The Foreign Secretary, Amb. Nirupama Rao, along with senior officials of the Ministry of External Affairs, visited Colombo on January 30-31, 2011. Nirupama called on President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Minister for External Affairs Prof. GL Peiris, Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and External Affairs Secretary CR Jayasinghe. The visit contributed in a big way to the easing of tensions in bilateral relations following the killing of two Indian fishermen in the Palk Bay region.
The Joint Statement issued at the end of the visit indicates a mellowing of Colombo’s intransigent stand and the desire to find an amicable solution to the thorny issue of livelihood of fishermen of both the countries in the Palk Bay region. It now remains for New Delhi and Colombo to consolidate the gains and move forward.
An analysis of the Joint Statement shows progress in three directions. Following the killing of two Indian fishermen, naturally there was a spate of protests in Tamil Nadu, including the unwarranted attack on the Mahabodhi Society. The Sri Lankan response was unfortunate and contributed to the exacerbation of the situation. The Sri Lankan diplomats based in India emphatically maintained that the Sri Lankan Navy was not present in the scene of killing. Ambassador Prasad Kariyawasam mentioned that it was the handiwork of forces interested in spoiling bilateral relations. Obviously he implied pro-LTTE elements, but the Tigers have been completely decimated. Sri Lanka watchers in India are of the view that there is no pro-LTTE presence in the Palk Bay.
The Foreign Secretary’s visit has brought about a qualitative change in the situation. President Mahinda Rajapaksa concurred with Nirupama that violence against fishermen should be avoided. Let us hope the President will abide by his assurance though the record of the Sri Lankan Navy has not been very encouraging. According to Arulanandam of the Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fishermen (ARIF), since 1983, 236 fishermen have been killed in incidents of firing, 336 fishermen seriously injured and 80 are missing. What is more, number of fishing boats has been damaged and fish worth millions of rupees have been seized and dumped into the sea.
About the theory of a third force, articulated by Amb. Kariyawasam, the Sri Lankan side was silent. The Indian side, on the basis of information provided by fishermen, maintained that people in naval uniform had escorted Indian fishermen and the incidents of killing took place in such a situation. The only way by which truth can be ascertained is to constitute Joint Investigation Teams, consisting of the representatives of the Sri Lankan Navy and the Indian Coast Guard, who can inspect the log books to find out the exact location of the naval vessels at the time of the incident. It will be a good idea if New Delhi and Colombo agree to the constitution of such Joint Investigation Teams to probe into firing incidents, as and when they occur.
The second step forward is the reference in the Joint Communiqué to the India-Sri Lanka Joint Statement on Fishing Arrangements issued in New Delhi on October 26, 2008. The Joint Statement was issued following the visit of MK Narayanan, then National Security Advisor, and Shiv Shankar Menon, then Foreign Secretary, to Colombo and after detailed discussions with senior officials of the Defence Ministry, including Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The statement put in place practical arrangements to deal with bonafide Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen who cross the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL). It was provided that Indian fishing vessels will not venture into High Security Zones. What is more, there will be no firing on Indian fishing vessels. It was agreed that Indian fishermen would carry with them valid registration/permit and also identity cards issued by the Government of Tamil Nadu.
It should be recalled that this arrangement was worked out at the height of the Fourth Eelam War, when Colombo was very keen to avoid any adverse fallout in Tamil Nadu as a result of firing on Indian fishermen. Today, the situation has radically changed. In the post-war scenario, when Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen have resumed fishing operations, the validity of October 2008 arrangement may be construed to be detrimental to their interests.
For the first time, the Joint Statement made a welcome reference to the positive role played by the fishermen of both the countries to arrive at an amicable settlement. The Joint Statement records: “It was decided as well to enhance and promote contacts between the fishermen’s associations on both sides, since such contacts have proved to be mutually beneficial”.
This author has always maintained that a decision arrived at by the stakeholders - fishermen of both countries - has greater chances of success than an agreement imposed on them by the two governments. What is more, such as exercise should have been welcomed by the Governmental agencies in both the countries. Unfortunately when the Sri Lankan fishermen team visited Tamil Nadu, a few months ago, Indian Navy and Indian Coast Guard did not meet them.
What is more, the reaction of the Sri Lankan diplomats was not encouraging. The Sri Lankan High Commission in New Delhi informed this author that the fishermen have no locus and only agreements signed by the two governments would be valid. The fact that the fishermen wanted to submit their agreement to the two Governments for their approval was not appreciated by the Sri Lankan diplomats. Therefore the present attitudinal change is welcome.
