These bottom trawlers have already destroyed the sea bed in the Indian waters, so that is why the Indian fishermen keep entering Sri Lankan waters
among these fishermen are those that smuggle drugs so when these fishermen are arrested, I never intervene as they have done something illegal
Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda has been in the midst of controversy lately after he allegedly claimed that permits will be granted to Indian fishermen to fish in Sri Lankan waters. The Minister however has denied this claim stating this was merely an idea given to him and Tamil politicians were now misusing his words to gain political mileage among their vote banks in the North. He further insisted all Indian fishermen who enter Sri Lankan waters will continue to be arrested and presently he sees their arrest as the only solution to the longstanding Indo-Lanka fishermen issue. Following are excerpts of the interview -
Q You have recently been quoted in some media publications that you will allow Indian fishermen to enter Sri Lankan waters after a permit is granted to them. Is this even ethical for you to do?
This is a wrong statement. My words have been taken out of context by some Tamil politicians and media who have ulterior motives to tarnish my image. What I have been saying from the beginning, even before I became the Fisheries Minister is that I am against the Indian fishermen who carry out bottom trawling. This has nothing to do with India and Sri Lanka diplomatic ties, but this particular issue of bottom trawling is destroying our sea bed. These bottom trawlers have already destroyed the sea bed in the Indian waters, so that is why the Indian fishermen keep entering Sri Lankan waters. If this issue continues we will all be at a losing end as when there is no more fish left in the waters, what will they catch? Back in May 1986, I visited India and returned to Colombo in May 1990. Even then I was against this bottom trawling issue and had raised my concerns openly. Then some years back, I had taken our northern fishermen to the Kachchatheevu festival, twice, and held discussions with the Indian fishermen, urging them to stop bottom trawling in Sri Lankan waters. Over the phone as well, several times, I have spoken to Indian politicians, high commissioners and the fishermen organisations. But we could not settle this matter. Even after Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as the Prime Minister, under his leadership we all travelled to New Delhi. Even there I gave a proposal to the Indians how we could amicably settle this matter. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Foreign Minister Dr. Jaishankar both agreed we will start talks. But unfortunately soon after, we were struck by COVID-19, so we could not continue discussions. But I continued to speak to them over the phone and even when Dr. Jaishankar visited Colombo I had a discussion with him but we could not reach a decision to settle this matter amicably. Recently 54 Indian fishermen and 5 boats were taken into custody for coming into Sri Lankan waters illegally but after a few days, under a diplomatic gesture we released the fishermen. That is when I again said we need to settle this row once and for all and I sternly said no to bottom trawling once again. We will not allow this at any cost. But there are country boats which can be used by the fishermen. So one of the plans that I received is to allow those Indian fishermen who are using country boats to enter Sri Lankan waters, under strict monitoring by Sri Lankan navy and coast guards, where we can then have an entry point, and through that if they come we will control them. This is just an idea, it is not a decision. There are several ideas people tell me and this idea was proposed by some fisheries organisations. Because daily Indian fishermen enter our waters and destroy our sea beds and nets and this affects our Sri Lankan fishermen’s livelihoods.
Q So if this was only an idea as you say why did the South get so agitated over it?
Because my words were taken out of context by some media organisations and Tamil politicians and the South thought of it in a wrong way. Southern fishermen know how much I work for them as the Fisheries Minister. Our southern fishermen enter unofficially into the Arabian sea and since we are harsh with the Indian fishermen, the Indian navy also arrest the Sri Lankan fishermen.But among these fishermen are those that also smuggle drugs so when these fishermen are arrested, I never intervene in this matter as they have done something illegal. But when the fishermen are arrested because they entered illegally for fishing, I always speak to Dr. Jaishankar and immediately settle this matter. I always balance this. I maybe a Tamil speaking politician and a minister but I am a Sri Lankan citizen. I am a fisheries minister not only for the North and East but for the entire country. There are 15 fisheries districts so I have to balance all. As a Minister I have laid some conditions for all these districts and the number one condition is no bottom trawling. Even the President and Prime Minister support me in this matter and have said no to bottom trawling.
Q There are allegations that presently the Indian fishermen who enter Sri Lankan waters are also adding to the spread of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka’s North. How do you plan to tackle this issue?
