Months after limiting the arrests of allegedly poaching Indian fishermen, fearing they could be carriers of COVID-19, the Sri Lankan Navy has “resumed its raids” in the seas, an official statement said on Tuesday.
As many as 36 Indian fishermen were arrested by the Sri Lankan Navy on Tuesday, and five trawlers and fishing gear seized, following a special operation carried out by the Sri Lanka Navy and Coast Guard, a press statement issued by the Sri Lankan Navy said. The operations were conducted “adhering to the COVID-19 preventive guidelines”, officials said, adding that the apprehended Indian fishermen would be sent for quarantine for 14 days.
“Although operations to prevent poaching by foreign fishermen in Sri Lankan waters have been restricted since March, due to COVID-19 concerns, the Navy resumed its raids on poaching, considering the impact of this wanton act on the livelihood of the local fishing community and to protect the fishing resource of the country, as a result of a surge in the arrival of foreign fishing trawlers in Sri Lankan waters,” the Navy said.
Sections of Sri Lanka’s northern fishermen have recently raised concerns over the “return of” Indian trawlers, whose numbers had dropped in the last few years after Sri Lanka introduced stiffer fines and tougher laws to curtail foreign vessels in the country’s territorial waters.
However, as the Navy reportedly relaxed its surveillance of the northern seas in the wake of COVID-19, the number of Indian trawlers spotted in Sri Lankan waters began increasing, according to a section of fisher leaders in Jaffna.
India and Sri Lanka have agreed to hold bilateral virtual discussions on addressing fishermen’s concerns on both sides of the Palk Bay that have persisted for a decade. In its recent resumed operation, the Northern Naval Command of Sri Lanka intercepted three Indian fishing trawlers and held 22 fishermen in the sea area off the Delft Island, while 14 other fishermen were arrested off Mannar, in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province.
Fishermen’s associations in Rameswaram on Tuesday said they would abstain from work, indefinitely, from Wednesday, if the Sri Lankan government failed to release the Indian fishermen.
The associations have appealed to the Central and State governments to immediately take up the issue of the arrest of fishermen, along with their mechanised boats, by the Sri Lankan Navy on Monday, with their counterparts in the island nation, and set them free on humanitarian grounds.
Passing resolutions at a meeting, an association’s president, S. Emerit, said the fishermen from Thangachimadam and Rameswaram hamlets had set off to the sea for fishing on Monday after obtaining tokens from the Fisheries Department.
It was unfortunate that the Sri Lankan Navy had secured them, along with their boats and fish nets, for violating IMBL laws. The Centre should take it up with the Sri Lankan government and ensure that the fishermen are released immediately.
Meanwhile, Sesu Raja, a fishermen’s association leader, said they had information that Sri Lankan authorities had detained all the fishermen and kept them under quarantine. After 14 days, they would be produced before the courts and remanded in judicial custody.
At a time when the fishermen were finding it tough to survive, such harassment from the Sri lankan authorities only pushed the fishermen to the end of the road. “We are in a state of shock and anger, as the government in Sri Lanka has always been targeting Indian fishermen… the Centre should call upon the Sri Lankan government and rescue the fishermen,” he said.