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Ivermectin – A possible win-win situation

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BY Dr. Sumedha S. Amarasekara

Ivermectin is a drug that has been increasingly occupying medical attention, following its possible role in the treatment and prevention of SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19). A news item in the The Sunday Times of 05.09.2021 says, ‘Ivermectin divides doctors while NMRA gives waiver to import drug to stop black market sales’.

Ivermectin:

Ivermectin was discovered in 1975 and had come into medical use by 1981. It is an antiparasitic drug that has antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. It is a well-known drug, approved as an antiparasitic agent by both the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) and the WHO (World Health Organization). It is on the list of the WHO’s Essential medicines. It is considered to be extremely safe in the recommended dose (0.2 to 0.4 mg/kg). Over the last 20 to 30 years the medical/scientific community has begun to investigate /appreciate its antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties (Kircik LH, Del Rosso JQ, Layton AM, Schauber J. Over 25 Years of Clinical Experience with Ivermectin: An Overview of Safety for an Increasing Number of Indications. J Drugs Dermatol. 2016 Mar;15(3):325-32. PMID: 26954318)

Ivermectin is also an extremely cheap drug. A 12mg tablet –the normal recommended dose for a 60 kg adult- is around US $ 0.03 -3 cents. The manufacturing cost is estimated at US $ 168 for 1 kilogram. Therefore, as one can work out, to manufacture 12 mg will cost: 168 divided by 1,000,000 and multiplied by 12 = US $ 0.002. Hence the bulk of the cost of the drug is in fact in converting the drug into tablets, packaging and distribution!

Evidence of the use of Ivermectin :

There is an increasing number of news items and journal publications showing the efficacy of Ivermectin’s role in reducing the mortality of Covid-19 and reducing the spread (prophylaxis) of Covid-19 among the population. A case-control study done at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences concluded that two-doses of Ivermectin prophylaxis at a dose of 300μg/kg with a gap of 72 hours was associated with a 73% reduction of SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) infection among health care workers for the following month (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7886121/). A meta-analysis published in June this year shows a probable reduction of mortality (i.e. deaths) by 62%, when Ivermectin was used as a therapeutic agent and a possible reduction of spread by 86% when Ivermectin was used as a prophylactic agent(American Journal of Therapeutics 28, e434–e460 (2021).

In fact the control of Coivd-19 in the Northern states of India and across a number of other countries has been attributed to the use of Ivermectin. An increasing number of countries has stated that they are adding Ivermectin on to their arsenal in combating Covid-19 (https://www.youtube.com/c/WhiteboardDoctor/playlists- Ivermectin and Covid-19).

However, the NIH (National Institute of Health) maintains that there isn’t sufficient data to recommend Ivermectin for or against, in the treatment of Covid-19, which is the same stance that has been taken up by the National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA) of this country as well. The WHO’s stand is still that, Ivermectin should not be used outside a clinical trial.

Conducting clinical trials:

To understand this apparent discrepancy between the results of the clinical trials and the stance of the NIH, WHO, etc., requires an insight into the interpretation of clinical trials. In today’s world conducting and interpreting clinical trials is almost a separate discipline on its own and is well beyond the scope of this article (and mine as well!).

