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Tensions Grow Over Fishing Issue

  • Stalemate
“An open seas solution is one option where the Sri Lankan fishermen can come to catch fish at one time and then we go to catch fish at another set time,”  - N. J. Bose
 “An open seas solution will be in violation of the law of the sea. It will not be accepted by our fishermen,” - Herman Kumara

By Easwaran Rutnam
Tensions are growing in Tamil Nadu among fishing communities as proposed talks between Sri Lankan and Indian fishermen remained deadlocked with no immediate breakthrough in sight.
N. J. Bose, president of the Rameswaram Mechanised Boat Fishermen Association, told The Sunday Leader that fishermen in southern India continued to protest last week over the Sri Lankan fishing issue and over 1,000 boats had not gone out to sea.
“The issue has still not been resolved.

Talks which were proposed to take place with fishermen in Sri Lanka have not happened. We are waiting for the Tamil Nadu government to do something about this as it is affecting hundreds of fishermen in the state,” he said. The “issue” Bose is talking about is Indian fishermen being arrested when they allegedly cross into Sri Lankan waters to catch fish.

India’s central government in New Delhi has repeatedly advised south Indian fishermen to stay out of Sri Lankan waters, and has urged Sri Lanka to act humanely when dealing with Indians who cross the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL). But Indian fishermen continue to defy advice not to poach in Sri Lankan waters and more and more Indian fishermen are being arrested by the navy and handed over to the police.
V. Vivekanandan and Herman Kumara
Over 100 Indian fishermen are in police custody and a case over some of them is to be taken up on Wednesday, August 21. Bose said that the families of those fishermen are waiting anxiously hoping they will be released and returned to India. Indian media reports had quoted some of the family members as threatening to travel by boats to Sri Lanka carrying white flags if the fishermen are not freed. The External Affairs Ministry however says the law will be respected when dealing with the Indians who have been arrested. This is despite India recently issuing a demarche to Sri Lanka on the issue after summoning Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to New Delhi Prasad Kariyawasam.
‘Open Seas’ solution
In an attempt to break the deadlock Indian fishermen have now proposed ‘open seas’ as a solution and are awaiting a response from the Sri Lankan side. Bose says an ‘open seas’ solution would mean an area being earmarked where Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen can catch fish under a time table.
“The final solution should be acceptable to both sides. An open seas solution is one option where the Sri Lankan fishermen can come to catch fish at one time and then we go to catch fish at another set time,” he said.
The Indians cross the IMBL to poach in Sri Lankan waters, particularly near the Katchatheevu Island in the north as the area is filled with fish. The island itself is under dispute, at least in the eyes of Tamil Nadu, and last week Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa said she hoped that India will soon regain Katchatheevu which was ceded to Sri Lanka in 1974.
Dialogue stalled by Tamil Nadu politics
V. Vivekanandan, an adviser to the South Indian Federation of Fishermen, who had in 2010 taken part in talks with Sri Lanka to resolve the fishing issue, told The Sunday Leader that Tamil Nadu politics is now beginning to override the actual situation. He also feels an ‘open seas’ solution may not work as Tamil Nadu fishermen have more sophisticated fishing equipment and bigger boats compared to fishermen in Jaffna, and so such a solution will favour Tamil Nadu fishermen.
Vivekanandan however noted that the situation is fairly serious as the dialogue had stalled and there was no progress on reaching an acceptable solution.

“On the other hand Tamil Nadu is trying to solve the issue at a local level to some extent. There is a huge concentration of ports in Rameshwaram and so when they set out to sea they have limited space to catch fish and that is one reason they cross into Sri Lankan waters. Local authorities are trying to move some of these boats to ports outside of Rameshwaram to increase available space. Authorities at Nagapattinam have warned fishermen not to cross into Sri Lankan waters; if they do, they will be fined,” he said.
Vivekanandan said he felt the Sri Lankan government was taking “token action” when dealing with Indian fishermen who enter Sri Lankan waters as a result of its strong diplomatic ties with India. He added that the situation was very complex as Tamil Nadu politicians were making the fishing issue political. “As far as Tamil Nadu politics is concerned they cannot separate the fishermen issue and that can be dangerous. The actual problem is getting lost in the Tamil ethnic issue,” he said.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa and DMK President and former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi issued statements on the fishermen issue in a bid to outdo each other. Vivekanandan admits that the Jaffna fishermen are those who suffer the most from this as it is their livelihood that will get affected when Indians take their fish. He said slowly but surely even most Indians are beginning to realise this and would like to see both sides benefit and not just one party. “The underlying solution will need to be one where there is equitable sharing of resources. It must be fair on both sides. It also must be a multi agreement solution and not one where one deal is signed and that’s it,” he said.

Jaffna fishermen will not accept India’s solution
Fishermen in Jaffna meanwhile said they will reject any solution formulated by India, and demanded that they be included in any talks being organised by the Sri Lankan government to resolve the conflict between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen. The National Fisheries Solidarity Movement said an “open seas” solution cannot be accepted. Convener of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement Herman Kumara said that such a solution will be in violation of the law of the sea as the Indian fishermen will then cross the IMBL and fish in Sri Lankan waters.
“We should follow the guidelines and existing rules and regulations on the law of the sea. If it’s going to be changed then there needs to be an agreement between both governments. In any event I don’t think our fishermen will agree to it,” he said.
He also said that there was no progress on the proposed talks between fishermen from both countries, and the delay allowed Indian fishermen to continue to poach in Sri Lankan waters.
Indian fishermen had last month received an invite to visit Sri Lanka and hold talks with their Sri Lankan counterparts. They received a letter from a Sri Lankan official who acted as the translator of Minister Basil Rajapaksa when he had visited New Delhi last month. The meetings were to take place from August 1 to 7, but were called off as the Indians wanted the Tamil Nadu government to get involved and organize the tour – and that is yet to happen.