By P.K. Balachandran, Shyam Balasubramanian
The reciprocal release of Indian and Lankan fishermen on Monday is the first step towards freeing of all fishermen held by the two countries.
The Pongal-eve release sets the tone for cordial discussion between the fisheries ministers of the two countries to be held in New Delhi on Jan 15. It also sets the tone for the forthcoming meet of fishermen associations to sort out problems of fishing in the Palk Bay and Palk Strait, including the use of destructive fishing methods. “Charges of intrusion and poaching slapped against the fishermen were dropped to enable the courts to release them,” an official said.
Currently, there are 240 fishermen and 78 boats from TN in Lankan prisons, while 189 Lankan fishermen and 46 boats are in the custody of governments of TN and Andhra Pradesh.
Asked when they would be repatriated, the official said it would depend on the navies or coast guards of the two countries and it might take a few days. In Delhi, the MEA also confirmed the release of the fishermen.
A release from the MEA said poaching by the fishermen of India and Sri Lanka in each other’s waters has been a matter of concern for both the governments.
“As a goodwill measure prior to the fishermen associations meeting to be held on Jan 20, an understanding has been reached between India and Sri Lanka to release fishermen in custody prior to the talks,” said Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin in New Delhi.
Mentioning that the repatriation has begun, Akbaruddin said it was good that the Indian fishermen could return home ahead of the important festival.
Akbaruddin said India attaches “highest importance to the safety, security and welfare of fishermen”.
“The government has worked assiduously to secure the release of Indian fishermen who were apprehended on charges of fishing in Sri Lankan waters. Similarly, Lankan fishermen have also been arrested for straying into Indian waters.”
Meanwhile, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid talked to his Lankan counterpart G L Peiris on the phone even as the latter was in Jerusalem. A deal was reached to release the detained fishermen as expeditiously as possible since prolonged incarceration had resulted in economic hardship for their families.
A release said Lankan Fisheries Minister, Dr Rajitha Senaratne, and his Indian counterpart, Sharad Pawar, will meet in New Delhi on January 15 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 Lanka and India, the release added.