However, an understanding of clinical trials and their interpretation is necessary to understand the clinical trials themselves and the decision-making process of these authorities. There is a variety of trials that could be done. The basis of all these trials is that one group of patients is given Ivermectin and the other group is not given Ivermectin. Following the trial, by comparing the mortality rates and spread of Covid-19 (the results) between the two groups, scientists would be able to say what effect Ivermectin has on the mortality and spread of Coivid-19. For the results to be valid, apart from the Ivermectin, everything else between these two groups needs to be the ‘same’, such as the male to female ratio of patients, other illnesses they have, other medication they take, smoking habits, alcohol consumption, etc. As one can see it is not easy to get two comparable groups. Thereafter, if one is treating for Covid -19, both groups need to have the same degree of sickness i.e. the average number of mild to moderate to severe cases should match up. If one is checking for prevention (prophylaxis) then their exposure to ‘known Covid-19 cases’ and ‘potential cases’ needs to match up as well. For example starting from, do they wear one or two masks, what type of masks, do they wear a face shield, do they maintain social distancing; all the time or some of the times, have they been exposed to any known Covid-19 patients, have they attended any weddings, funerals, parties, ‘get togethers’, do they live in apartments or individual houses, do they travel to work using public transport, do they shop on line or in person, etc… etc… As one can see this is even more complex than trying to match groups for treatment. This is what leads to the term Controlled. Thereafter, scientists need to make sure that every patient has an equal chance of either receiving the Ivermectin or not. In other words, there is no bias in who receives and who does not receive the drug. Because inadvertently one might be influenced by whom one gives the drug to i.e. the drug may be given to someone considered sick who needs the drug and not given to one with a milder disease. This process of randomly allocating the treatment leads to the term Randomised. From a patient’s point of view, they may feel psychologically let down by not having received the drug or psychologically boosted by receiving the drug. This can affect their response to the treatment. The doctors monitoring the patient can be influenced as well, if they know whether a patient is taking the drug or not. To eliminate this phenomenon everybody receives ‘the drug’- either the drug or the placebo –originating from the Latin phrase ‘I shall please’. Therefore only those who actually run the trial know, who gets what. So the person/s who gives the ‘drug’ and monitors the patients do not know what they are giving and neither do the patients know what they are receiving which is called a double blind. If all these elements are combined then we arrive at a randomised, double blind, controlled study which is considered as the golden standard.

Interpretation of clinical trials:

So the trial is done and the results are out. Now a complex issue remains as to how certain the scientists are that these results are due to Ivermectin and not due to a natural variation of events. To illustrate this we can look at a hypothetical situation of 10,000 Covid -19 patients that have an overall mortality of 2% i.e. 200 deaths. If we were to divide these patients into lots of 1000, it is extremely unlikely that these deaths would be distributed equally for every lot of 1000 patients. Some lots would have had more deaths, other lots would have had less, averaging out at 20 per group of 1000 i.e. 2%. Now let us assume that the two groups of patients selected of a 1000 each for the study, were to have 10 deaths in one group and 30 deaths in the other –averaging out at 2%. The critical issue to grasp is that, which group is which is not known. Assume Ivermectin was given to the group that was to have 30 deaths and as a result of Ivermectin the death rate was halved and ended up being 15 –a 50% reduction- this is 50% (5) more than that of the control group, so it could be erroneously concluded that Ivermectin does not work, when it actually does work. On the other hand Ivermectin may not actually work, but in this instance it was given to the group that was to have 10 deaths, so erroneously the conclusion is that Ivermectin does work, when in fact it doesn’t. If things were not as complex as it were, it is worthwhile to remember that this natural variation exists for all of the characteristics mentioned above between the two groups as well. This needs to be taken in to account.

So when scientists interpret data, these variations are taken into consideration and there are three main aspects that they consider. The first is the power of the study. That basically means, are there sufficient numbers of patients in the study for the scientists to be able to pick up a true difference that goes beyond the natural variation. The hypothetical study shown above, has very little power; as one could see that the results could not be interpreted due to the natural variation. Next is significance. That is a measure of allowing for chance to be involved in the result. For most studies the significance level, known commonly as a P value is set below 0.05 (P< 0.05). In this context it would mean that, there is less than a 5% chance that the decrease in mortality is, not due to Ivermectin i.e. the chance of Ivermectin causing the decrease in mortality is more than 95%. Thirdly, there is the concept of ‘a confidence interval’. Broadly speaking the narrower the confidence interval the more valid the results are.

Clinical interpretation and Ivermectin:

It is a deficiency of some of the above factors in the clinical trials so far conducted and their subsequent interpretation that have resulted in this stance of the various authorities. Therefore the vital aspect to understand in going forward is that the issue is not primarily to do with the results from all these trials (and other evidence) that have been conducted across the world; that have shown that Ivermectin does work. But, it is to do with the validity of these results. Therefore the view put forward by those who are guarded in their recommendation in the use of Ivermectin, is that the validity (certainty) of these trials is not strong enough for the use of Ivermectin to be recommended. Which of course is not the same as saying that Ivermectin does not work.

This view needs to be counterbalanced by the following facts. Firstly, there have been no significant adverse effects reported in any of the trials conducted using Ivermectin. Secondly, there is only an extremely limited number of drugs that have been recommended in the treatment of Covid-19 and none of these is ‘curative’ in the strictest sense of the word. Thirdly, though vaccination makes a significant difference to the outcome if one were to get Covid-19, it has not been as successful in preventing its spread.

