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Ending the Dispossession of Northern Fishers by Indian Trawlers

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Prof. Oscar Amarasinghe and Dr. Ahilan Kadirgamar

(Chancellor of the Ocean University and Senior Lecturer, Jaffna University, they are also, President and Executive Committee member respectively, of the Sri Lanka Forum for Small Scale Fisheries – SLFSSF)

From the beginning of the early 1980s, trawlers, from Tamil Nadu, have been crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) and illegally fishing in the Palk Bay waters of northern Sri Lanka, damaging the ecosystem by bottom trawling, smuggling fisheries resources, belonging to the northern Sri Lankan fishers, damaging their fishing equipment, and undermining their livelihoods. Diverse types of interventions, by the two governments, dialogues between the fishers of the two countries, involvement of civil society actors, and others, have done little to prevent human suffering, economic losses and the volatile political situation disturbing the relations between two friendly countries that have emerged from this 40-year long story of resource piracy. The northern Sri Lankan fishers, who suffered 30 years of civil war have had enough and there is an urgent need to end this crisis.

Extracting and devastating resources

Both Sri Lankan and Indian fishers used to share the Palk Bay waters (historic waters) in the past, which they did in harmony. However, post-war developments saw radical changes in the structure and organisation in fisheries, the expansion of the market and the establishment of borders separating the Palk Bay region, all of which had tremendous influence on fisheries, especially on the type of technology employed (craft-gear combinations), target species, fishing pressure and area of operation. In this process of change, a tremendous increase in Indian trawlers was observed, which finally resulted in a serious decline of fisheries resources on the Indian side of the Palk Bay and crossing of the IMBL by the Indian trawl fleet to fish in Sri Lankan waters.

In northern Sri Lanka, over 37,000 fishers operate more than 11,650 boats, the majority of which are 18 feet FRP boats propelled by outboard engines of 8 to 25hp. Including post-harvest sector employment and dependents, about 200,000 people in the Northern Province are dependent on the sector. They don’t stand a chance against the 2500 odd 30-60 feet trawlers from Tamil Nadu propelled by 70-190hp outboard engines. Indian trawl boats are crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (which was established in 1974 and 1976) to fish on the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Bay. These boats are poaching in Sri Lankan waters in large numbers as well as extracting and devastating the resources belonging to Sri Lankan fishers. Although the process of poaching commenced in a situation where Sri Lankan fishers in the North had limited fishing opportunities due to the civil war. Today the issue has become one of the most important economic and political issues in the country, because with the end of the war in 2009, the Sri Lankan fishers in the North has commenced fishing.

The Palk Bay Pirates

Trawlers come at night, three days a week, smuggle colossal amounts of fisheries resources, and damage Sri Lankan fishers’ nets, causing enormous financial losses. To avoid the trawlers, Sri Lankan fishers often stay at home instead of going out to sea, thus loosing valuable fishing time. They are forced to adopt less-profitable, near shore operations and/or resort to destructive fishing practices (trawling, wing nets, purse seining, dynamiting, etc.). The social institutions of the fishing communities, particularly fisheries co-operatives present in every village, have been weakened due to the long decline of fishing incomes, where a fraction of such incomes are normally contributed to run the co-operatives. Thus, participatory management and coastal support for fishing communities have been undermined. The long disruption of fisheries after the war has made it difficult for fishing communities to plan for the next season, and many are slowly moving out of the fishing sector to other forms of day wage labour.

In the early years, arrests of Indian trawlers for poaching were made for security reasons, because the Sri Lanka Navy, which was fighting a war, was less interested in fisheries issues. But since the cessation of the war, the Navy arrested the intruders for illegal entry into Sri Lankan territory. The arrests were made under the Foreign Fishing Boat Regulations Act No. 59 of 1979, Immigration Act of Sri Lanka and the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The impact of the arrests in preventing Indian trawl intrusion was neutralised by the arrests of Sri Lankan multiday fishers for poaching in Indian Territory, and detained in Indian prisons. Often, through the intervention of the embassies of the two countries, the Indian trawler fishers arrested and detained in Sri Lankan prisons were released in exchange for Sri Lankan fishers detained in India.