Amb. Nirupama Rao’s visit to Colombo has definitely contributed to the overall improvement of the situation. When this Author visited Sri Lanka in mid-January he found the situation to be tense. Sections in Sri Lankan Government were interested in precipitating a crisis and internationalise the issue. They had prepared satellite photographs of how Indian fishermen entered Sri Lankan waters and move towards Sri Lankan shores hour by hour.
The hawkish elements among them wanted to take up the issue in SAARC and to the International Court of Justice. The killing of two Indian fishermen was intended to precipitate a crisis in order to enable Colombo to internationalise the issue. But, Colombo did not anticipate the extent of Indian indignation, both at the state and central levels. Finally, better counsel prevailed leading to a thaw in bilateral relations.
The two Governments agreed that the next meeting of the Joint Working Group (JWG) on Fishing should be convened at an early date. The JWG would address all issues relating to fishing by the two sides. The JWG was constituted in 2005. The first meeting was held in New Delhi in April 2005 and the second in Colombo in January 2006. Due to Fourth Eelam War, the third meeting could not be held for the next four years. It is reliably learnt that the third meeting of the JWG will be held in New Delhi in the middle of February this year. Naturally, the JWG, among others, will discuss issues like exchange of scientists and oceanographers, co-operation in enhancing trade in fishing boats, equipment and machinery, provision for training of Sri Lankan personnel in institutions of higher learning in India and co-operation to enhance joint surveillance to minimize the problem of poaching into each other’s waters. At the end of the third round of talks, the two governments are likely to sign a Memorandum of Understanding on development and co-operation in the field of fisheries.
On the crucial question of livelihood of Tamil fishermen in both countries, it must be stated that the question of livelihood of Sri Lankan fishermen, who have resumed fishing after a lapse of three decades, should be addressed squarely. A conducive atmosphere for a peaceful resolution can be created only when Indian fishermen refrain from fishing deep into Sri Lankan waters.
The agreement arrived at by fishermen of both the countries in August 2010 can be the basis for further discussions. One major achievement was that the two sides agreed to phase out trawler fishing. The Indian fishermen have given the “firm assurance” that they will stop mechanized trawl fishing in Sri Lankan waters within one year. The dialogue has resulted in several other areas of agreement. The number of fishing days in a year is restricted to 70. The ban on fishing has been extended from six weeks in April- May to another 30 days in September. The number of fishing days per week has been reduced from three to two (Mondays and Saturdays). In the northern Jaffna coast and south of Mannar Island, the Indian fishermen can fish up to three nautical miles from maritime boundary.
Unfortunately the agreement among the fishermen, as mentioned earlier, was not welcomed by the governmental agencies on both sides. What is worse, the Indian poaching into Sri Lankan waters assumed menacing proportions. In the fishing villages that this Author visited in January, the fishermen complained that Indian trawlers could be seen on all the seven days of the week. According to perceptive observers, trawlers from Nagapattinam and Karaikal also have started poaching into Sri Lankan waters.
This Author has always maintained that a long term solution to the travails of the fishermen is to look upon the Palk Bay not as a “contested territory” but as “common heritage”. A Palk Bay Authority (PBA), consisting of representatives of both the countries, including specialists in fisheries and marine environment, should be immediately constituted. The PBA can determine the quantum of annual sustainable catch, the type of fishing equipment that could be used and equitable fishing days and distribution of catch among the fishermen of both countries.
We should also take joint steps to enrich the marine resources in the Palk Bay. What is more, the Tamil fishermen of both the countries should be encouraged to enter into joint ventures for deep sea fishing in high seas. The PBA could also be vested with powers to take action against erring fishermen on both sides and recommend to the respective Government to withdraw their fishing licenses.
According to informed sources, the successful conclusion of the meeting of the third JWG will result in the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two countries spelling out long term goals of maritime co-operation. But, an MOU is only a statement of intentions; students of foreign policy are aware that there are many MOUs which are gathering dust without leading to action. What is required is that the MOU should be immediately followed up by a bilateral agreement providing for speedy and time bound implementation of the provisions.
(Dr. V. Suryanarayan is former Director and Senior Professor, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. He is currently Senior Research Fellow, Center for Asia Studies, Chennai. He was a former member of the National Security Advisory Board of the Government of India.)