Available options:

The WHO apart from the vaccines, has only recommended a few drugs to be used in the treatment of Covid-19. Remdesivir is one such drug. This is however, only to be used in the treatment of Covid-19 patients, essentially in a hospital environment. A vial of this drug costs over US $ 500. Not exactly a practical solution for us! Besides there are no clinical trials scheduled by the major pharmaceutical companies comparing Remdesivir (US $ 500) with Ivermectin (US $0.03) to be seen in the near horizon. Countries that have already used Ivermectin and are satisfied with its outcomes are not going to be conducting trials to assess a drug that they already find works.

One option is to evaluate all the existing evidence and start using Ivermectin. Prof. Saroj Jayasinghe (Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo) a highly respected clinician has already written to the Ministry of Health recommending that Ivermectin should be used in the treatment of Covid-19.

However, to take a national stance on a drug not approved by the WHO could be considered ‘irresponsible’ and may jeopardise our future with regard to health and safety issues on an international forum.

Therefore, another option would be to follow the guidelines of the WHO and conduct a clinical trial. The issue that would now cross one’s mind is given in this discussion; conducting a trial that would give valid results would be an extremely complex and arduous undertaking. How does one organise these matching groups etc..?

The solution:

An islandwide clinical trial with the use of Ivermectin.

With regard to an islandwide clinical trial, the numbers will be huge running into millions. This leads to an enormous power and thereby an incredible validity of the study. It also ironically means that the amount of extra data that one needs to record, to make sure that one has matching groups, etc., becomes minimal as well. As a point of illustration, if we were to have a randomised clinical trial–blind or not-across the 14,022 Grama Niladhari Wasams involving around 22 million adults and children, where half are given Ivermectin; the outcome would be dependent on the use of Ivermectin, as the chance of another confounding factor or natural variation affecting one group-of roughly 11 million- and not the other would be almost nonexistent!

Let us not forget that we are probably one of the few countries in the world where countrywide elections are held and the results are given within a day or so.

The WHO will/should give its blessing and if need be, provide help with the necessary expertise (and resources?) to conduct this trial.

This is essentially a win, win

and win situation

An acceptable clinical trial is required to provide the definitive answers-what the WHO, the NIH and our NMRA need. The medical sector would be happy to get the findings they require with a ‘controlled opening of the country’. The country needs to be opened in some manner to assess the prophylactic role of Ivermectin and the ‘government’ would find it feasible and more than willing to do so for economic reasons. The people would be happy to get ‘a drug that would/could work’ and more importantly an easily affordable one in their hour of need.

The advantage of an island wide clinical trial:

There are a number of important points that are extremely favourable in terms of conducting an islandwide clinical trial with Ivermectin.

1. Ivermectin is an extremely safe drug at the prescribed doses. It can be given to children as well, leading to a comprehensive island\wide clinical trial. This is particularly important as we still do not have a proper handle on vaccination when it comes to children.

Given that Ivermectin is already used as an antiparasitic agent and given to children, it can be used separately in an islandwide clinical trial to re-open the schools.

2. Ivermectin is an extremely cheap drug. This is most relevant to us in our current economic predicament. The cost of treating an adult with Covid-19 and /or using Ivermectin as a prophylactic drug (the loading dose and the required tablets for three months) on average will be less than Rs. 500 per person. As the dose is based on body weight, the cost will be less for children.

3. When used as a prophylactic drug, it has an extremely simple dosing schedule – a loading dose administered a couple of days apart then a maintenance dose once a week or at a prescribed interval.

4. The existing trials show a considerable impact from this drug. Based on the existing trials, if Ivermectin were to work, we should be expecting at least a 50% reduction of mortality and at least the same reduction in the spread of the disease, or there about. Therefore the effects of using this drug would be extremely easy to monitor.

5. A very important point, the prevention (i.e. prophylactic) aspect of Ivermectin, starts once the drug has got absorbed into the system – pretty much immediately. When one considers the vaccine, the first dose needs to be given, then a period of at least four weeks has to pass for the body to generate a sufficient immune response for the second dose to be given. Thereafter, a further two to three weeks need to elapse before one is considered to be immune i. e. close upon almost two months. With Ivermectin, if one takes the tablet at night, by morning one is ‘good to go’.