Early Interventions

In trying to deal with this escalating crisis, the two governments drew up an MOU in 2005, which made provision for the establishment of a Joint Working Group (JWG), which among other things, would deal with issues of poaching and arrests. Although several rounds of discussions were held since 2008, no significant developments were reported, other than agreeing that fishers in both countries should be able to pursue fishing activity in a safe, secure and sustainable manner. However, some progress was achieved in the front of fisher-fisher dialogues. Several such dialogues have taken place in the past, initially organised by ARIF (Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fishermen) and later with the active involvement of the two governments. The most important of such dialogues took place in August 2010, where the Indians agreed to stop mechanised trawl fishing in Sri Lankan waters within a period of one year, during which time, only 70 days of trawling were to be allowed. Unfortunately, the governments failed to back up these decisions, and the promises were not kept. Further dialogues took place under state patronage in March 2011 and January 2014, which did not produce any fruitful results.

Post-2015 developments

In April 2015, President Maithripala Sirisena convened a meeting with the various arms of the state and the northern fisher leaders on the request of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). This high level meeting and continued engagement gave the fisher folk the confidence that their plight was a matter of serious concern to the Government, and initiated bipartisan engagement on the issue, leading to significant progress. The Parliamentary debate in October 2015 on the ecological and socio-economic damage by Indian trawlers, growing awareness through media coverage and the greater involvement of actors in Colombo, raised the fisheries conflict to the level of a national issue, rather than a problem confined to the North. Fisher leaders also took their issue to court and actively sought legal recourse towards prolonged confiscation of trawlers, and a ban of trawling in Sri Lanka. An Amendment to the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act banning bottom trawling in Sri Lanka was passed by Parliament in July 2017.

On another front, the Indian Government, in 2015, made unambiguous statements that Tamil Nadu trawlers should stop cross-border fishing. Furthermore, the increased media attention on the devastation caused to Northern Fishers exposed Tamil Nadu’s hypocrisy. The Tamil Nadu Government called for INR 1,520 crore (USD 225 million) package to convert the trawler fleet to deep sea vessels under the ‘Blue Revolution Scheme’., of which INR 450 crore (USD 66 million) was approved by the Government in Delhi, and the rest was to come from bank loans. By September 2019, close to 590 trawlers have applied for this facility. Although concerns were raised about whether such a conversion to deep sea fishing and buy back is realistic and sustainable, the engagement from Tamil Nadu pointed to an acknowledgement of the unsustainability of trawling and poaching.

An important development was the setting up of a Joint Working Group in November 2016 during ministerial talks held between India and Sri Lanka (revitalising what was formed in 2005), which would meet every three months and a meeting between the Ministers for Fisheries every six months.

The Terms of Reference for the Joint Working Group (JWG) included: i. expediting the transition towards ending the practice of bottom trawling at the earliest, ii. working out the modalities for the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for handing over of apprehended fishermen, and iii. ascertaining possibilities for cooperation on patrolling. Both Governments agreed on setting up a hotline between the two Coast Guards. Agreement was also reached on the request by the Fishermen Associations that there should be no violence and no loss of life in the handling of fishermen by the Navies and Coast Guards of the two countries. They agreed to encourage the Fishermen Associations of the two countries to meet every six months to take further their dialogue. Yet, many of the decisions taken at the bilateral Ministerial talks were not followed through towards a permanent solution.

As a result of campaigns of small scale fishers from the North, the work of researchers and activists and engagement with the governments of the two countries, and more importantly, the enforcement of the Foreign Fishing Boat Regulations (amendment) Act, a significant reduction in the incidence of Indian trawlers illegally fishing in Sri Lankan waters was noticed by 2018. Yet, the Northern fishers did not even have a breathing space for a new beginning, because the country was hit by the Covid Pandemic in early 2020. Very little action was paid against the poachers and there has been a resurgence of the incidence of Indian trawlers poaching in Sri Lankan waters, drastically affecting fishing livelihoods, which were already being threatened by the pandemic. The aggravated current situation, continues to dispossess the small scale fishers of the North; they were devastated by the war until 2009, crippled by the Indian trawlers in the decade after the war and impoverished by market disruptions with the Covid-19 pandemic since March 2020.

