NFF optimistic about sorting out Indo-Lanka fishing disputes
Wednesday, 30 September 2015 - 8:30
Fishing disputes have been a component of relations between Sri Lanka and its only neighbour India for quite a while.Consistently, numerous fishermen from each country get arrested by authorities for illegal poaching.
The International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) that separates Sri Lanka and India in the Gulf of Mannar, the Palk Bay, and the Bay of Bengal was mutually agreed by the then Presidents ofSri Lanka and India, Sirimavo Bandaranaike andIndira Gandhi, in 1974.
However, the dispute between the Tamil Nadu Government with the Centre in India over the issue of fishermen proceeds. The Tamil Nadu Government has repeatedly accused the Centre of not doing what is necessary to ensure the livelihoods of fishermen and neglecting to toughen its position on Sri Lanka by taking a victim-centred approach to those who have been arrested.
Speaking exclusively with Dilshan Aloka Sri Wijegunasekera, the Former Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA), and the Incumbent Chairperson of the National Fishworkers' Forum (NFF) in India, Mr. M. Ilango shared his insights on Indo-Lanka fishermen conflicts, which have turned into a diplomatic concern between two South Asian neighbours for some time now.
1. I came across your recent statement which you have expressed optimism that the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's visit to India will be fruitful for the fishermen of both the countries. Would you say that the recent Government change in Sri Lanka have considerable impact on finding solutions for the Indo-Lanka fishing disputes?
It is my strong belief that the recent change of guards in both Sri Lanka and India provide for positive impact in resolving the issue of fishing in the waters in between the two nations.
That during the first visit of the Honourable New President of Sri Lanka, Shri. Maithripala Sirisena to India, on the first visit of our Honourable Prime Minister of India, Shri. Narendra Modi to Sri Lanka, and now on the first visit of Honourable Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Shri.Ranil Wickremesinghe, the issue of fishermen been considered for discussion and it is also mentioned that the right to livelihood of the fishermen should be given due importance and should be considered with humanitarian concern. This makes us feel that the two new Governments are genuinely concerned in resolving the issue amicably. And we also feel that it is different from the approach of the Former President, Shri.Mahinda Rajapaksa.
2. There were allegations that the fisherfolk group which met President Maithripala Sirisena in Colombo on May 12 included a smuggler.Addressing the issue, the NFF has demanded that the State, Central, and Sri Lankan Governments probe the incident and come up with a report that would absolve the traditional fishermen from the blame of being smugglers. Would you enlighten me on the current state of this incident?
A renowned print media has mentioned that during the meet of the fisherfolk group with the President, Shri. Maithripala Sirisena in Colombo on May 12, some non-fishermen managed to be included in the team of fisher representation and some among them had a history of being involved in smuggling in the past years, and when the External Affairs Ministry of Sri Lanka found out about it later, it was shell shocked.
Because of report, I demanded on behalf of NFF that the Governments should take it up seriously and a proper investigation should be done.
It is to be noted that the fishermen who venture into the sea from Tamil Nadu are only doing so with the intention of catching fishes. They had been wrongly mentioned as smugglers through unfound statements. There is no evidence with the rumour mongers to substantiate that they are smugglers.
In the last one year alone, more than 36,000 boats have crossed the maritime border, more than 200 Indian fisher boats were confiscated by the Sri Lankan Government and more than 1,000 fishermen were arrested, later were released. No one of them was charged with smuggling as the reason for the arrest, rather the crime mentioned was only trespassing the maritime border limits.
Since the media report claimed that the smugglers have met the President under the cover of the fishermen, we wanted to know whether any one belonging to non-fishermen castes who are involved in smuggling were part of the team or it is a usual mud-slinging on the fishermen. I still wish, on behalf of the innocent fishermen that a serious enquiry should be conducted by both the Governments and the truth should be brought out.
3. Highlighting the problem of arrests of Indian fishermen for venturing near Sri Lanka, fisherfolk communities, particularly in Tamil Nadu, continually states that India should reopen the 1974 agreement ceding Katchatheevu to the island nation to find a lasting solution to the recurring mid-sea incidents. Can you give me any further insight into this issue?