Well now for 61 days they have stopped fishing. Because it is a breeding period for the fish. All fishing has stopped. Maybe one or two fishermen may illegally enter, but this is an Indian government policy. But I have told the navy to be on alert. I am even willing to go to the extent of going into the seas and monitoring this situation myself because end of the day I will continue to work for the Sri Lankan fishermen and see how their livelihoods are not destroyed and how they are not affected even health wise. Most of these double standards against my work is being thrown by Tamil and opposition politicians who have ulterior motives. During Yahapalana government, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said to shoot on sight if any Indian fishermen are caught in Sri Lankan waters. Later he said he was joking. Then over this latest issue that I will allow Indian fishermen to enter local waters, the JVP trade unions came and met me and I clearly told them this was an idea only. This is not a decision. When I say something it is an issue for all, but when others say, it is completely alright. Even certain media organisations wait to attack me purposely maybe because I am a Tamil Minister.
Q They attack you because even if it is an idea, you still openly said it and this matter has touched some raw nerves.
Ideas can be openly said, just like several other ideas. Even the Indian side has given us ideas like for example they wanted us to allow their trawlers into Sri Lankan waters for two or three years after which they will allow them to go high seas. We said no. So accordingly this was also only an idea.
Q Will such an idea not cause a concern among northern fishermen? Will they not surely object?
Whatever ideas which will be implemented will first be discussed with the local fishermen and fishermen organisations. No decision will be taken without consulting them. Even the fishermen are confident that I will not take any decision without consulting them. Many people are misusing my words and making me look like a killer and murderer. But I am not like that.
Q So what are your instructions at the moment if Indian fishermen enter Sri Lankan waters?
If Indian fishermen enter our waters we will arrest. There is no doubt in that. I have informed the navy.
Q What is the solution to this matter now?
If they come we will take them into custody. That is only the solution I see presently. But I am continuing my discussions with the Indian government and even the Tamil Nadu politicians because they are also involved in this as they feel this is an easy way to earn money. Under a diplomatic gesture I am releasing the Indian fishermen who are in our custody but in the future, I will not do that. There are hundreds of boats in our custody still and although the Indian side asked us to release I will not do so. Even the 54 fishermen I released, I bargained with the Indian side to release our southern fishermen who were in Indian custody. They agreed and our fishermen were released. So talks will continue as we cannot fight with India over this matter. That was Prabhakaran’s method to always fight. That is not how a responsible government can behave. Now that there wont be any fishing for 60 days, I will try to settle this matter with the Indian side.
Q Do you think Tamil politicians are instigating this matter?
Yes they think this Douglas Devananda, with my past, cannot do anything. And they feel this fishermen issue is my issue alone. Because they have a good relationship with India. Even TNA Leader R. Sampanthan’s family is still there. So they do not want to antagonise the situation with India in any way. When some media said I will allow Indian fishermen in local waters, they suddenly woke up and said how could I allow this? They made some noise because otherwise they will lose their vote bank here. This has always been their practice to oppose whatever I do.
Q Does not this make you unpopular among your supporters and vote bank in the North?
For the last 27 years I am continuously in Parliament. So my vote bank is still very much there. But this is not enough. Even at the last election I told the people, if they give me four to five seats in Parliament, overnight I can settle all their problems, whether it is a political issue or development, or day to day issues, their land issues, missing peoples’ issues or even those who are in prisons. But for that I need seats. But last elections I got only 2. This is because my image continuously is being tarnished by other Tamil politicians who are against me working for the Tamil people and sorting all their issues. But I am the only senior Tamil politician who has continued in Parliament continuously for 27 years. I have my people backing me. My policy is to settle issues with whoever is in power but other Tamil politicians like in the TNA only want to make sure these issues drag and never end. This is the same TNA who before the elections said President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a killer, a white van abductor, a dictator. But this same TNA say they now do not mind holding talks with the President because he is turning out to be a true democratic leader.
Q How has it been working with the Rajapaksas?
I have no issues. Whatever proposal I take to the table, the President and Prime Minister agree with me.
Q Lately there have been allegations within your MPs that corruption is rampant in this government. Are there cracks forming within this government?
In this government, there are several parties. For example you take myself and Sarath Weerasekara. I am for the provincial councils and he is against this. We both openly voice our opinions. This does not mean we have any issues. The government will make the final decision. Several parties will have individual opinions but the final decisions will lie in the hands of the government. Differences will exist as it is a majority government. But so far I see no issues the way you say.