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India, Sri Lanka agree on releasing fishermen; to set up SOPs

Sri Lanka will immediately release 51 Indian fishermen from its custody and has agreed to consider returning a large number of fishing boats while India will free three Lankan fishermen, as per outcome of a high- level meeting between the two countries on the vexed issue.

“As result of the ministerial meeting, Sri Lanka is releasing 51 Indian fishermen and we are releasing three Sri Lankan fishermen. Most significantly, Sri Lanka has also agreed to consider our request for release of fishing boats,” External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Vikas Swarup said. The decisions were taken at the India-Lanka Ministerial level talks on fishermen in Colombo. In the talks, both sides agreed to a set up Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to expedite the release and handing over of fishermen in each other’s custody on completion of respective legal and procedural formalities.

Sri Lanka’s assurance to consider release of fishing boats is significant as a large number of such expensive vessels of Indian fishermen were in custody of the authorities of the island nation.

Though Sri Lanka has periodically freed Indian fishermen caught by its naval authorities, their boats are often not returned. The Indian delegation was headed by Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh while his Sri Lankan side was led by Fisheries Minister Mahinda Amaraweera.

Today’s talks followed the first meeting of the Joint Working Group (JWG) on fisheries last week. “As part of the Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) agreed to by both sides, it was decided to intensify cooperation in patrolling and to institute periodic interaction between the Coast Guard of the two countries,” a joint press communique said. It said an understanding was also reached to ensure that there was no physical harm or loss of life while apprehending fishermen by Navy and Coast Guard of the two countries.

“It was agreed to explore the possibility of introducing effective tracking systems for the fishing vessels and making the use of onboard communication equipment mandatory,” the communique said. The Ministers appreciated the efforts taken by the JWG in operationalising the “Hotline” between Indian and Sri Lankan Coast Guard, which would ensure quick decision making and response. The next meeting of the JWG will be held in Colombo in April 2017 to review the progress made in addressing the fishermen issues in a comprehensive manner.

In the meeting, the Sri Lankan side reiterated that the practice of bottom trawling needs to end at the earliest. “The Indian side assured that bottom trawling would be phased out in a graded time-bound manner within a practicable timeframe keeping in mind the capacity building of the fishermen who have to be diversified into deep sea fishing as well as other coastal fisheries activities including mariculture, pearl farming and seaweed culture,” said the joint communique.

The Sri Lankan side was briefed about the measures already instituted including the decision to construct a new fishing harbour at Mookaiyur in Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu, and the capacity building programme for Indian fishermen on deep sea fishing that commences tomorrow at Chennai and Kochi. There have been several alleged incidents of Sri Lankan Navy personnel firing at Indian fishermen fishing in the Palk Strait and seizing their boats. The Palk Strait, which is a narrow strip of water separating Tamil Nadu from Sri Lanka, is a rich fishing ground for fishermen from both the countries.

The fishermen associations of India and Sri Lanka had held talks on the issue here last month where the delegation from the island nation rejected demands for relaxation of norms for fishermen from Tamil Nadu to use fishing trawlers.