s observations. But the TN Government, polity and fishers might pressure the Government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi even more for sending out a "firm, clear and unequivocal message’ to Sri Lanka on fishers’ arrests. That the Chief Minister’s missive came after the Supreme Court’s observations - for resolving the issue through political and diplomatic ways -- should not be lost sight of, either.

At the same time, Tamil Nadu’s fishers, polity and Government will have to consider the much-feared and equally-delayed signals from their fisher-brethren in Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority Northern Province. For the second time in as many months, the ’Ilankai Tamizharasu Katchi’ (ITAK, better known as ’Federal Party’) has called for stopping Indian trawler-fishing in their waters. That they touched upon ’poaching’ by southern Sinhala fishers in their traditional waters does not help matters for TN counterparts. It was one of the 15 points in the political resolution passed at the 15th national conference of the ITAK, the dominant partner in the 10-month-old elected, coalition TNA Government of Chief Minister, Justice C V Wigneswaran.

Apart from the Governments of Sri Lanka, and those concerned in India, the ITAK resolution wanted the NPC administration (with a Fisheries Minister to call its own) involved in negotiations, and an early solution found to end the loss of fishing, fish and fisheries resources of the Northern Tamil fishers. Earlier and outside of the ITAK, M K Shivajilingam, the maverick TNA member of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC), who is a persona non grata in India for other reasons, had wanted trawling rights for northern fishers, as Indian counterparts were anyway adopting the banned practice in their waters, without any space or let-up!

(The writer is a Senior Research Fellow at 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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