The agreement between India and Sri Lanka on establishing a >Joint Working Group on fisheries is a small step forward in resolving the dispute between fishermen of both countries. In fact, such a mechanism had been in place until a few years ago to address problems that arose whenever fishermen from Tamil Nadu were arrested by Sri Lanka. The points agreed on are important: a hotline between the Coast Guards of both countries, a meeting of the JWG once in three months, and a meeting of the fisheries ministers every six months. Welcome too is the commitment that there would be no violence or loss of life of fishermen. These measures are useful in getting Indian fishermen or their boats released from custody, but they are unlikely to have any immediate impact on the livelihood crisis facing the fishermen of northern Sri Lanka. Such a crisis may grip Tamil Nadu fishermen too one day, after the fishery resources in the Palk Bay are exhausted. The real issue is how long trawlers from Tamil Nadu will continue to fish in Sri Lankan territorial waters, and how soon bottom trawling is ended. The official statement after the talks between the foreign ministers refers to “expediting the transition towards ending the practice of bottom trawling at the earliest”. An agreement on this is crucial, but in the absence of a time frame there remains a question mark over a solution emerging.
Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen are firm on an immediate end to all incursions and are against seized Indian boats being released without legal process, even though they agree that the arrested fishermen should be released. In talks between representatives of fishermen held a few days earlier, Tamil Nadu fishermen had asked for a three-year phase-out period for their trawlers, and a deal under which they would fish for 85 days a year until then. This was rejected outright by the Sri Lankan side, which holds that the Indian vessels cause serious economic and ecological damage. One way of preventing boundary transgression is to find a livelihood alternative for Tamil Nadu fishermen. Equipping them for deep sea fishing is an option. For now, Tamil Nadu should show greater understanding of the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen, who are economically weaker and yet to fully recover from a devastating war, and agree to a more reasonable phase-out period. Sri Lanka, then, can look at a licensing system under which fishermen from both sides can fish on specified days using sustainable methods and permissible equipment. It is important that all sides recognise that there is a humanitarian dimension to the issue.