6. Finally, another significant and interesting aspect is that we would be able to evaluate the relative efficacy and interactions between Ivermectin and our vaccines. How does Ivermectin impact on those who have completed both vaccine doses or only had one or have not been vaccinated at all? Looking to the future, how does Ivermectin-given that it has therapeutic as well as prophylactic properties- compare with Vaccination?

The country still faces a dilemma of opening the country vs having an uncontrolled spread of Covid-19. The reality is that we will need to ‘reopen the country’. This is the best time while the country is in a lock down to organise an islandwide clinical trial. Plan what type of trial/trials we want to execute, formulate the primary and secondary questions that need to be answered, identify the significant sub groups, determine what monitoring processes are required, etc. Make necessary plans to reopen the country systematically with an islandwide clinical trial in place.

Hopefully, we shall see the light at the end of the tunnel.



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Arms race accelerating to new heights in Asia

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The arms race is being accelerated to unprecedented heights in the Asian region through the introduction by some major powers of what is being described as the hypersonic missile. China was the latest nuclear-capable state to test fire this missile which could be equipped with nuclear warheads and is, therefore, invested with a mass destruction potential. However, India is making it clear that it would not be outdone by China in this competition for superior weapons technology by developing a hypersonic missile of its own.

A recent news report said, among other things, of the Chinese experiment that, “China recently tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile which circled the globe before missing its target, demonstrating an advanced space capability that caught US intelligence by surprise.” It is the missile’s advanced space capability that is among its most notable characteristics. In this respect it is a clear upgrade over the inter-continental ballistic missile that has a very much lower strike range.

As specialists have pointed out, the ICBM has a parabolic movement and hits its target at an ascertainable distance on the same geographical plane from the launch site but it does not possess the capability of travelling around the globe. The hypersonic missile, in contrast, has this globe-encircling capability and ought to be more worrying in respect of its destructive capability. However, it is the weapon that has come to be prized by the major powers. Besides the US, China and Russia, some other states that are said to be in the running for developing hypersonic weapons technology are; Australia, France, Germany and Japan, besides India. That is, almost the entirety of the world’s regions is caught up in the race for developing hypersonic missiles, with, of course, grave implications for the security of the human race.

Considering that China and India are in an unrelenting arms race and also taking cognizance of the possibility of other regional powers, such as Pakistan, not standing idly by as this competition continuously hots-up, it could be said that South Asia’s development prospects in particular stand the risk of being progressively blighted. Needless to say, South Asia’s poverty would be greatly aggravated when defense budgets of the region’s key states acquire greater precedence over their social welfare budgets. Besides, issues such as climate change would come to be overlooked by these states, resulting in the region’s development prospects being further undermined.

Ideally, SAARC needs to take a collective policy position over climate change issues that would be surfacing at the upcoming Climate Change Conference in Glasgow but with the region’s foremost powers hardly talking to each other and arms taking precedence over ‘Bread ‘, climate change questions are unlikely to acquire the importance due to them at Glasgow and other prime climate-linked international parleys. As a result, social welfare in South Asia would be steadily imperiled in the days ahead.

Focusing on the numerous dangers faced by the SAARC region as a result of climate change questions coming to be overlooked by the relevant governments, the ADB warned some time back: “…the collective economy of six countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka – could shrink by up to 1.8 per cent every year by 2050 and 8.8 per cent by 2100, on average.”

However, it is not only the poor of South Asia who would be badly affected by the current global arms race. It would be correct to say that in degree to the proportion to which the arms race speeds-up worldwide, to the same extent would the poor everywhere be further impoverished and rendered vulnerable. This is on account of welfare budgets the world over suffering shrinkage in the wake of stepped-up arms spending. But the segment to suffer most acutely will be the poor of South Asia.

The continuing tensions between China and India on their disputed border areas would only aggravate the arms race between the Asian giants in the days to come. There are veritable eye-ball-to-eye-ball stand-offs between the armies of the two countries in the areas in contention. These tensions are currently focusing on the border India’s Arunachal Pradesh has with China. A few months back China-India tensions centred on the Ladakh region. Talks between the countries to sort out these disputes are ongoing but increasing insecurities would only stress the importance of armaments over development.

