By P. Krishnaswamy
The New Delhi talks between the Sri Lankan delegation led by Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne and the Indian delegation led by Sharad Pawar on resolving the decades-long fishermen's 'cross-border issue' was successful and it is believed that the issue that caused years of agitation among the fishing communities of the two countries and mounting pressure on the Indian Union government would come to an end.
Followed by his constructive talks on the issue with Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid in New Delhi on January 14, Minister Rajitha Senaratne held talks with Indian Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, under whose purview fisheries falls and reached agreement on proposals to end the cross-border problem to the relief of the long-traumatised Northern fishermen, Media Secretary to Minister Senaratne, Narendra Rajapaksa told the Sunday Observer.
They agreed to swap 42 of the fishermen in detention immediately and release all the remaining fishermen in batches this month with their fishing vessels.
Agreement was also reached on promoting sustainable fisheries and protecting the environment for fish breeding, he said.
A six-member joint committee to resolve other fishing related issues was formed and the committee held its first meeting on January 16. About 20 fishermen's representatives from the two countries who formed part of the two delegations were present.
The three members of the Sr Lankan committee comprises Director General of the Fisheries Department Nimal Hettiarachchi, Consultant to the Fisheries Department Dr. S. Subasinghe and Additional Solicitor General Suhada Gamlath while the Indian committee is headed by the Secretary to the Union Ministry of Agriculture, the Media Secretary said.
The joint committee will hold periodical meetings and its next meeting will be held either in Colombo or in New Delhi, he said.
The question of securing the release of the 34 Sri Lankan fishermen in detention in Andhra Pradesh was also taken up by Minister Senaratane with his Indian counterpart during their meeting and the latter assured him that it would be sorted out in the process of releasing the fishermen, Rajapaksa said.
Before the initial release of the 42 fishermen on either side, India had 213 Sri Lankan fishermen in detention (179 in Tamil Nadu and 34 in Andhra Pradesh) while Sri Lanka had 275 Indian fishermen in detention. It was also agreed at the discussions that the Indian fishermen, mostly from Tamil Nadu, who had made it a practice to poach in Sri Lanka's Northern territorial waters would now be diverted to other fishing zones in the Indian ocean and joint research on achieving sustainable fisheries development will be conducted, the Media Secretary said.
Minister Senaratne also held discussions with Indian State Minister Manishankar Aiyar on Wednesday. Issues related to fishing in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka were discussed at the meeting.
The Northern fishing community which had staged continuous agitation and protests over the years against poaching, expressed delight over the agreement reached at the New Delhi meeting to end the problem which had deprived them of their livelihood even after the end of terrorism nearly five years ago and caused them hardships and misery. President of the FMDFS, Noor Mohamed Alam told the Sunday Observer that it is a great relief to the over 100,000 fishermen of the Northern province to know that a settlement has been reached at Government-to-Government level in New Delhi on discontinuing poaching in Northern fishing waters and to work out ways and means of helping the fishermen of the two countries to fish in their territorial waters. The decision to release the fishermen in detention is also a welcome move because their families have been in great mental agony, he said.
The FMDFS had boycotted the last World Fisheries Day on November 21 and submitted a three-page memorandum to the Government seeking redress from poaching, Alam said.
They, along with the other associations representing the entire Northern fishing communities, have been continually staging protests against poaching that deprived them of their livelihood, he said. The last meeting among the fishing communities on the issue was held on December 15, 2013, attended by representatives from 14 associations in the Mannar district, 18 from the Jaffna district and 10 from the Kilinochchi district and they submitted representations to the authorities concerned expressing their continuing hardship and requesting an end to poaching, he said.
Fisheries sources said that the ambitious plans of Minister Senaratne to build the fisheries sector as a primary source of foreign exchange and achieving the projected target of 685,000 metric tons with the goal of providing nutrition to a large percentage of malnourished local communities would be realised soon since this major problem has now been addressed.
One of the biggest fishery harbours in the region has been set up in Dikkowita, at a cost of of 63 million Euros, the sources said.
Of late the WHO has recognised Sri Lanka as having developed her fisheries industry to be the best in the region and has appointed Sri Lanka as one of its five bureau members on international fishery issues out of 188 member nations.
The Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development introduced a special loan scheme for the fisher families. The government subsidises four percent of the interest and is a loan scheme with the lowest interest rate. Twenty five percent of the loan is repaid by the government, the sources said.
An insurance scheme for the fishermen is one more significant milestone. By paying Rs.750 per year they get the benefit that only government servants get. A pension scheme has been introduced for fishermen. At 60, a fishermen will get a pension of Rs.10,000 under the scheme, same as the government pension scheme.
Many other projects for their welfare have also implemented, specially for the Northern fishermen as the North is the country's fisheries hub.
They provided 43 percent of the national requirement of fish before terrorism erupted. Due to LTTE terrorism, it dropped to seven percent. Apart from the loan, insurance and pension schemes, the Government also distributed fishing gear to the Northern fishermen, the sources said. The Ministry recently introduced the vessel monitoring system and is one of the first countries in the region to introduce the system, enabling fishermen to be guided and assisted by satellite information and data, the sources said.