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Keeping an Even Keel

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Excerpted from the memoirs of Chandra Wickramasinghe, Retired Additional Secretary to the President

Prologue

Having worked in the public service for 44 years, of which, 22 were spent working for four Presidents, retirement came almost imperceptibly in November 2005.

In these reminiscences, I will endeavour to describe anecdotally (to sustain the reader’s interest), some of the more interesting episodes in my career in the public service from 1961 to 2005. I also propose to deal with the distinct and distinguishing personality traits of the Presidents, and Ministers I had the privilege of serving (reflecting on both, their particular strengths as well as their foibles). I shall additionally, attempt to outline the principles, norms and standards that guided me in the work I performed, as a public officer working under these Heads of State , Ministers and Secretaries to Ministries .

My appointment as Assistant Commissioner of National Housing

It is certainly no easy task going back forty odd years trying to recollect one’s feelings,the excitement and the elation one would have experienced, getting into a good staff position in the Public Service. I only recall being happy but not particularly exhilarated on receiving the news of my appointment by PSC letter under the hand of the Secretary of that office.I recall distinctly that I was, at the time house –bound and too miserably ill with chicken pox, to jump for joy on hearing the good news.

After the mandated quarantine period, which I spent productively, reading Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’, I reported for work at the Department of National Housing where I was to function as Assistant Commissioner. My boss, the

Commissioner, was Mr. K.M.D. Jayanetti, a jolly bureaucrat with an impish sense of humour , who on seeing me remarked that my face did not seem too much disfigured by the attack of chicken pox.

He outlined the work of the Department as comprising the construction of Flats and Housing schemes (the State Engineering Corporation was the contractor) for middle income and lower middle income categories and maintaining them once they were given out on rent. He also said that he was assigning me to work initially, in the different sections of the Dept. for a period of one month in order to acquaint myself with the work I will have to handle.

 

Induction training within the Dept.

Accordingly, I worked in the different sections and obtained first hand, an insight into the inner workings of the Department. I was also able to interact with the officers of the different branches who were at the time a smart, intelligent and disciplined lot, thoroughly conversant with and fully involved in, the tasks assigned to them.

I further, spent this interim period gainfully, studying the National Housing Act very closely and reading all the Departmental circulars. Later on when I was transferred to other Govt. Depts.,the first thing I did before assuming duties, was to obtain a copy of the relevant Statute and study it thoroughly and also read up all the available Departmental Circulars. This gave me the confidence I needed to take on and handle whatever assignments given to me.

This was the standard approach I was taught to follow religiously by some senior mentors of mine in the Public Service, who assured me that once this was done, one was reasonably well equipped to handle competently the different situations and the problems one would have to face in the particular Dept./Ministry I was posted to. Leelananda de Silva, my good friend from school days and who was already holding the post of District Land Officer in the Public Service, was indeed a veritable source of guidance and inspiration to me at this time.

 

 

Taking decisions within the policy guidelines laid down

A salutary lesson I learnt from my boss Mr. Jayanetti, was to take decisions boldly within the broad policy framework laid down. When I once submitted a file asking for a direction from him, he called me up and told me that unless it was a matter which was outside accepted policy, I should get used to taking decisions on my own. I still recall gratefully his friendly advice “Do not hesitate to take decisions, where you can justify such decisions, I shall cover you if the need arises.” I have worked on this principle right through my career in the Public Service and I hardly had occasion where I was found fault with by my superiors, for doing anything irregular or for infringing policy guidelines.

The work assigned to me in the Housing Dept.was quite heavy as it involved work relating to Housing schemes and Flats in the Colombo District. There were four other senior colleagues in the Dept. (two of whom ended their careers as Secretaries to Ministries and one as the Public Trustee), who were ever prepared to lend a helping hand to me whenever I sought their assistance – M. Ramalingam, Senerath Dias, C Wijayawickrema and Malcolm Samarakkody.

I remember working very hard to clear the files which used to keep piling up as flat dwellers in particular, seemed to have endless problems, particularly with their immediate neighbors, for which quick solutions were demanded by their importunate persistence that I should personally interview them and hear their complaints. I remember taking bundles of files home and attending to them till late in the night. I recall clearly one particular instance where I had to sign a building contract with the State Engineering Corporation (SEC), I think it was for the construction of the Tower Block near the sea front in Bambalapitiya, running into millions of rupees. Mr. A.N.S. Kulasinghe, who was Chairman SEC at the time, met me and pleaded with me to sign the contract in the absence of the Commissioner and the Deputy Commissioner, as the former was out of the island and the latter was indisposed.

Having checked with the Legal Branch and the Finance Branch on the correctness of the documentation, I placed my signature to the document on behalf of the Dept. much to the relief of Mr.Kulasinghe who made haste to proceed to the construction site to commence work on an auspicious note! Although I was somewhat apprehensive signing such an important contract document in my capacity as Asst. Commissioner, I was also conscious of the fact that I was on good legal grounds in doing so, as the National Housing Act defines Commissioner to include a Deputy as well as an Assistant. I was guided here by the sound advice given by Mr.K.M.D.Jayanetti who instilled in me the abiding principle that I should not hesitate to take decisions as long as I was acting within the law and accepted policy.