As this is being written, US President Joe Biden is heading for talks with the G20 grouping, which comprises the world’s most powerful countries. Biden would subsequently head for the climate change parley in Glasgow. Hopefully, the big powers would focus strongly on the current accelerating arms race and its consequences for the world. Put simply, they would need to discuss the ways and means of containing the arms race before it grows out of control. They would also need to understand, very crucially, that the major powers cannot credibly speak in terms of nuclear arms control and disarmament before they opt to systematically do away with the lethal, mass destruction arms which they already possess.

India and Pakistan possess a nuclear capability but they are not signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). From the viewpoint of these regional powers, this refusal to formally endorse the NPT is understandable because although some of the foremost powers of the Western hemisphere have signed the NPT, they are yet to say a clear “Yes” to nuclear disarmament. As long as the foremost global powers, such as the US, China and Russia, hold on to their nuclear weapons they cannot expect the prime powers of the South, such as India and Pakistan, to desist from developing a nuclear weapons capability.

Accordingly, the foremost powers could no longer gloss over arm control issues and pursue the relevant talks mechanically without connecting them to questions, such as, development, climate change and increasing worldwide insecurity. There is a logical link between insecurity, arms spending, underdevelopment and climate questions. The securing of sophisticated nuclear weapons is seen as a means to their security by powerful states, but they only create insecurities in their neighbours and the wider international community, who are in turn prompted to arm themselves with the same weapons. Thus is the arms race accelerated at the cost of human development and the environment. Slowing down the arms race is, therefore, imperative.

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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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Sri Lanka at EXPO 2020

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….a huge disappointment 

Rajitha Seneviratne’s description of the country’s pavilion, at EXPO 2020, in Dubai, has been endorsed by quite a few Sri Lankans who had the opportunity of checking out the Pavilion, themselves.

Briefly, this is what Rajitha had to say (The Island of October 12th):

“When I saw the pavilions of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and even Afghanistan (this country has no official exhibit but a private collector’s items), the SL pavilion is a huge disappointment, indeed. An EXPO is held to show the world where we are heading, more leaning on futuristic hope…not on showcasing only what we have/had….EXPO happens once in five years (Olympics is held every four years) and it’s a once in a decade opportunity. Where is the “WOW” factor in our pavilion? It is NOT about money but I got to know we have spent USD150 million – by any means quite a sum – and created a “pavilion” good enough to be a regular ‘stall’, at a local show, at the BMICH, in Colombo.”

And corroborating his statement are the following:

* Kumudu Abeyawardane:

I’m not someone who ever runs SL down. As messed up as we maybe, it is still the country that is home and I am one of those who chose not to leave, even when the opportunity existed.

“I was at EXPO 2020, in Dubai. I didn’t visit everything, but I visited almost all of Africa, and Asia, and, of course, Sri Lanka. What I saw was sad…as you entered there was a counter from the Ceylon Tea Board, with two very friendly girls who talked to everyone, who stopped to have a cup of tea, and did a brilliant explanation of Ceylon tea. Hats off to them! But, the experience ended there.

“The rest of the staff, except for one other lady, who was welcoming everyone, was sitting in corners, ignoring everyone….The SL brochure was only in Arabic. Someone forgot that this is an International exhibition.

“There were a few masks…a few photos that did nothing to bring out the magnificent beaches, or the heritage, or the wildlife we possess. Nothing about the development, or anything about the opportunities for investment!

SL was a sad contrast to even countries like Bhutan, or Congo, who were so eager to explain about their heritage.

“The US, and many other pavilions, were manned by student ambassadors – young and energetic, eager to talk, and happy to talk to people. Proud of where they come from.

“Let’s hope the authorities concerned will see this. EXPO 2020 is on till March 2022. We have five months to change things because we need both Tourism and Investments.”

* Akram Abbas:

“Totally agree with Rajitha Seneviratne’s article. We are living in Dubai and it was so disappointing to see the standard of our pavilion. The Afghanistan Pavilion is better than ours.”

* NM:

“I visited. Can’t explain how disappointed I am.”

In the meanwhile, it’s reported that the Saudi Arabia Pavilion, at EXPO 2020 Dubai, received 23,000 visitors in one day, bringing the total number of visits to over 200,000…at the time this article was written. Probably, it would have doubled by now!

The Saudi pavilion provides visitors with diversified content, based on four main pillars: nature, heritage, bio-community, and the economic opportunities that the country offers to the world.

And, what is our Pavilion, at EXPO 2020, offering the world!

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