Moving forward

The decision to arrest and retain trawlers that are crossing over the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) by the Sri Lanka Navy, particularly since 2013, places significant pressure on the Tamil Nadu establishment. Yet, the lower levels of arrests over the last two years (71 vessels were arrested in 2017 while only nine were arrested in 2020) is in part due to fears of the Covid-19 virus spreading through arrests. Evidently, expanding deterrence is of paramount importance in dealing with the present crises, which needs strict enforcement of the Foreign Fishing Boats Regulations (Amendment) Act, No. 01 of 2018 to arrest foreign vessels in Sri Lankan EEZ which has provisions for imposing heavy fines on trawl owners ranging from Rs. 4 – 15 million. The Trawl Ban Act. No. 11 of 2017 should also be implemented. Given that Indo-Sri Lankan relations are currently of great importance, where the priorities for both governments are in furthering trade, investment and defence ties between the two countries, deterrence is to be employed carefully. There is the need for a broader strategy that asserts pressure at different levels to ensure that Tamil Nadu addresses the issue of poaching by their trawlers; particularly given that fisheries is a devolved subject in India. Pushing for joint patrolling operations by the Indian and Sri Lankan Navy could be strategic. The Indian side needs to be convinced to install vessel monitoring devices on their trawlers to track their location. However, these efforts will prove futile unless the incidence of Sri Lankan multiday boats violating Indian maritime boundaries is brought under control.

Raising the issue both by the Sri Lankan Government towards the Indian Government and the TNA and Tamil political actors towards Tamil Nadu would be strategic, given the political realities. Strong emphasis should be made on the devastating impact of resource smuggling on the livelihoods of Northern fishing populations of Sri Lanka. Strategies to work with the newly elected Government in Tamil Nadu in relation to the fishing conflict will be necessary. Engagement by the Tamil fishing community and community leaders from the North will prove important for challenging a change of stance by Tamil Nadu Government and its leaders.

Thousands of nets worth millions of Rupees have been lost in the past decade, with no single fisherman ever being compensated and with no insurance being available. Fishers now deserve financial reparations for their lost assets and for lost fishing days. Financial reparations can also be asked from the Tamil Nadu fishers, the Tamil Nadu government or the Indian government. If such demands, however, are not met in the short term, the Sri Lankan government itself may need to find the required funds. A campaign for reparations for northern Sri Lankan fishers will help consolidate the demand for a permanent solution to the fishing conflict.

The larger aim of interventions in the Palk Bay should be to establish a sustainable, comprehensive, and socially just fisheries. Current data on the state of fish stocks in this region are highly deficient. Similarly, very little scientific knowledge on the damage caused to the environment by trawling is currently available. There is an urgent need for NARA to intensify research in the Palk Bay. This can provide the foundation for developing a rational and legitimate framework for fisheries governance. Such research will also continue to weigh on the need for a permanent solution that ends bottom trawling in the Palk Bay.

While the fisher-to-fisher negotiations conducted in Chennai in 2010 were initially widely acknowledged as promising, the follow-up was poor. Similarly, the Ministerial level talks in November 2016 were significant and even led to considerable changes, however, again follow up was poor. There is a need to build on the tremendous gains of those talks, regardless of the change of Government.

At the current moment there should be a clear plan recognising the realities in Sri Lanka and India, including the political changes in Tamil Nadu and the Covid-19 pandemic to work through a process of consensus building, but with firm resolve to end bottom trawling. There should be no setback on issues agreed at the Ministerial level talks in November 2016, and calls for licensing cross border fishing should be rejected outright.

Concluding remarks

The measures suggested above will be important steps towards resolving the Palk Bay fisheries conflict. Such measures along with the recent national attention on fisheries can also lay the foundation to ensure sustainable governance and management of the natural resource base and the people who depend on it. The establishment of effective interactive platforms (e.g., strengthening fisher community organizations, co-management platforms) and clearly laid down rights and responsibilities of participating actors, along with consultation, collaboration and coordination of all concerned actors can lead to effective and sustainable policies. Indeed, sustaining small scale fisheries in addition to solving the Palk Bay fishing conflict will encompass dialogue among relevant actors, capacity development, law enforcement and empowerment of coastal communities.



