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The 5th round of talks between representatives of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan fishermen is set to take place soon. The talks seemed to have stalled with both sides holding on to their positions. During the hiatus, several cases of arrests and boat seizures by Sri Lankan Navy have continued to happen. Official sources, however, indicate that talks are back on the agenda.

Things were quite different not too long ago. Prior to the riots that took place in the Velikkadai prison in Colombo in 1983, it used to be very common for Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen to fish in Tamil Nadu waters and the Tamil Nadu fishermen in Sri Lankan waters.

Both India and Sri Lanka attained their Independence from British rule in 1947 as separate countries, but there were no maritime boundary demarcations then, and hence both the fishermen were carrying out their fishing activities without any problem.

At that time, the Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen used to come with their boats to the TN coast, sell their catch here, have their food in the night, even see movies and return home later. Similarly, it was common for the TN fishermen to visit fishing villages in the northern provinces of Sri Lanka.

There have been some indications of late that a cordial atmosphere may arise wherein both the Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen will be able to carry on their profession with a sense of mutual cooperation.

But the situation turned upside down after 1983. Indian fishermen were subjected to harassment and attacks from Lankan navy, and many suffered serious injuries, lost their limbs and were even killed.

The fishermen and the general public of Tamil Nadu expected the situation to improve, once the Lankan civil war came to an end in 2009. But their hopes were belied as the status continued to remain more or less the same, with the Lankan navy attacking the fisherfolk, seizing and destroying their boats, and arresting and lodging them in prisons.

The fishermen started agitating, urging the central and state governments to get the fisher folks of five Tamil Nadu districts and Karaikkal freed and their boats released.

But the attacks from the island navy and the coast guard on the Indian Tamil fishermen increased greatly in 2013 and this resulted in many of the fishermen from these six districts losing even the means of their livelihood. Fishing community leaders from the districts of Karaikkal and Nagappattinam approached the central and state governments, seeking a solution to this problem. They also sought the intervention of the central and state ministers for the periodic freeing of the fishermen languishing in Lankan jails and for releasing their seized boats. The efforts of the government succeeded to some extent as the arrested fisher folks were being released within reasonable time along with their boats, as per some timelines.

But still, unfortunate acts like attacks on TN fishermen’s trawlers causing extensive damage to them, confiscation of their catch and occasional firings at them were continuing.

We raised the problems faced by fishermen of Karakkal as well as Tamil Nadu with V Narayanaswamy, then central minister of state in PM’s office, who was also the member of Lok Sabha from Puducherry. I presided over the consultative meeting held in Nagapattinam in which representatives from the six districts of Nagappattinam, Ramanathapuram, Karaikkal, Pudukkottai, Thiruvarur and Thanjavur took part.

In line with the decision taken in that meeting, a delegation met the minister of state V Narayanaswamy and through him, approached Salman Kurshid, the external affairs minister and the then prime minister Dr.Manmohan Singh, and appealed to them.

Around the time when this meeting took place in November 2014, there was a widely held view among the TN political parties that the external affairs minister Salman Kurshid should not participate in the commonwealth countries conference that took place in Colombo nearer that time.

But the fishermen representatives from the six districts who, under the leadership of M Ilango, met the external affairs minister in the presence of V Narayanaswamy, appealed to him to take part in the commonwealth meeting without fail and hold discussions for finding a solution to  the problems facing the Indian-Sri Lankan fishermen.

When the office bearers of the National Fisherfolk Forum and the fishermen representatives met PM Manmohan Singh on the next day, Nov 14, 2013, they stressed the same again to him.

The PM also accepted their request and promised that the foreign affairs minister will take part in the conference of commonwealth nations in Sri Lanka and will hold talks to find an amicable solution to the vexing problem of the fisher folks.

Accordingly, the minister went to the island nation and with arranged for talks between the fishermen representatives of the two countries. At the same time, the TN government also took initiatives and was pressuring the centre. Then TN CM Jayalalithaa asked the central government to organize fishermen-level talks.

Though both the Indian and Sri Lankan governments announced that the talks will take place, the requisite action for holding the talks as scheduled was not taken. This frustrated the fishermen from who then met again and debated the issue.

If the talks did not take place on the dates as announced, the six districts’ fishermen declared that they will fly white flags on their boats, travel to the Lankan island and will try to forcibly settle there, as a form of protest. They would also be meeting the Sri Lankan high commissioner in Chennai in this regard, they added. I along with the fishermen representatives met the deputy high commissioner of Sri Lanka and held talks with him for about three hours.

These developments created a sensation and raised expectations among the Tamil media and the people. The dy. high commissioner, while discussing the issue with the fishermen representatives, conveyed their concerns and views to the higher authorities in the Sri Lankan government, and arranged for talks in a cordial atmosphere. The same evening, the fishermen detained in the island along with their boats were freed.

The first round talks between the Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen took place in Chennai. A few months later, the second round was held in Colombo. While Chennai again hosted the third round, the fourth round took place in New Delhi.

In all these talks, 17 fishermen representatives participated. Twelve were nominated by the Tamil Nadu government and four by the Puducherry government. I participated as the central government’s nominee.

Senior officials from the ministry of external affairs and fishermen welfare, higher officials from TN and Puducherry governments, Sri Lankan officials and those from Lankan high commission participated in these talks as observers. In the fourth round talks held in Delhi, the last one so far, discussions took place in the presence of the central and state fishermen welfare ministers.

Later, a ministerial-level committee consisting of the foreign affairs ministers of the two nations and the fishermen welfare ministers, and a joint-committee made up of officials from both countries were constituted. While the talks at the level of the ministers and the officials were held last in January 2018, there is no sight of any amicable solution till now.

During the talks, Indian fishermen said that the Indian government has not banned beam trawling that they use, which is a form of bottom trawling. And they don’t know any other method. If the Indian government were to help them change their fishing method and train them in deep-sea fishing they would adopt it. But they need a three-year window period in which they should be permitted to fish in Sri Lankan waters.

The Sri Lankan government, Tamil fishermen there, and the political leaders of Tamil regions aver that their resources are getting depleted because of the beam-trawl method and it cannot be allowed for even one day in Sri Lankan waters. In the last round of talks in New Delhi, the fishermen headed by TNA MP Sumanthiran said this categorically. After this, talks have happened at the official level, not at fishermen level.

Meanwhile, Indian boats seized since 26th February 2015 have been detained in the Lankan coast and are damaged. Though some of those were released recently, the boats that remained uncared for, for more than two years, have turned unusable. Of the boats that have been dumped in the island, 90% have become useless. Also, boats of Indian fishermen valued at about Rs 150 crore have also been destroyed.

New laws have been enacted in Sri Lankan parliament regarding fishing. This has paved the way for awarding heavy penalty and severe punishment, when boats from neighbouring countries like India stray into their waters for fishing.

Whenever the fishing trawlers from neighbouring countries stray into the waters of other countries anywhere in the world, they should only be treated as having crossed their borders by mistake, should be cautioned and released. This is what the United Nations Law in respect of maritime boundaries says.

There have been some indications of late that a cordial atmosphere may arise wherein both the Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen will be able to carry on their profession with a sense of mutual cooperation.

A Lankan minister who was speaking on the subject two days ago said that there is a possibility of the next round of talks taking place between the fishermen representatives of both the countries. The same has been confirmed by the higher officials of the Indian external affairs ministry also.

(The author is chairman of National Fisherfolk Forum and former MLA in Puducherry Assembly)

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