This was also the crux of the bilateral fishers'/fishing problem. From the Indian side, the Tamil Nadu fishers and the Governments have been stressing the need for 'safe fishing waters', with complaints of mid-sea attacks, allegedly by the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) continuing the post-war scene around the island-nation. Sri Lanka's concern, which has also been the concern of their fishers, particularly from the Tamil-North, was that their counterparts from Tamil Nadu were over-exploiting the resources and destroying fish habitats through excessive deployment, that too of bottom-trawlers and purse-in nets.
Bottom-trawling and the use of nets that sweep away both eggs and young ones along with the regular catch have been banned in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan fishers, while seeking ways out to increase their catch and improve their incomes, have not ever asked for a lift on the ban. Their demand, as well as that of their Government, has been for the Tamil Nadu fishers to discontinue destructive practices, which incidentally are acknowledged in private this side of the Palk Strait, but without much of an alternative source identified for diversification on the livelihood front.
The concern in Tamil Nadu, and hence that of India, has been about the mid-sea attacks. The joint statement had this to say on the subject: "The two sides noted that the Joint Working Group process on fisheries had a salutary effect. It was acknowledged that the Joint Statement on Fishing Arrangements of October 26, 2008 had since led to a decrease in violent incidents. Both sides reiterated the highest priority accorded by their respective Governments to the well-being, safety and security of fishermen from the two countries. Both countries agreed that the use of force could not be justified under any circumstances, and reiterated in this regard the importance of extending humane treatment to all fishermen."
To this end, as the statement pointed out, "Both sides exchanged views on various measures to manage the fishery resources in their respective waters. Emphasising the need for conservation of marine resources and protection of marine ecology, they agreed to the joint development of fisheries and marine resources in the Palk Bay area and the Gulf of Mannar. The two sides agreed to develop programmes for bilateral exchanges in aquaculture and fishing-related activities, including training in fisheries management, genetic improvement of cultured species, fishing technology, exchange of scientists, etc." In this context, "the two sides held discussions on a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Development and Cooperation in the field of Fisheries and agreed to work towards concluding the same at an early date".
Since the Delhi JWG in 2011, New Delhi has also been impressing upon other coastal States in the South, particularly the administrations in Andhra Pradesh and Odisha (formerly Orissa), and also the Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, to set up similar mechanisms for an expeditious disposal of such cases.
Sri Lanka Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne is however on record, and more than once, that their fishers were going into Indian waters at their own risk, and that the Government would not interfere on their behalf. It is not the case of Indian fishers, who often charge the SLN with attacking them over the past decades. Yet, Minister Senaratne was also in the forefront of the campaign to have the six Sri Lanka fishers freed from the Andaman prison.
The implication is clear. That it was the lack of fish resources around Kachchativu that forced the Tamil Nadu fishers to venture out deep into the Sri Lankan waters. On the livelihood front, it meant that they needed accommodation from, not confrontation with their Sri Lankan counterparts. At the same time, the continuing sighting of Tamil Nadu fishers closer to the northern Sri Lankan coast also meant that they were interfering with the livelihood of the locals, that too when the latter are just seeking to revive their lives after three long decades of war.
Whatever the reason, there is noticeably a fall in the decibel levels on the fishing issue in Tamil Nadu in recent months. While the affected fishing communities continue to present their case to the State and Central Governments through protests and boycott of fishing for days together, as used to be the case earlier, too, the State polity has since left it all mostly to the fishers, or to the fishermen's wing of the respective parties. In a related but independent incident, a section of fishers in Rameswaram in southern Tamil Nadu staged a protest recently after a few political party cadres had beaten up Thiru Kumaran Nadesan, the nephew-in-law of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in Rameswaram. Nadesan is a Sri Lankan Tamil and was in Rameswaram as part of his regular pilgrimage to Hindu temples in Tamil Nadu. The protesting neighbourhood fishers wanted the State Government to take action against the attackers of Nadesan, arguing that they would have to face the consequences mid-sea, for what was being done on land, unthinkingly.
To this end, the Colombo JWG, like the one before it in New Delhi, committed itself to encouraging the fishermen from the two countries to meet and discuss their problems and suggest workable solutions. At their repeated meetings over the past couple of years, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have also reiterated such a need. The two sides underscored the JWG decision when Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna called on President Rajapaksa only a day after the Colombo meeting. Over the past couple of years, there have been such exchanges between fishermen representatives from Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu, and some progress has also been made in the matter.
The Budget also proposed the setting up of a fisheries university in Nagapattinam in the south, and a chain of 20 cold-storages across the Tamil Nadu coastline. The former, when implemented, could also facilitate vocation-centric higher educational opportunities for fisher-children, so that they could think and work on non-traditional forms of fishing, storage and marketing, if only over a period. The setting up of cold-store chains is also aimed to help the fisher-folk improve their earning capacity.
The proposed MoU between the two countries, it is expected, will address these and other issues, too. As may be recalled, Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai, during his maiden visit to Sri Lanka last year, also offered New Delhi's assistance for the Tamil fishers in that country to go deep-sea fishing. The idea is for India to help them expand their earning-capacity beyond the limited catch that they may now enjoy under traditional fishing practices -- and support their efforts to revive their livelihood capabilities and sustainability to and beyond the pre-war period. When implemented, it would be akin to the Indian assistance for the farming community in the war-torn areas of Sri Lanka, where New Delhi offered agricultural implements, seeds, fertiliser, technology, etc, for them all to make a new beginning, post-war.