By Uditha Jayasinghe
A Sri Lankan delegation headed by the fisheries minister flew to India on Tuesday to hold high level talks over fishing issues between the two neighbors as Sri Lanka released a group of fishermen as a goodwill gesture ahead of the crucial meeting.
During the last two months, over 400 fishermen have been arrested by the Sri Lankan navy and Indian coastguard for illegal poaching. Fishermen from both countries regularly cross the maritime boundary line, causing tension between the two countries.
In December, the Sri Lankan Navy arrested 140 fishermen and 23 boats within just two days. India, not to be outdone, arrested 98 Sri Lankan fishermen in just 13 days. As numbers increased, both sides were pressured to find a diplomatic solutions resulting in talks being finalized.
"The minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resource Development of Sri Lanka, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, will visit New Delhi with a delegation of officials and representatives of Sri Lankan fishermen to hold discussions with his counterpart, the minister of Agriculture and Food Processing Industries of India, Sharad Pawar, on Jan. 15," the External Affairs Ministry said in a statement.
The two ministers are expected to discuss long-term measures that can be mutually agreed upon with a view to preventing fishermen from Sri Lanka and India engaging in unlawful fishing in each other's waters, and implementing the ban on the use of illegal fishing methods.
The Ministers will also discuss arrangements being made for a meeting between the fishermen's associations of Sri Lanka and India.
"Having taken into account the humanitarian nature of the problem and difficulties resulting from long-term incarceration to livelihoods and lives of family members of the fishermen, the two governments decided to release the fishermen who are presently in custody in India and in Sri Lanka as expeditiously as possible," the statement added.
Accordingly, 161 Indian fishermen are to be released by Sri Lankan courts over the next few days and allowed to return home.
India's Ministry of External Affairs Spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said in a Twitter message that India and Sri Lanka had begun the process of releasing fishermen.
However, India has not announced the release of any Sri Lankan fishermen yet, although the chief minister of southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu Sunday directed state officials to release 179 Sri Lankan fishermen detained in the state's jails by Jan. 13 as a gesture to create a favorable atmosphere for the upcoming talks between the fishermen of the two countries and asked Sri Lanka to reciprocate the action.
India has detained 213 Sri Lankan fishermen -- 179 in Tamil Nadu and 34 in Andhra Pradesh -- while Sri Lanka has 275 Indian fishermen in custody.
Tamil Nadu and the Sri Lankan government have traditionally had strained relations as the Indian state is home to the largest number of Tamils, who have for decades empathized with their Sri Lankan counterparts and their struggle for equal political rights in Sri Lanka.
With the new rise in fishermen arrests, this already tenuous relationship has been further strained with Tamil Nadu politicians accusing the Sri Lankan government of turning the narrow strip of sea dividing the two countries into "an open air prison."
Indian fishermen have also alleged that the Sri Lankan navy has attacked them, an accusation that is vehemently denied by the navy.
Counter allegations also implicate the Indian Coast Guard that refuse to accept licenses issued to Sri Lankan fishermen under United Nations guidelines who travel through Indian waters to reach international waters but are arrested anyway.
According to Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, the industry loses an estimated 730 million U.S. dollars' worth of fish from illegal poaching from south India. The government had targeted 500 million U.S. dollars in revenue for 2013, but has had to keep its expectation low due to the significant losses from poaching.
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-organized manner as the bulk of the boats operate in the night and scramble across the international maritime boundary line by 4 a.m.
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.
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.
The skyrocketing number of arrests on both sides demand some form of diplomatic engagement to take place, say analysts.
Previously both countries agreed that the way forward should be amicable and put in place joint committee with top officials from both countries to interact between the stakeholders, but this has gone silent, while allegations and arrests 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 has become even more challenging, analysts believe, but it is evident that sustainable solutions have to be born from the talks that begin on Wednesday.