By Uditha Jayasinghe
COLOMBO, Dec. 16 (Xinhua) -- Tension between Sri Lanka and India has spiraled as both sides arrest fishermen crossing into each other's maritime boundaries with arrests increasing to hundreds on both sides and triggering calls for diplomatic intervention.
Just last week the Sri Lankan Navy arrested 140 fishermen and 23 boats within just two days. India, not to be outdone, arrested 98 Sri Lankan fishermen in just 13 days in December and with numbers increasing daily. Deeper tensions between Colombo and South Indian state Tamil Nadu seem inevitable. Tamil Nadu and the Sri Lankan government have traditionally had strained relations as the Indian State, home to the largest number of Tamils, has for decades empathized with their Sri Lankan counterparts and their struggle for equal political rights in Sri Lanka.
With the new rise in fishermen arrests this already tenuous relationship has been further strained with Tamil Nadu politicians accusing the Sri Lankan government of turning the narrow strip of sea dividing the two countries into "an open air prison."
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jeyaram is one of the most vociferous critics of Colombo's human rights record and last week sent a letter accusing Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of being too soft on the fishermen issue with Sri Lanka's government.
Even though discussions between the two parties have been mooted for next year, they are yet to get locked down, with fishermen getting caught in the middle.
Just days after the 140 Indian fishermen were arrested, Colombo hit back blaming Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jeyaram for keeping Sri Lankan fishermen "hostage" in order to achieve her political goals.
Deputy Minister of Fisheries Sarath Kumara Gunarathne said that by arresting Sri Lankan fishermen and holding them in Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha is attempting to win the support of Indian fishing communities.
Speaking in Parliament, the deputy minister claimed that the Tamil Nadu chief minister is demanding that Indian fishermen be allowed to poach in Sri Lankan waters using large scale fishing gear. The deputy minister said that the methods used by Indian trawlers to catch fish is damaging marine life in Sri Lankan waters when they cross the international maritime boundary.
He urged the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which is Sri Lanka' s main Tamil party, to raise the issue with Jayalalithaa as it is affecting the livelihood of fishermen in the North that is governed by the TNA.
Gunarathne also pointed out that attempts are being made to scuttle ties between Sri Lanka and India by using the fishermen issue. However he said President Mahinda Rajapaksa is keen to ensure ties with India and interaction with the Indian central government remain strong.
Rajapaksa himself earlier this month appealed to India's Navy Chief D.K. Joshi to end the deadlock between the two countries but little progress has been made.
Indian fishermen have also alleged that the Sri Lankan navy has attacked them, an accusation that is vehemently denied by the navy.
According to Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Minister Rajitha Senaratne, the industry loses an estimated 78.9 million U.S. dollars'worth of fish from illegal poaching from South India. The government has targeted 500 million U.S. dollars in revenue for 2013, but has had to keep its expectation low due to the significant losses from poaching.
Sri Lankan studies estimate that an average of 1,056 Indian boats cross into Sri Lankan waters illegally, which means 19.72 million U.S. dollars is lost from their shrimp catch alone.
In total Indian fishermen poach at least 65 million kilograms of fish each year. Satellite images suggest that the poaching is done in a highly-organized manner as the bulk of the boats operate in the night and scramble across the international maritime boundary line by four in the morning.
Colombo has previously defended its soft-peddling of the issue by pointing out that if reports are made to international bodies, most of South India's fishing industry will be shut down and this could not be allowed because of the close relationship enjoyed by the two countries.
As many as 400 fish processing plants subsist on this catch and hints have been made by the minister that strong political backing is given by the Tamil Nadu government.
Sri Lankan officials have complained that international bodies such as the European Union (EU), which is a key market for both India and Sri Lanka, have done nothing to stop the poaching.
However, EU spokesperson Oliver Drewes told local media that the EU is not empowered to address disputes involving one country with its neighboring countries.
"It is up to the relevant states to deal with bilateral disputes on fisheries in line with the provisions of international law," he said. "There are no double standards in the application of the Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Regulation which is based on non-discrimination."
Drewes said Sri Lanka had, however, not yet lodged an official complaint with the EU on the Indian poaching issue. "Illegal fishing threatens the livelihood of honest fishermen and it puts at risk the fish supply for the future. At the same time it threatens the environment and the livelihood of coastal communities," the EU spokesman said.
The skyrocketing number of arrests on both sides demand some form of diplomatic engagement to take place, say analysts
Previously both countries agreed that the way forward should be amicable and put in place joint committee with top officials from both countries to interact between the stakeholders but this has gone silent, while allegations and arrests have mounted.
Relations between Tamil Nadu and Colombo have become even frostier if that is possible, in the aftermath of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), for it is generally believed that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh boycotted the event due to pressure from Tamil Nadu politicians.
In such a sub-zero environment, dealing with fishing issues has become even more challenging, analysts believe, but it is evident that something must be done fast.
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