India Sri Lanka Setup Working Group on Fishermen Issue

IAS Prelims 2023

India and Sri Lanka held Ministerial level talks on the important issue of fishermen. External Affairs Minister Mrs. Sushma Swaraj and Minister of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare Mr. Radha Mohan Singh met with their Sri Lankan counterparts Mr. Mangala Samaraweera the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Sri Lankan Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development Minister Mr. Mahinda Amaraweera.

The meeting took place in the backdrop of the Indo-Sri Lankan fishermen association talks for finding an amicable solution to the pressing issue. The issue of fishermen is related to building consensus on the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL), livelihood aspects and security.

After the war with the LTTE ended in 2009, restrictions were eased in the waters of Northern Sri Lanka. This provided an opportunity for the Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen to venture into waters for fishing and became their livelihood activity. However, the occasional and stray crossing of the IMBL by fishermen from the Indian side for fishing in Sri Lankan waters by using bottom trawlers became a contentious issue.

India and Sri Lanka had signed two agreements to settle the maritime boundary line in the Gulf of Mannar and the Bay of Bengal in 1974 and 1976. Demand by the fishermen of Tamil Nadu for their right to fish in the entire Palk Bay and not just in and around Kachchatheevu Islands was not acceptable to both India and Sri Lanka.

To settle the issue in an amicable way, New Delhi and Colombo reached an understanding in 2008 to put in place practical arrangements for dealing with bonafide Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen crossing the IMBL.

The two countries also agreed that there would be no firing on Indian vessels and Indian fishing vessels would not enter the Sri Lankan territorial waters. Because of this understanding, both the countries time and again released the arrested fishermen on good-will basis. However, the Sri Lankan government refused to hand over the fishing vessels to discourage bottom trawling. Since 2014, Sri Lanka has refused to release over 100 seized trawlers.

Both the government’s also formed a Joint Working Group (JWG) on Fisheries in
2004. But the JWG failed to explore possibilities of working towards a bilateral agreement for licensed fishing.

After the stalemated talks by fishermen of both sides, the two countries agreed on the setting up of a Joint Working Group on Fishermen. The delegations would include representatives from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, the Coast Guards and Navies of both countries. The 1st Ministerial Meeting of the JWG would be held in January 2017 in Colombo.

The Terms of Reference for the Joint Working Group (JWG) include expediting the transition towards ending the practice of bottom trawling at the earliest, working out the modalities for the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for handing over of apprehended fishermen, and ascertaining possibilities for cooperation on patrolling.

The issue of the release of detained fishing vessels will also be discussed at the first JWG meeting. Both countries agreed on setting up a hotline between the two Coast Guards and for the provision of communication tracking sets to the fishermen.

The developments indicate there is consensus on the issue at the highest levels between the two governments. However, the problem lies at the implementation level. The issue has to be amicably settled within India between the Centre and the State of Tamil Nadu at the earliest. The resolution of this important issue would be a big fillip to Indo-Sri Lankan relations, which is on a smooth trajectory in recent years.

The Sri Lankan President, Mr. Maithripala Sirisena was in New Delhi last weekend to attend the Conference of Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). He called upon the Indian President Mr. Pranab Mukherjee and discussed a range of issues of importance.

This was President Sirisena’s second visit to India this year. These high profile exchanges have brought Indo-Sri Lankan ties to an even keel and deepened the engagement between the two neighbours.