Derailing ties – and fishing for trouble?

The last time it happened and not very long ago, Sri Lankan officials blamed India, initially. Now, when there is a railway accident, the engine drivers blame Indian rail engines, in their turn. Railway authorities have done well to nip such claims in the bud, and decisively so. The trend needs to be reversed.

Not very long ago, a host of India-funded projects remained on paper owing to delays on the Sri Lankan side. The list included railway projects in the war-ravaged North or the Sampur thermal power plant in the East, or other developmental schemes elsewhere in the country. Delays remain in clearing India-funded housing scheme for war victims.

Indian interlocutors have often heard in Colombo that China is a preferred developmental partner as it came up with purposeful time-lines and completed projects ahead of those deadlines. India cannot lay claim to such fast-tracking of projects.

In clearing proposals from its side, Sri Lanka can follow the Chinese example in the case of India, too. Democracy it may be, yet Sri Lanka’s politico-administrative structure provides for it, a la China. India’s is a different story but that cannot continue to be told for any more time to come.

Ad hocism of the politico-administrative kind can spoil the game for the two South Asian neighbours. It is particularly so when the issues involve sensitive policy issues, where accommodative, alternative processes have been set in motion already. The two nations and their governments need a period of cooling-off to put past prejudices and perceptions to permanent rest.

According to media reports, Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senarathne has vowed not to let Indian fishermen ‘poach’ in Sri Lankan waters. The reiteration comes on the eve of the meeting of the Joint Working Group (JWG) on fisheries, set up to address the issue. Minister Senarathne said that the JWG will meet in Colombo, on October 7. 

The Minister’s claims that poaching by Indian fishers accounted for a daily of loss of SL Rs 5 billion is contestable. His coming down so very heavily on poaching and so very unilaterally goes against the letter and spirit of the Joint Declaration signed between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi in June 2010.

The Declaration referred positively to the ‘Joint Statement on Fishing Arrangements’ of October 2008. Coming as it did a year after the conclusion of the ethnic war, the Declaration put at rest whisper campaigns in Colombo that the 2008 arrangement was war-specific and needed to be reviewed. This position was reiterated earlier this year, at the JWG meeting in March and later when External Affairs Minister G L Peiris visited New Delhi in May 2011.

As coincidence would have it, the more recent assertion by Minister Senarathne came a day after the two leaders had met in New York and reiterated their committed position to let the fishers from the two countries to continue with negotiations at their level. This is not to say that the Sri Lankan Government and fishers do not have a case against excessive exploitation by Indian fishermen, or against their use of vessels and gears banned in that country for home-grown fishers.

If anything, Minister Senarathne should be patting himself on the back for facilitating the resumption of the fishers’ negotiations last year, when certain ground-rules were laid down. He has a case that the Indian fishers have not kept their word. It is another matter for him to go back to the position as prevailing in the pre-negotiations, pre-Declaration days, when again instruments involving the two Governments did exist for discussing the issue.

Rail engines and fishing are not the only problem areas in bilateral relations, if one left out the more complex and mostly domestic concerns on the ethnic front in Sri Lanka. In New York, no mention seemed to have been made to the progress not made on the CEPA front.

Before being aborted at the last minute in 2008, CEPA was to have heralded a new chapter in bilateral relations at all levels. If there are hiccups they have to be re-negotiated but without further loss of time.

“A strong, united and prosperous Sri Lanka is in India’s interest,” Indian High Commissioner Ashok Kantha said in Colombo the day Minister Senarathne was talking, elsewhere.  The relationship between the two countries was being strengthened by “robust, multi-dimensional linkages”, he said and cited the examples of economic and security linkages.

“We have sought to upgrade our defence engagement in the recent past, especially after the conclusion of the armed conflict,” the High Commissioner said further. Only days earlier, the two navies had concluded their combined exercise, off Trincomalee. Yet, the kind of cooperation could be felt, if not touched, at the height of the war, too.

Shared as the strategic concerns and security cooperation are in a complex geo-political matrix, shared also are other issues of common concern at the level of the common man. JVP’s Lal Kantha is not India’s Ashok Kantha. He can be expected to blame Indian agencies for the inherent inadequacies of his party that has now contributed to a third split in as many years.

Responsible ministers instead have to talk with responsibility – that too when Sri Lanka needs its friends more than possibly at any time in the past. As Minister Senarathne himself later pointed out, the incidence of Sri Lankan fishers detained in India for poaching has gone down. That is where you begin, not end…

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