Monday, 13 January 2014 00:00
WITH the fate of over 400 fishermen in the balance, talks between India and Sri Lanka over the thorny poaching issue this week will be of paramount importance. Not only is Sri Lanka out to protect its fishing turf, a prisoner exchange has also been tossed into the arena.
Since not much love is lost between emotive Tamil Nadu and the Sri Lankan Government to begin with, the new rise in fishermen arrests is a red flag for action. According to Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, the industry loses an estimated US$ 78.9 million worth of fish from illegal poaching from South India. The Government has targeted $ 500 million in revenue for 2013, but has had to keep its expectation low due to the significant losses from poaching.
Sri Lankan studies estimate that an average of 1,056 Indian boats cross into Sri Lankan waters illegally, which means $ 19.72 million is lost from their shrimp catch alone. In total Indian fishermen poach at least 65 million kilograms of fish each year. Satellite images suggest that the poaching is done in a highly-organised manner as the bulk of the boats operate in the night and scramble across the international maritime boundary line by four in the morning. All in all Senaratne has told reporters he will present a staggering figure of Rs.95 billion as damages from poaching to the Indian counterparts.
Colombo has previously defended its soft-peddling of the issue by pointing out that if reports are made to international bodies, most of South India’s fishing industry will be shut down and this could not be allowed because of the close relationship enjoyed by the two countries. Yet of late things seem to have gotten out of hand. As many as 400 fish processing plants subsist on this catch and hints have been made by the Minister that strong political backing is given by the Tamil Nadu Government.
Ironically, the illegal fishing is affecting northern fishermen the most, who have complained that the Indians use banned fishing methods, destroying coral beds and hacking the seabed beyond repair. Even though the Tamil Nadu Government identifies strongly with the northern population and is often vocal about their political rights, it stumbles when it comes to protecting their economy and livelihoods.
The skyrocketing number of arrests on both sides demand some form of diplomatic engagement to take place. Previously both countries agreed that the way forward should be amicable but neither party seems to have an idea on how to proceed. Even the joint committee that was appointed to interact between the stakeholders has gone silent, while allegations of attacks by the Sri Lankan Navy and other grievances have mounted.
Relations between Tamil Nadu and Colombo have become even frostier, if that is possible, in the aftermath of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), for it is generally believed that Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh boycotted the event due to pressure from Tamil Nadu politicians. In such a sub-zero environment, dealing with fishing issues will become even more challenging but thousands of people on both sides of the divide need cooperation to work because their lives depend on it.