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Impressive Indian scene…

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Some of the live streaming events, on social media, have brought into the limelight quite a few impressive performers, hailing from India.

Just recently, I checked out the live performance of Stephanie Sutari, and her sister Desiree, and found the duo very entertaining, and so the spotlight this week is focused on the singing sisters.

Stephanie says it’s her very supportive parents who encouraged her to go for piano/music classes, at a young age of eight, as a hobby. Later, she joined the church choir and participated at various singing competitions.

Before long, Stephanie was lending her voice for voiceovers and jingles for advertisements.

Ssys Stephanie: “I only considered it as a career option, in my late teens. So I completed my post-graduation, in Media, but decided to follow my heart and take up singing, full time.”

However, coming from a non-musical background, it was a challenge for Stephanie to make her way into the industry, but, she says, she was determined and extremely driven.

“They say, the universe falls in love with a stubborn heart, so, initially, I stayed in my comfort zone and started singing, professionally, in English only…but living in Mumbai – the heart of Bollywood, I decided to utilise my resources and get out of my comfort zone; you may call it fate (I believe it’s my grandparents blessings), I was offered a break with one of the best entertainment bands in India – Rodney and the Band, at the age of 22. Yes, I became a full time Bollywood singer and started touring with them, all over the world.”

Talented Stephanie branched out, from singing only English songs, to enhance her repertoire by including songs in over 10 languages – Telugu, Gujarati, Punjabi, Konkani, Marathi, Hindi (Indian languages), Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and a few African languages, like Zulu, Duala.

She has performed for over 1000 shows, all over the world, including Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Dubai, Bahrain, Tanzania, Ghana, Uganda, Lagos, and Indonesia.

“I love to travel and if I’m not travelling on work (which is extremely rare), I travel on vacation….My most favourite travel destination is Europe, with Switzerland and Paris being right on top.”

Stephanie goes on to say that the best part of her family gatherings was the sing-along sessions and she then realised how music had the power to uplift people’s mood.

“So, when the pandemic hit, I started an official Stephanie S page, on Facebook, to help people go through the tough times, with a little hope, and went I live, once a week, to bring people, and their love for music, together. The response was overwhelming ‘cos I reached out to so many people, from all over the world, from the comfort of my home. The interesting fact is, I got my best friend Mathew Varghese, on board, who controls the entire audio and video technicalities, sitting in another country, Kuwait, online.

“My little sister, Desiree, who has a magical voice, and moves that drove my viewers crazy, soon became an integral part of my live performances, as well, and today she’s more in demand for her charisma and melodious singing. She has just started her musical journey but has a promising future in music ahead of her.”

Referring to her future plans, Stephanie said it’s to make a mark in the global music industry, by showcasing her talent.

And, her message to the next generation: “It’s important to follow your dreams, but it’s also important to complete your education first. Knowledge is Power,”

Winding up our chit-chat, Stephanie said she has never been to Sri Lanka but is eagerly looking forward to spending a vacation in the ‘Wonder of Asia’ as soon as time permits.

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Dissemination of ‘real time’ meteorological information to domestic aviation community

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On July 3, 1971, during the first JVP insurgency, while I was working with the then Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF), based at China Bay, in Trincomalee, I reported to the squadron early morning and was told by our Officer Commanding the No. 3 Maritime Squadron, Flt Lt Denzil Fernando, that I was assigned to fly as ‘Second Dickie’ to Sergeant-Pilot Tony (Tuan Mohamed Zachariah) Dole in a de Havilland Dove with serial (registration) CS 406. We were to go to Vavuniya to pick up the then Government Agent (GA), Neville Jayaweera, and take him to Ratmalana (RMA).

Our trip to Vavuniya was uneventful, except that the runway, unused for many years, had been cleared and secured by the Army, with soldiers standing at regular intervals along the full length of the runway. After the GA boarded the plane we got airborne and set course for Ratmalana. It was a bit cloudy when we started. Soon the clouds got heavier, and we had to fly through the clouds to maintain our course. Not long afterwards, the weather became worse, and turbulence in the clouds caused our eight-seater D.H. 104 Dove to shake like a leaf in the wind.