 

Minimum political interference

One redeeming feature at the time was that there was hardly any political interference. The few MPs who met you, were very courteous and very much unlike their pompous and impossibly overbearing counterparts of today, and were prepared to abide by the rules applicable, once these were explained to them. In this sense, I must say that working in the Public Service was relatively much easier and pleasanter in the nineteen sixties than in the seventies and thereafter. As long as one worked within the framework of the rules and regulations laid down, one was safe from being upbraided even by one’s Head of Dept.

 

The Public Service Commission

Authority and control over the Public Service before 1972 was exercised by the Public Service Commission through gazetted delegation. All public servants were acutely conscious of this fact, as much as others including politicians, were painfully aware of it, much to their discomfiture. Working in a Govt. Institution was further, relatively easy at the time, as there was discipline and strict conformity to established norms of conduct and behaviour by all concerned, including Ministers.

Furthermore, financial control was rigorously enforced and cases of malfeasance and corruption were few and far between. I remember the time I worked in the Dept. of Agrarian Services in 1966, where the Deputy Commissioner while inspecting the cash collections of a Shroff in the Dept. and finding a shortage of Rs.5/= , issued on him a letter of immediate interdiction. This certainly did not mean that the Public Service was totally devoid of corruption. What it did mean was that if and when defalcations and frauds were detected, swift disciplinary action followed, with the punishment meted out being very severe. This kind of summary disciplinary action kept both the laggards and the miscreants on their toes.

 

Department of Agrarian Services

From 1966 till 1968, I worked in the Dept. of Agrarian Services. Working in the Dept. of Agrarian Services was particularly rewarding as the range of services offered to the public was so variegated, encompassing manifold functions. The purchase and milling of paddy, minor irrigation works, paddy lands (implementation of the Paddy Lands Act),Crop Insurance and the distribution of fertilizer to paddy farmers, were the primary functions of the Dept.

This was the time of Prime Minister Mr.Dudley Senanayake’s ‘food drive’ and the entire Dept. was geared to meeting targets and deadlines for expanding paddy production and the cultivation of subsidiary food crops. Mr. J.V. Fonseka, a fine administrator cast in the classic mould, who was the Commissioner of Agrarian Services, spared no pains to meet the paddy production targets set by the Prime Minister and inspired the officers in the Dept. to work equally enthusiastically and diligently

The work assigned to us was very challenging and onerous as there were many employees in the Dept., like store keepers, who were defrauding the Dept. and accumulating private fortunes. They had to be kept on their toes by surprise inspections of paddy stores. My good friend and colleague, the late Chula Unamboowe, had a penchant for this and his surprise inspections were dreaded by store keepers. Circuits had also to be made to paddy growing areas to check on claims made for damage /loss to paddy harvests following droughts /floods.

I found the work enjoyable as I was able to visit remote areas in outlying Districts and interact with rural farmers. These official circuits which were done in the company of the Divisional Officer, made my work pleasurable as well as satisfying, particularly where we were able to recommend the release of funds for repairs to anicuts and minor irrigation systems, thereby ensuring uninterrupted Maha and Yala cultivations which were a great boon to paddy cultivators who were dependent on water stored in these small village tanks for their paddy crops.

Officers like V.T Navaratne, Eric de Silva, Chula Unamboowe, D Wijesinghe, Rex Jayasinghe, I.K. Weerawardene, Garvin Karunaratna, Neville Piyadigama, Ernest Gunatilleke, with their pioneering efforts, made a signal contribution towards ensuring the smooth delivery of Departmental services island-wide. Being a key Dept. in the agricultural sector, it was no easy task organizing the multifarious activities it had to engage in, covering the entire island. The success achieved in this endeavour was for the most part due to the dedication combined with the exceptional ability, shown by these officers in discharging the tasks entrusted to them. I found this Dept. one of the better Depts. I had served in, as far as the challenging tasks one had to contend with, were concerned.

 

The Land Settlement Dept.

The Land Settlement Dept.in which I did a two-year stint was one of the oldest Depts.,with deeply entrenched colonial traditions. In fact,I was somewhat bemused when I first went to the Dept. to see fading photographs of imperious looking British Royalty hanging on the walls of the office. No one seemed to bother about them and they remained on the walls up to the time I left the Dept. on transfer.

The Land Settlement Dept. was located on the third floor of the old Treasury building, almost cheek by jowl with the prestigious office of the Public Service Commission, where all the interviews for staff appointments in the Public Service including Ceylon Civil Service (CCS) interviews were held . I recall how, so many University friends used to haunt the place, waiting to be interviewed for staff appointments. It was in that sense, to us at least, quite a hallowed place. I still remember how some people who came in shirt and tie without the required jacket, had to borrow jackets from others waiting to be interviewed or had finished their interviews. Some of these borrowed jackets were at times, ill-fitting and expectedly, sat somewhat awkwardly on the wearers.

