Talks aimed at resolving the thorny issue of Indian fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters ended without agreement yesterday with a joint statement failing to note India’s response to Sri Lanka’s position that both countries respect the International Maritime Boundary Line.
The joint statement issued at the conclusion of the two-day meeting of the Joint Working Group on Fisheries in Colombo noted that Sri Lanka had “stressed” on the matter, but did not record India’s response to Sri Lanka’ position. In diplomatic parlance, Sri Lanka’s main demand that India ensure that its fishermen do not stray into Sri Lanka’s territorial waters drew no positive response that warrants a mention in the joint statement.
Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne told the Sunday Times that Sri Lanka had always insisted on maintaining the inviolability of the IMBL. “We cannot have any compromise over the Maritime Boundary,” he said.
The Chennai-based Hindu online, however, quoted an Indian official as saying India accepted Sri Lanka’s position on the IMBL. “While this was accepted by the Indian side, both sides also agreed that there was a need to manage the situation till such time that arrangements were made to discourage Indian fishermen from crossing over,” the official said.
The talks failed to reach accord on a Memorandum of Understanding on Development and Cooperation in the field of fisheries. The statement said the two sides “agreed to work towards concluding” it at an early date.
The Sri Lankan delegation was led by External Affairs Ministry’s Additional Secretary Kshenuka Senewiratne while the Indian delegation was led by External Affairs Ministry Joint Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla.
The 11-member Indian delegation also included representatives from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and a host of state agencies, including the Indian Coast Guard.
The joint statement said that both sides reiterated that the highest priority be accorded to the well being, safety and security of fishermen from the two countries and agreed that the use of force could not be justified under any circumstances.
The statement also said the two delegations discussed measures for the expeditious release of bona fide fishermen of both countries, but Indian reports said India could not give an assurance on its own, because the matter involved the Indian states where the majority of Sri Lankan fishermen get arrested – either when they are indulging in poaching or because of mechanical failure of their boats. States, led by Tamil Nadu have evolved a mechanism to work out arrangements for genuine fishermen. Andhra Pradesh and Odisha too have set in motion the process to create such mechanisms.
On Tuesday 13 Indian fishermen were detained by the Navy off Trincomalee, but were released two days later as a ‘goodwill gesture’, but nine Lankan fishermen who were detained by Indian coastal guards continued to remain in custody.
The inconclusive talks ended just a day ahead of a four-day visit to Sri Lanka by Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna. The fishing issue is expected to figure in his talks with Sri Lankan leaders.
Earlier India had suggested that the Palk Strait waters be made a joint fishing grounds, but Sri Lanka rejected the proposal and instead called for joint patrolling of the maritime boundary.