The twin-engine transport plane didn’t have Airborne Weather Radar (AWR) to avoid rain clouds. AWR works on the principle that the more turbulent a cloud, the greater the mass of water it will support. This will ‘bounce’ off radar signals emitted by the aircraft, and will be proportional to the cloud thickness, thereby providing an image of the turbulence, within the cloud mass, as indicated on a screen in the cockpit of the aircraft.

Without AWR, our only option was to reduce speed to make the ride as comfortable as possible for the GA (and us), not unlike when driving on a bumpy road, and then ‘eyeballing’ the weather and hoping for the best by avoiding the more intense rain clouds. The only weather forecast reports available to us were for China Bay and Ratmalana airports, but no information whatsoever on observed weather en route.

By now, flying in cloud, we had lost sight of the ground and were unsure of our position. We were avoiding clouds to the best of our ability. The vertical development of some of the clouds were in excess of 10,000 ft at some places. So we decided to go below the cloud base, which was fortunately higher than existing terrain, so we could maintain sight of ground or water to pinpoint our position. In aviation parlance, this is known as a ‘visual fix’ of position.

We also flew further west towards the coast to reduce the chances of rising terrain (hills). Soon we spotted, through the rain, the unmistakable coastline, of Kalpitiya and Puttalam, enabling us to positively establish our position. We then continued to follow the coastline at low leve,l to RMA, flying under the jet aircraft approach path at Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), Katunayake, and towards Colombo.

The air traffic control towers at Katunayake and Ratmalana were also reporting heavy rain showers. We found a patch clear of cloud, south of the Ratmalana airport, over Bolgoda Lake, and began circling there. But Sgt. Dole had an ace up his sleeve. He told me that showers present under cloud cells usually come in waves that transit the airport, and the best bet was to wait and land between the showers that we could see well from our vantage point in the south.

Sure enough, as soon as one rain shower passed the airport, we were well positioned to turn in and land in relatively clear weather with only a slight drizzle, before the next downpour hit.

This was exactly 50 years ago. We didn’t have radio navigational aid, except the Non-Directional Beacons (NDBs) at China Bay, BIA and Ratmalana that operated on low to medium frequency and were affected by bad weather (thunderstorms) and thus rendered useless in our circumstances described here. In fact, the signals emitted by Radio Ceylon were sometimes stronger! In addition, there were two Very High Frequency (VHF) Omni Radio Range stations (VORs) at BIA and RMA, but our aircraft was not equipped with a receiver that could be used in conjunction with the VORs. They were meant for the ‘big aircraft’. Other countries had Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) associated with the VOR, but not Ceylon.

Therefore, pilots had to navigate by a process called ‘Dead Reckoning’, which involved estimated ground speed and time over known ground features (cities, rivers, roads, railway lines and buildings for example). ‘If you reckoned wrong you were dead!’ To add insult to injury, we didn’t have ‘real-time’ observed meteorological information available to us in terms of cloud base and intensity of rain to help us make informed decisions as to what route to follow.

Today, technology has improved worldwide in leaps and bounds. We have ‘smart’ cellular phones and tablets with Global Positioning Systems (GPS). We have capabilities of providing better facilities to domestic air traffic, consisting of landplanes, seaplanes and helicopters. For many years we have had a radar station positioned on Pidurutalagala, the highest point in the island. In fact, we can even monitor certain areas of South India.

Unfortunately, real-time meteorological information is still not available as Sri Lanka has not invested in a communications system capable of providing such information. More than 15 years ago, Singapore installed a radar system at Changi Airport that was capable of giving information to pilots on the intensity of rainfall relative to their airports. We are told that Sri Lanka’s Meteorological Department invested Rs.200 million, in 2013, on a Doppler radar system which, in their so-called ‘wisdom’, they wanted to site at Deniyaya. But it was never installed, and the equipment is now in storage in damaged condition after it went ‘down the pallang’ while being transported there!