About one year following my assumption of duties as Asst. Settlement Officer, I was surprised to receive a telephone call from Mr. L.J. de S Seneviratne who was a Senior Civil Service Officer and who functioned as Secy/ PSC, at the time. He addressed me as Mr. Wickramasinghe and politely enquired whether he could come and meet me in the course of the day. As his office was just next door, I respectlfully said, ” Sir, you can meet me anytime, even now”. He thanked me and said he would come straight away. In a matter of minutes the imposing personality dressed in ‘full kit’, as we used to say, walked in and I stood up respectfully and greeted him asking him to take a seat.

Mr. Seneviratne sat down and addressed me, to my utter consternation, as ‘Sir’ and went on to say that he was responding to the notice issued by me, under Sec 4 of the Land Settlement Ordinance (LSO), on his wife (who was Sir Francis Molamure’s daughter).He said that his wife had inherited hundreds of acres of land on ‘Sannas pathra’, some of which had already been settled under the LSO and she was now staking her claim to the balance lands that had still to be settled. He then submitted several Sannas for my perusal.

I informed him that I will have to check on the authenticity of the Sannas pathra with the records in the Dept. of Archives before I could make a Settlement Order on her claims. What was funny to me was that, when I was respectfully addressing him as ‘Sir’, which to me was the proper form of address of a Junior to a Senior Officer, Mr. Seneviratne was himself calling me ‘Sir’ during the conversation. It made me even wonder whether Mr.S. addressed me in that manner, out of deference to my position as Inquiring Officer before whom he had to give evidence. I further wondered whether he did so as he knew that a Settlement Order made under the Land Settlement Ordinance was final and could not be set aside even by the Supreme Court. Whatever may have been his intentions, after I recorded his evidence, he thanked me and left.

 

Soon afterwards , Mr Seneviratne retired from Service

I met him once in a crowded lift in the Central Bank building. The poor man appeared lost. He looked around to see whether people would recognize him. Sadly, no one did. When I greeted him, he beamed, I thought this was just ‘the way of the world’. When powerful individuals cease to wield power and influence, they are ignored and are cast into the ‘limbo of forgotten things”. That’s just, ‘in rerum natura’(in the nature of things). This inspired me to pen a few lines of verse on the incident:

 

The Bureaucrat Who Was – ‘All that we see or seem, is but a dream within a dream’.

 

He gets into the elevator slowly,

Eyeing the seated elevator boy intently,

Getting no response,

He looks around quietly, Knowing him, I avoid his gaze Deliberately.

His disappointment seems intense!

 

A decade ago,

A short trip in a crowded elevator

Would have swung heads towards him,

Magnetically, respectfully;

Yet, now, jostled by the irreverent young,

And ignored by the few who knew him,

This shattered Colossus,

Pygmied by unrecognition,

Moves out of the elevator,

Unsteadily,

Stops at the threshold ,

Blocking my way,

A last pathetic plea – it seems , For identity!

In the milling throng,

I excuse myself and move on – Catching only a sidelong glimpse

Of a broken man’s gratitude, For the small plank Shoved underneath his feet , On the quickening sand.

 

The Land Settlement Act was a powerful statute which empowered Settlement Officers to inquire into claims made by people who had pedigree title to such lands by virtue of their being in possession of ‘Sannasas’ or on pedigree title or valid title deeds or again by their having cultivated such lands over a reasonable period of time. This meant Settlement Officers having to at times, examine archival material etc. to determine the title of these claimants.

Interestingly, one of the claimants under Sec 4 of the Land Settlement Act was the then Prime minister Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike. Accordingly, as required by law , I had notices served on her and some other members of her family who also had made claims to a Nindagama land called ‘Rassagala Nindagama’ in Ratnapura, summoning them for an Inquiry. Soon afterwards I received a call from Secy/PM MDD Peiris who was a friend, in the course of which he said “Chandra, you don’t summon the Prime Minister of the country to come and give evidence. I will arrange a suitable date in consultation with her, for you to come over to the PM’s office and record her statement”. I remember apologizing to MDD immediately saying there was no offence meant but that it was done by me routinely as stipulated in the Act. I also requested MDD to obtain a date from the PM and let me know.

I recall vividly the interview I had with that gracious Lady PM. She greeted me rising from her chair and shaking my hand while thanking me for calling over at her office. The PM, I recall, looked quite vibrant , turning around energetically in her swiveling chair, all the time being very attentive to whatever work she was engaged in. I proceeded to record her statement and at the end of the interview, she once again rose from her chair and shook my hand, thanking me for coming over. I recall well, her parting words to me “You take whatever decision you have to on the matter Mr. Wickramasinghe and inform me”



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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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