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Indian fishermen encroaching into Sri Lankan waters: ‘Enough is enough’: Northern fishermen

By Skandha Gunasekara

The continued incursions by Indian fishermen into Sri Lankan waters reached a peak recently, with two Lankans being killed following clashes. The resulting protest led to a march by the local fishing community into the Fisheries Ministry demanding a permanent solution.

The two fishermen were killed on 27 and 29 January, following clashes mid-sea, when large Indian fishing trawlers rammed smaller Lankan fishing vessels. The longstanding tensions between fishermen in the Northern Province and Tamil Nadu escalated post 2009 when restrictions on wartime fishing activities were lifted. 

Indian trawlers frequently breach the international maritime boundary between the two nations and engage in the banned practice of ‘bottom trawling’. The local fisher community and environmentalists have charged that the Government is not effectively enforcing local legislation due to political pressure from India. 

Boiling point

All-Island Fishermen’s Federation National Convener Rathna Gamage told The Sunday Morning that the decades-long issue had reached a boiling point with the death of their comrades.

“The invasion of Indian fishermen has reached the highest numbers in the last few months. This has been ongoing for decades. We have notified the authorities on numerous occasions; we have had protests and demonstrations and even had the matter raised in Parliament, which saw a bill passed in 2018 allowing Indian fishermen to be arrested and their vessels to be confiscated by Lankan authorities – despite all this, still we have had no solution.”

He said that in spite of necessary laws being in place, local authorities had failed to enforce such laws. “We have seen from the Government’s part that the newly-passed law. We have repeatedly called on the Government to demand compensation for the damages caused by the Indian fisherman to our fish stocks and marine environment. Recently we met with the Indian Consular General in Jaffna and presented these facts, but we have had no positive response,” Gamage explained.

Three demands

“We held a protest this week and made demands from the Minister of Fisheries. Our first demand is that there be bilateral talks between the two countries at the highest level to find a solution. Our second demand is that we receive compensation of Rs. 100 billion – Rs. 10 billion per year for the last 10 years – for the economic damage from India. The third request is that the Sri Lankan Navy and security forces take action and arrest Indian fishermen who still invade our waters, confiscate their fishing vessels, and impose the relevant fines and penalties.”

Gamage said that the families of the two deceased fishermen must also be compensated.

Govt. dragging its feet

Meanwhile, the fishermen of Jaffna are questioning why the Government is dragging its feet on enforcing the law. 

“The Government introduced laws in 2017 and 2018 about fishing and trawling. Why are they not enforcing the law? Why can’t our Foreign Ministry act in a strong manner? Are we not Sri Lankans? Only the Navy seems to go out to sea each day and do something about it. When Indian trawlers poaching in our waters are arrested, there is a big issue – the Foreign Ministry, Fisheries Ministry, and others move quickly to release them. But what about us? We have had enough talks; we need action,” Jaffna District Fishermen’s Association President Annalingam Annarasa told The Sunday Morning

“Two Sri Lankan fishermen are dead and hardly anything is being done about it. Who will feed their families? Who will send their children to school? We may be Jaffna fishermen but this is a Sri Lankan issue. We want the Government to enforce the law,” he added.

Annarasa appealed to the Government to strictly enforce the law and prevent local fish stocks from being depleted. “We were recovering after the war. Please don’t let them rob us of our livelihoods,” he stressed. 

Minister’s statement

Making a statement soon after the protest on Tuesday (8), Minister of Fisheries Douglas Devananda said the Government would take measures to resolve the crisis.

“Bilateral talks will be held with the Indian Government to solve this problem in a fair manner. Discussions will be held with the Indian High Commission in Colombo as well as to educate and inform the Indian fishermen on this issue.”

In his statement, the Minister also said a Cabinet paper would be presented to request compensation from India for the harm and damages caused to the Sri Lankan fishing community. He also noted that existing laws would be strictly enforced to arrest encroaching Indian fishermen and confiscate the vessels. 

On the same day, the Minister held a virtual meeting, organised by the Deputy High Commission of Sri Lanka in Chennai, with representatives of the fishing community in Tamil Nadu. 

According to the statement on the meeting issued by the Deputy High Commission of Sri Lanka in Tamil Nadu, 10 representatives of the Fisheries Association in Tamil Nadu had spoken to Minister Devananda and highlighted a number of issues. 

In response, the Minister had asserted that bottom trawling was prohibited in Lankan waters and noted the proposal Sri Lanka had shared with the Indian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister on ending fisheries disputes.

The Minister also said that the auctioning of Indian fishing vessels had been sanctioned by the Indian High Commission in Colombo. Nevertheless, the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka refuted the Minister’s claim, pointing out that Sri Lanka had not given clearance for a team from Tamil Nadu to visit the island and finalise disposal of confiscated Indian fishing boats. 

Ministry of Fisheries Secretary R.M. Indu Rathnayake said the Government was already in the process of implementing the steps outlined by Devananda to bring about a solution to the crisis faced by northern fishermen. “There was already a discussion between the Minister and representatives of the Tamil Nadu fisher community. More discussions will be held in the future.”