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Time to solve fishing row

[Express Buzz, Saturday, 19 February 2011 09:17 No Comment]

When you look at the sea it seems to stretch free and wild into infinity, but that is a highly misleading impression. Coastal waters at least are clearly demarcated territorially and intrusions frowned upon. So while a trawler may follow the fish, crossing maritime boundaries in that pursuit is forbidden. That is the source of the current tensions between India and Sri Lanka. There have long been complaints about fishermen from both sides crossing the boundary to fish the other side, but the civil war in northern Sri Lanka had diverted public attention. Now that the war is over, the issue has acquired momentum again.

The present surge of interest should be seen against that backdrop, but it was the killing of an Indian fisherman last month that sent tempers boiling. The autopsy and ballistic tests show clearly that the bullets used were standard Sri Lankan Navy issue. Colombo might claim that was within its rights, but this is an outrageously excessive use of force. It is no way to resolve a problem that basically revolves around livelihood. The government must make it unequivocally clear that it will not allow trigger-happy sailors to use our fishermen for target practice.

That said, it must be admitted that there have been faults on both sides. There is a clear maritime boundary, and Indian trawlers have no business in Sri Lankan waters. They are violating agreements and conventions, and if the Sri Lankans take umbrage they can hardly be blamed. The latest instance of ‘arrests’ of intruders by fishermen from Jaffna appears to be a softer way of dealing with the issue, although such action is likely to have been approved, perhaps even abetted, by the authorities. It is obviously one way of emphasising territorial rights.

The Centre and state government are understandably exercised by this development, but they must appreciate that their fishermen are breaking the law, and there are consequences to that. This problem is a complex one of livelihood and of territorial rights, and election eve belligerence (polls in Tamil Nadu are only months away) is no way of dealing with it. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, too, has a constituency to answer and he cannot budge on this. This is not a time for muscular, voter-driven statements, but for civilised discourse and a search for a solution that will endure.

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