Today, there are many free websites which provide highly accurate satellite-based weather forecast information at a click of a button. It is also available on ground to flight dispatchers. It is therefore sad to note that the weather forecasts, produced by our Meteorological Department (who should be playing a key role) are not used by the aviation community, almost certainly due to a lack of confidence on the part of pilots and aviation operations officers. It should also be noted that in Sri Lankan domestic aviation, along with the satellite weather forecasts, the actual observed weather, must go hand in hand. Even this is still not provided by the Met’ Department. I believe that this is a major lapse.

The following incident illustrates the stark reality of what the current situation is for domestic operators. A few days ago, a commercially important passenger (CIP) was flown to Anuradhapura by a domestic air charter company to attend celebrations commemorating the two-year anniversary in office of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The outbound flight to Anuradhapura was uneventful. For the return flight to RMA, the flight dispatcher based at Ratmalana had to plan the flight. While the general weather forecast was rain, standard practice relied on the observed actual en route weather by police stations on the way: at Galgamuwa, Nikaweratiya, Kuliyapitiya, Divulapitiya, Palavi, Chilaw, Wenappuwa and Negombo.

All these observers are local police personnel, not qualified aviation or meteorological professionals. Consequently, their very subjective ‘met reports’ are along the lines of “the sky is dark”, “it is about to rain”, “it is now drizzling” or “heavy showers”, from which the flight dispatcher has to form a mental picture of what the en route weather is. One wonders what the insurance implications would be if an accident occurs.

To continue, the hapless pilot at Anuradhapura, who was in touch with his dispatcher on his cellular phone before departure, had to evaluate the risks and make an informed decision. Like Sgt. Dole and I did 50 years ago, he had to get airborne and ‘play it by ear’, so to speak. So, having reached the western coastline, he followed it all the way to Ratmalana. As a matter of interest, I was able to follow the progress of this single-engine light aircraft through one of the free apps on my smartphone, via satellite. That is what prompted this article.

I regard it as an absolute shame that in the last 50 years the Colombo Met’ Department has been unable to provide useful ‘real-time’ meteorological observations to domestic air operations. Yet to satisfy the international aviation community in the gathering of weather data, they have observation stations at all of Sri Lanka’s international airports. But it is a case of thus far and no further. Scrutinising the Meteorological Department’s website will reveal that they have weather observation stations in Kankesanturai (KKS), Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Mannar, Trincomalee, Anuradhapura, Mahailluppallama, Puttalam, Batticaloa, Kurunegala, Kandy, Nuwara-Eliya, Badulla, Diyatalawa, Pottuvil, Ratnapura, Katunayake, Ratmalana, Galle and Hambantota. These stations are connected to the World Weather Watch (WWW) through a Global Telecommunication Network (GTS). I do not know whether they are automatic as in other parts of the world, or require a qualified human observer.

The sad part is that this real-time information is not available to domestic aviation operators (of both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters) who have to rely on amateurish police station observations and information. If the observed real-time weather is brought online with a good communications network comprising more observation stations established at all the other domestic airports, weather updates will enhance and synergize air safety in real-time.

I do not know who is responsible for this unacceptable state of affairs, but certainly the Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL), Airports and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL), the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), and the ‘keepers’ of some of the domestic airports should coordinate with the Met’ Office and have real-time weather reports available for all domestic flights.

More recently it has been reported, in the local media that the Colombo Met’ Office and Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) have signed an agreement for two more weather radar stations, to be sited at Puttalam and Pottuvil, to replace the one that never ‘got off the ground’ at Deniyaya. Will JICA be able to help in establishing automatic observation stations accessible to domestic aviators, to determine and report on such vital meteorological data as cloud base, intensity of rain, wind direction and speed, and temperature, as a fundamental component of good communication?

It is sad that the ‘end users’ are never consulted in important matters such as these.

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The ‘Summit for Democracy’ and its welcome stress on governance quality

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A ‘Summit for Democracy’ conceptualized and organized by the US is expected to be conducted on December 9th and 10th in virtual mode and some major world powers, such as China and Russia, have not been invited to it. Such developments ought not to prompt any sections that matter in this connection to look askance at the US over its choice of invitees in consideration of the fact that politics are very much at the heart of such decision-making. It could not be otherwise, since politics are the ‘stuff and substance’ of international relations.

