Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan fisherfolk are in dire straits because of the illegal, unregulated and unreported poaching by Indian fishermen in the Palk Strait.
According to media reports, the poaching scandal has become a multi-million-dollar industry for the Tamil Nadu state, which exports prawn, tuna, shrimp and other fish robbed from Sri Lanka to European Union and other countries. Worse still, more than 30% or about 1/3 of the small fish caught by the Indian poachers through hi-tech bottom trawling measures is dumped back into the sea because these fish are not fit for the export market.
Experts say bottom trawling will cause extensive damage to marine life for generations. This method of fishing is banned both in India and Sri Lanka, but Indian fishermen indulge in the practice in Sri Lankan waters with impunity with the apparent encouragement of the Tamil Nadu state government and the protection of the central government in New Delhi.
Fisheries Director General N.D. Hettiarachchi says Sri Lanka wants to resolve this issue amicably apparently because of the complexity of the relationship with our giant neighbour India. But the joint Indo-Sri Lanka working group set up to resolve this crisis has not met for some time, largely because India is reluctant to set a date.
The European Union which has given Sri Lanka a yellow card warning for indulging in illegal unregulated and unreported fishing practices has cleverly if not deceptively avoided the issue of Tamil Nadu fishermen indulging in such practices in Sri Lankan waters. The EU says it is a bilateral matter which it does not address. The EU imports large quantities of shrimp, prawns, tuna and other fish from Tamil Nadu and certifies fish processing plants that are part of a multi-billion-rupee industry. It seems that instead of building a bridge over these troubled waters, the EU is playing a game of political bridge.
Oliver Drewes, the European Commission’s spokesperson for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries says the EU does not address bilateral disputes of third countries and the relevent states must deal with the issues. Sri Lanka’s Fisheries Director General has accused the EU of trying to get out of the issue by hook or by crook because it had warned Sri Lanka against illegal unregulated and unreported fishing practices while not taking action against more than 1000 Indian boatmen. This is not a storm in a tea cup for the EU to ignore it, because thousands of Lankan fishermen and their families have been thrown into the raging waters of despair and destitution.
While Sri Lanka has the option of taking this issue to the United Nations Human Rights Council on the basis of thousands of fisherman being denied their human right to earn a livelihood, the Rajapaksa regime also needs to review its whole policy towards India.
Whether we like it or not, India is the regional super power fully backed by the United States, and it would be in our best interest to maintain cordial ties with India. This was the case during the era of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government in Sri Lanka, and the Indira Gandhi government in the 1970s. So cordial was the relationship between the two leaders that the issue over stateless people, Kachchativu and other disputes were amicably solved. Today we see President Rajapaksa and two of his brothers handling ties with India in one way, and the External Affairs Ministry either being sidelined or handling it another way. Sirimavo Bandaranaike may not have had much experience or skills in international geopolitics, but she had excellent advisers such as G.V.P. Samarasinghe and Arthur Ratnavale. Sri Lanka needs at this hour of crisis a seasoned and skilled diplomat who could take charge of Indo-Lanka issues and bring about solutions in the best interests of both countries.