Though the governments of India and Sri Lanka have for years tried to come to a mutual understanding on fishing in the narrow stretch of water dividing the two countries, high tempers among the fishermen on either side of the Palk Strait, combined with politicking, impacted the possibility of a solution.
It was in this context that Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to organise talks between the fishermen’s organisations of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.
The issue is hot on both sides of the Palk Strait. Indian fishermen have been complaining about attacks and arrests by the Sri Lankan Navy even when fishing in their traditional waters.
However, their Sri Lankan counterparts, quite often Tamils, have held protests outside Indian establishments in the northern Lanka, alleging that fishermen from Tamil Nadu fish in Sri Lankan waters and destroy local fish population. Purse seine nets are illegal in both India and Sri Lanka, but enforcement of this ban is almost unheard of in Tamil Nadu.
If the Centre does accept Jayalalithaa’s proposal of holding the talks in Chennai in December, it would be the third such meeting. Earlier, talks had been held in August 2010 in Chennai and in March 2011 in Colombo. The Tamil Nadu government’s Fisheries Department and the Indian Coast Guard had taken part in the first round of talks as observers.
The second round of talks, which were held in Colombo, also proved inconclusive. Jayalalithaa, in her letter to the Prime Minister on September 20, had asked for the minutes of these talks to be shared with the Tamil Nadu Government. She further accused ministers and officials of the Sri Lankan government of derailing any possibility of a solution in the second round of talks.
Both rounds of talks have taken place after the end of the decades-long civil conflict in Sri Lanka. Similar talks were mooted by fishermen’s bodies of both sides in 2008, but had to be cancelled after permission was denied by Sri Lanka’s Defence Ministry and the Indian High Commission in Colombo.
On August 7, New Delhi summoned the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India, Prasad Kariyawasam, to issue a demarche to Colombo over the issue.
On the same day, fishermen’s associations in Tamil Nadu met Fisheries Minister K A Jayapal, Chief Secretary Sheela Balakrishnan and senior officials of the Fisheries Department. They petitioned Jayalalithaa to help organise the talks, which they said, had been suggested to them by Sri Lanka’s Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, when they met him in New Delhi on July 5.
It is on the basis of this proposal from the fishermen’s organisations that Jayalalithaa asked the PM to facilitate talks in Chennai in December. She also indicated to him the urgency of the matter, saying the TN fishermen were at present in an accommodative frame of mind and were eager to sort out the issue through talks with their counterparts.