It should not come as a surprise too if the aim of the US in calling this forum is to project its power and influence globally. This should be expected of a super power. The forum could have the effect of accentuating international political cleavages and this too must be expected. Realpolitik is what we are up against in this summit to a considerable degree and it could not be otherwise.

However, the hope of progressives the world over is likely to be that the essentials of democracy would come to be discussed and stressed, despite these serious constraints posed by politics. It is also hoped that the quality of democracy would receive adequate scrutiny and ways worked out as to how accountable governance could be advanced. In the absence of these inputs the summit would come to nought.

Democratic opinion the world over considers democracy to be chief among the US’ soft power assets. If the US political leadership thinks so too, the opportunity has come its way through the summit in question to prove to the world that this is really so. For example, the US cannot shy away from the need to make its territory safe and welcoming for all its ethnic communities, particularly minority groups.

The US should ideally be guided by the principle that every form of life within its boundaries ‘matters’. Such questions are at the heart of democratic advancement. The resolution of issues of this kind by any purported democracy has a close bearing on the quality of democracy manifested in it.

Reverence for life is at the centre of democracy. In this connection it is discouraging to note that students and teachers are continuing to be gunned-down in some US High Schools. In one such recent incident, two students and a teacher had been reportedly killed in a High School in Michigan, while scores of others had been injured. As a self-professed advanced democracy, the US is obliged to re-examine its Gun Laws and explore the possibility of doing away with them, so as to protecting life and nurturing a pro-peace culture within its borders. However, the US’ obligations by way of advancing the quality of its democracy do not end here. Much more needs to be done in a range of issue areas, but Gun Laws ought to be prime among its concerns.

India and Pakistan are two key states in South Asia that have been invited to the summit and this ought to be a high moment for them. Since South Asia’s advancement in a number of areas depends crucially on these regional heavyweights the hope of progressives is likely to be that the people of South Asia would gain eventually through the engagement of India and Pakistan in these deliberations on democracy.

The fact that Sri Lanka has been left out of the summit ought to be worrying for it. Fire-breathing nationalist opinion in Sri Lanka is likely to be of the view that this counts for nothing and that the US is in no position to sit in judgement over other countries on issues relating to democratic development. These nationalists are also likely to vociferate that Sri Lanka could depend on its ‘all-weather friends’ in Asia for support in a number of areas and that Western support is not of much consequence for its sustenance.

But such positions fly in the face of hard political and economic realities. To begin with, no major power in Asia would come to Sri Lanka’s rescue at the cost of its own political and economic links with the West. These powers’ economic wellbeing is integral to their having cordial ties with the US, for instance. China cannot afford to neglect its trade and investment ties with the US and vice versa. China would not risk too much for Sri Lanka’s sake.

Besides, there is the case of Uganda to consider. It has scarred itself badly by mortgaging some of its real estate to outside powers. Today, the latter are reportedly staking a claim to what they seem to have lost by forcibly occupying the territories concerned in Uganda. Small countries, such as Sri Lanka, have no choice but to relate cordially with all the major powers.

Of the subjects that are expected to come up for discussion at the summit, ‘Advancing respect for human rights’, ought to be of prime importance. This is at the heart of democratic development and it ought to be clear that countries that do not respect fundamental human rights could not be part of any discussion on democracy. Accordingly, authoritarian states cannot sit at conference tables of this kind. It ought to be equally plain that ‘one man rule’ or one-party rule could not figure in these talks since such dispensations are antithetical to basic human rights.

Currently, even in the West, the suitability of the US to head the summit in focus is being vigorously questioned and there are acceptable grounds for this. While it could be argued that the US is a flawed democracy, it needs to be remembered that the foremost democracies are growing, evolving and dynamic systems and are not static and stagnant in nature in those cultural environments that favour their adoption. Accordingly, democracy cannot be rigorously defined. Essentially, it could be defined only in terms of what it is not. For example, political systems that do not nurture individual rights cannot pass muster as democracies.

Thus, the summit offers opportunities for a fruitful discussion on what must be done to keep democracy ticking. Ideally, major democracies in Asia too need to conduct such parleys on ways of benchmarking democratic advancement. India, for one, could take on this responsibility, being one of the most advanced democracies in our region.

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