By Ashwin Hemmathagama – Our Lobby Correspondent
With the war coming to an end the number of Indian fishing vessels encroaching Sri Lankan territorial waters to engage in prohibited bottom trawling has increased significantly. Lawmakers from both Government and the opposition urged the President and the Prime Minister yesterday in Parliament to seek a diplomatic solution between the two Governments bringing an end to this serious issue, which impact the livelihood of Sri Lankan fisher folk and impacts the marine ecosystem.
Moving the adjournment debate, Opposition Lawmaker Vijitha Herath charged that the Government was dragging its feet without either commanding the Sri Lanka Navy to chase off the Indian trawlers coming in fleets between 300 – 400 vessels at any given time or getting the Indian officials to prevent them from entering its neighbour’s territorial waters.
“It’s mainly the fishermen living in Northern, North Western and the Eastern parts of the island that face this issue, which is now past the stage of finding a solution by having discussions among the fisher communities of the two countries. Unfortunately, it has become a subject used for political gains in Tamilnadu by the Central Government of India as well as certain political groups in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has an area of 517,000 sq km as territorial waters recognised through international agreements. The UN agreement, especially, clearly marks the marine boundaries in terms of longitude and latitudes,” said Herath.
Suggesting an urgent diplomatic solution, Herath said, “the first part of this issue is a question about the sovereignty of our nation. Indians coming here to do fishing by violating our sovereign rights, which is a duty of the President and the Prime Minister to protect as per Article 27 of the Constitution. None of the MOUs the Prime Ministers of the two countries have entered into has provided a firm and lasting solution to this issue. Indian fisherfolk entering Sri Lankan territory also violate immigration laws. Although the President is silent, fishermen met him and discussed this serious issue recently.”
Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kashi MP M.A. Sumanthiram who seconded the motion was keen to highlight the environmental impact of bottom trawling.
“The system of bottom trawling these Indian fishermen use is a serious issue. They use large nets to trawl the ocean floor. These nets are fitted with heavy weights to keep it on the bottom and to collect all that comes into its path. Having trawled for some time they sort the catch and throw back almost 80% - 90% of their catch back into the sea. When the marine ecosystem is disturbed and destroyed it affects the livelihood of local fishermen. During the last Parliament there were some Ministers who had fishing vessels using bottom trawling. The Government should ban the use of bottom trawling and monitor [these activities].”
State Minister of National Policies and Economic Affairs Nirishan Perera came to the rescue of the Government and the Navy rejecting the charges the opposition was mounting.
“It is true that Indian fishermen are using an illegal system. We have discussed and debated this matter on numerous occasions in this House. Especially after the war and fuel prices getting reduced, fishermen in our coastal belts have started their usual livelihood. A considerable number of people in these areas sustain their lives from fishing and related industries. But Sri Lanka Navy cannot be blamed where they were issued with the orders to apprehend these Indian fishermen and to take them to courts. It is happening, but on the other side of the ocean the Indian Government too should take action.”
“Regardless of getting arrested, these Indian fishermen keep coming into our territorial waters. Politicians in Tamilnadu own a majority of these fleets and they pay these poor fishermen to enter into our waters and trawl. It is not that those poor fishermen want to do it on purpose. The questionable ownership of some of our islets including Kachchativu is another issue we have with India. On the other hand, these Indian fishing vessels lack modern technology that could take them to international waters and bring them back. So, they just cross the strait to enter our territorial waters,” added the State Minister.
UPFA MP Vasudewa Nanayakkeara who also spoke on the matter was strongly critical of the Government.
“It is a matter of right to access. We haven’t used these waters for almost 30 years during the war. During that period the Indian vessels were on it. With the war coming to an end, the local fishermen got back to sea and now Indian fishermen are reluctant to let go of what they have been enjoying for almost 30 years. How can the Navy stop this single-handedly when a fleet as large as 300 – 400 enters? Unless force is used will they listen and turn back? Even to force these Indian fleets our Navy lacks crafts,” he said.
“If the Sri Lankan Government is unable to take action for this due to diplomatic tension, action has to be taken to support the livelihood of our fisher folk. These are matters that can be brought forward to the UN special courts established to solve marine issues. Such issues are common in the world. Now that the Indian Government is in good terms with us giving all sorts of donations, it is time to discuss this issue too. But proper estimations should be made calculating the economic loss to Sri Lanka,” he added, in a lighter vein.