The India-Sri Lanka Joint Working Group on Fisheries will meet “as soon as possible” to sort out outstanding issues on fishing in the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Bay, Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai said here on Monday. Meetings between fishermen associations from the two sides will also be resumed shortly.

Mr. Mathai met Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa ahead of embarking on a three-day visit to Sri Lanka, which ended on Monday. A meeting of the joint working group had to be called off for “logistical reasons.”

Mr. Mathai said that the fishermen's issue was a question of livelihood. “The whole issue has to be studied as a livelihood matter…The issue has to examined in terms of what is sustainable in the long run,” he said.

Speaking to representatives of the Indian media stationed here, Mr. Mathai said that he had raised the fishermen's issue in his discussions with Sri Lankan leaders. “We have emphasised the need to maintain a peaceful atmosphere in this area,” he said and added that he had stressed the need for investigating the reports of attacks on Indian fishermen to ensure that these did not recur.

Mr. Mathai said that Sri Lankan government had told him that its Navy was not part of the incidents of attack on Indian fishermen.

In Jaffna, the government agent brought to his notice that fishermen in the district were aggrieved over the fact that they were not able to fish in their own waters because of encroachment from the Indian side. “In the narrow area between India and Sri Lanka, the prospects for fishing are finite. Both of us need to look at ways in which we can encourage deep sea fishing. In the interim, we need to find solutions to the problems of Indian fishermen… In the deeper areas of the Indian Ocean, there are fishing grounds which are, at the moment, largely exploited by fishing fleet of non-littoral countries,” he said.

Mr. Mathai held discussions with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickramasinghe, representatives of Tamil political parties, and other civil society leaders during his visit.

Two projects

Mr. Mathai, who had come here for a familiarisation visit, said that he was “encouraged” by two of the projects that he saw — the Northern Railway project executed by the Indian public sector company IRCON, and the rehabilitation of the Kankasanthurai harbour. “The restoration of rail links will be a strong confidence-building measure for the restoration of normalcy...Kankasanthurai has the potential to become the point to bring in cargo to the entire north, instead of bringing it all the way from Colombo by road,” he said.

On the housing project, which envisages building/repairing 50,000 units in the war-ravaged northern province, he said that the “progress was somewhat slow than what was originally conceived.” He was of the opinion that some “further refinement” of the project was required and the company had assured that this would be done. “We would like to inaugurate the first wave of occupancy of these houses in the next few months,” he said.