The issue between the fishermen of the two countries is only an issue of livelihood. The Sri Lankan Government, the North Province Government of Sri Lanka and the fishermen of North and East Sri Lanka know very well that the entry of the fishermen of Thanjavur, Thiruvarur, Nagapattinam, Ramnad and Pudukkottai Districts of Tamil Nadu State, and Karaikal of Puducherry UT around Katchatheevu and beyond in the Palk Bay, is only for fishing.
More over the fishermen of both countries were fishing for centuries together for many generations in the same waters before and during the British Regime and even after the Independence and a healthy fraternity was maintained all along. Even after the Katchatheevu Agreement in 1974, there were no conflicts till 1983.
When the agreement clearly mentions that fishermen would continue to enjoy their right to camp and to dry their nets in the island, telling them not to get anywhere near the island is unacceptable.
Katchatheevu Island was donated after the meet of the then premiers of the two countries and with good intentions. Therefore it is nothing wrong in demanding for a reconsideration of the agreement. But we do not believe that the issue could be resolved only by revoking the agreement. However it is important to hand Katchatheevu back to India, as it would provide for partial resolution of the issue.
4. In a recent statement, you stated that ten Fishermen Representatives from six Districts of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry propose to visit Colombo if given opportunity to meet the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Could you elaboratethe purpose and proposed content of the meeting?
Since 2013, as the General Secretary and the Chairperson of NFF, I have met, along with the Representatives of the six Coastal Districts concerned in India, the Prime Ministers and External Affairs Ministers of India, and Official Representatives of Sri Lanka in India including the Deputy High Commission of Sri Lanka at Chennai.
From Sri Lanka, a wrong message is spread by the then President of Sri Lanka, Shri. Mahinda Rajapaksa and the present Honourable Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development, Shri.Mahinda Amaraweera. They say that the influential elites, corporate houses and politicians of India are involved in fishing from Tamil Nadu and Puducherry and that they use very large fishing vessels for this purpose.
As they have not got proper information in this regard, they are making such false statement and unfortunately, repeatedly. When we met the Deputy High Commission of Sri Lanka in Chennai in January 2014, we explained that falsehood in such statement and expected our argument to reach the Sri Lankan Government through him. The Sri Lankan Government released the boats that were confiscated till then on the very same day, as a sign of accepting our argument.
No large fishing vessels fish in the waters between Sri Lanka and India. Only those small fishing boats registered under the Tamil Nadu and Puducherry Fisheries Departments are fishing in the region.
As per the international legal provisions, the vessels that have obtained Letter of Permit (LOP) from Government of India should have properly trained crew. There are no such vessels in the given region. Therefore no large vessels belonging to corporate companies or influential elites fish in the given region.
None of the present Central and State Government Ministers, Members of Parliament (MPs), Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), and the District Secretaries of the important political parties belong to the fisher communities and there are no non-fishermen from such background are involved in fishing in the given region.
The deep sea fishing vessels of Eastern India are operated from the Visakhapatnam and Kakinada Harbours of Andhra Pradesh State of India, and not from Tamil Nadu or Puducherry.
The fishermen of the given six Districts of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry are ordinary poor fishermen and not rich land lords and do fishing only for the daily survival.
We want this truth to reach the high commands of the Sri Lankan Government. It is why we want to meet the President, Shri. Maithripala Sirisena, and the Prime Minister, Shri. Ranil Wickremesinghe.
5. Fishermen's Associations in Northern Sri Lanka have stated that they have no faith in reaching a solution by having talks with their Indian counterparts. Given the current strained situation, will there be another round of talks between Representatives of Fishermen of India and Sri Lanka?
Vinayagamurthi, the President of the Fishermen Association of North Sri Lanka has mentioned that it is not worthwhile to have a meet of the fishermen of Sri Lanka and India, and we agree with his viewpoint. After the third-round of bilateral talks between the fishermen of the two countries held at Chennai, we have mentioned something important to the External Affairs Minister of India,Shrimati. Sushma Swaraj during the meeting with her, and later through letters.
That is before the next round of bilateral talks, the Bureaucrats of the External Affairs Ministry, Fisheries Ministry, the Consulate of India in Sri Lanka, the Fisheries Departments of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry should have a discussion with the Fisher Representatives of India. Similarly, such a meet should be held by the Officials of Sri Lankan Ministries concerned with the Sri Lankan Fisher Representatives.