COLOMBO: Secretaries to the Ministries of Fisheries of Sri Lanka and India met in New Delhi on Saturday to discuss the fishing issue bedeviling relations between the two countries.
On January 2, the Agriculture cum Fisheries Minister of India, Radha Mohan Singh, and the Fisheries Minister of Sri Lanka Mahinda Amaraweera, will meet in Colombo to carry forward the decisions taken at the Secretary-level talks.
Officials described the New Delhi talks as the first meeting of the Joint Working Group on Fisheries (JWGF) which was set up when the Foreign Ministers of the two countries met in New Delhi in October.
The JWGF consists only of civil and military officials of Sri Lanka and India. It does not have representatives of the Tamil Nadu government or the fishermen of the two countries.
Among the main issues to be discussed in these two meetings are: measures to prevent Indian fishermen from crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) to poach in Sri Lankan waters; the release of fishermen and boats detained in Sri Lanka; and the joint preservation and development of resources in the sea between the two countries.
Sri Lankan Minister Amaraweera has said that the island nation loses LKR 9 billion a year due to poaching by Tamil Nadu fishermen, and to prevent this, his government plans to slap a heavy fine on poachers. He had said that he would slap a fine of LKR 150 million or INR 7 crore per vessel.
In a recent press conference earlier this week, Amaraweera justified the non-release of detained Indian boats saying that the policy of impounding of boats and not releasing them has reduced poaching.
The Secretary to the Sri Lankan Fisheries Ministry, W.M.M.R.Adikari, told Express that the draft law to regulate fishing does not mention the quantum of punishment to be meted out to poachers but the fine will be heavy enough to be a deterrent.
During the October meeting between the Foreign Ministers, India, for the first, agreed to consider joint Indo-Sri Lankan naval patrolling of the IMBL. The reconstituted JWGF has representatives of the navies and coast guards of the two countries.
This means that India is ready to prevent encroachment of Sri Lankan waters by force if necessary – something it has been reluctant to do fearing a political backlash in Tamil Nadu where all political parties blindly support the fishermen’s “traditional right” to fish in Palk Strait and Palk Bay or at least around Kachchativu island, half way down to Sri Lanka.
As on date there are 111 Tamil Nadu boats and 51 fishermen in custody in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. The figures will be slightly higher if detentions in other parts of Sri Lanka are included.