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Ministry of Industries: Working with Mr. Cyril Mathew

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(Excerpted from the Memoirs of Chandra Wickremasinghe, Retd. Additional Secretary to the President)

In the National Housing Authority where I worked after returning from Canberra, I received the complete support of my friend Dunstan Jayawardena who was Chairman of the Authority, to effect an organizational restructuring of the Authority, recruit new technical personnel and revise the existing salary structure. The reorganization enabled officers who had come on secondment to the Authority from the Housing Dept., to exercise the option of staying on in the Authority as permanent employees of that organization. They benefited substantially by being placed at higher levels in the organizational hierarchy as well as receiving much higher salaries. With time, I was happy to note many of these officers, coming to occupy the highest management positions including those of Chairman, General Manager and Deputy General Manager.

The Authority was indeed a hive of activity with Minister Mr. Premadasa in his characteristic manner, pushing the implementation of the numerous housing projects he commenced throughout the island. He worked with incredible energy and commitment, virtually driving all officials to follow suit. However, following certain differences I had with the Secretary to the Ministry over the appointment of Managers to the Authority, I thought it best to leave the set up. Fortunately for me, Mr. Premadasa happened to be out of the island at the time which facilitated my exit without much fuss.

There were two positions available to me to move into viz. Deputy Commissioner of Food and Director /Corporations in the Ministry of Industries. I opted for the latter position where I had to work with Minister Mr. Cyril Mathew.

The Ministry of Industries, Science and Technology

The Ministry had at the time, 47 Corporations and Statutory Boards coming under its purview. These included, certain giant Corporations such as Petroleum, Steel, Ceramics, Paper, Salt, Fertilizer, Tyre etc. I got down to work straight away and got involved in the nitty gritty of things. Mr. Mathew who had a sharp mind, had the not too uncommon weakness of surrounding himself with party loyalists, the more qualified of whom were selected fortunately, as Chairmen of the many Corporations coming under the Ministry while the brawny types who had their own uses, were given the post conveniently designated ‘Working Director’. This latter category had confabulations with the Minister when certain disruptive activities had to be planned and carried out like breaking up rival party rallies, street marches etc.

I must however say that Mr. Mathew never interfered with the work assigned to me. Through the grape vine he may have learnt perhaps, that I was attending to my work conscientiously. Within one year he promoted me as Additional Secretary in the Ministry much to the chagrin of certain senior colleagues in the Service, some of whom, I learnt later, had even taken the matter up with Mr. DBIPS Siriwardhana, Secy. Public Aministration at the time. Mr. Siriwardhana, I was told, had made it clear to them that the appointment of Additional Secretaries was a matter for the Minister concerned.

Chairing Tender Boards

I found the work in the new Ministry quite challenging, having to Chair Tender Boards of about 15 Corporations on an on –going basis. Additionally, I was appointed to Chair the standing Tender Board in Agro-Chemicals of the Petroleum Corporation which work alone, was quite a handful. I must say that the Minister had complete faith and trust in my integrity and aptitude in handling all these Tender Boards. I must also reiterate here for the record that Minister Cyril Mathew never interfered with any of my ‘tender’ work. I must however, further state here with much regret, that certain friends of mine (outside the Ministry) did try to influence me on tender matters, going to the extent of asking me to remain silent during certain Tender Board meetings. This I vehemently declined to do, stating categorically that as Chairman of a Tender Board, it was clearly my duty to ensure that a poor country like ours, should get the best supplies on offer and also ensure that we get our money’s worth. Happily for me, word spread around quickly and I was never bothered thereafter with such unfortunate requests. What I would like to stress here is that once people realize that you cannot be bought over, you are seldom approached by these wheeler –dealer types with their sly requests.

As a Director of the Central Environmental Authority, I had the benefit of attending a Seminar at D.S.E. Berlin in June-July 1982, on Industrial Pollution and Abatement. The CEA also sponsored my participation at a seminar on the pollution of lakes and reservoirs in Tokyo, Japan in September 1984.

Most of the 47 Corporations and Statutory Bodies coming under the Ministry had professionals as their Chairmen who for the most part, discharged their duties with due diligence and competence. However, there were a few Heads of Corporations who abused their positions and tried to make a fast buck. The Minister who had his own unofficial grapevine in this regard, was kept well informed by his many informants, of any irregularities in the numerous Depts. and Corporations coming within his purview.

I recall the Minister summoning me to his room one day to say that he was not at all happy with some of the untoward goings on in the Ceramic Corporation as he had received many complaints from customers about commodes and bathroom fittings cracking up within an year or so of their purchase. He instructed me to visit the Ceramic Factory in Piliyandala with Deputy Chief Accountant Sivaguru and check on the procedures followed and report to him. Siva and I accordingly, decided to visit the factory the following day. Interestingly, on the morning of our scheduled visit to the factory, I received an anonymous telephone call enquiring from me whether I was going to inspect the factory that day. On my replying in the affirmative, the caller who refused to identify himself, said in a matter of fact tone ‘We are having the kiln ready for you and the Accountant when you visit us’.

I replied that we were coming in any case, as it was our duty to inspect the factory and report to the Minister. Siva and I had our suspicions as to who the anonymous caller was as we had been forewarned that there was a supervisor with political backing who was ruling the roost there. We were not going to be cowed down by any threats and just laughed the whole thing off saying that ‘we would face things as they come’! We were also told that this unsavoury character was in the habit of even assaulting employees who did not do his bidding and was virtually terrorizing the entire place. When we visited the Piliyandala Factory as scheduled, we were met by the General Manger who though a nice person, looked a rather docile individual. We were thereafter, taken round the factory and shown the different stages of the entire production process.

At this stage, I requested specifically that we be taken to the kiln and the supervisor concerned promptly led us there. Siva and I deliberately got close to the kiln and peered into it’s blazing interior. Siva, who was a qualified Chartered Accountant, questioned the supervisor closely on the duration of time assigned for each stage of the production process etc. Having collected all the required detailed information both from the GM and the Supervisor concerned ,we retired to the GM’S office and obtained whatever further information we deemed necessary for our investigation and left the factory.

On our return to the Ministry, Siva and I pored over the notes and the relevant information we had taken down on our visit. It became clear to us that the problem of breakages lay in the deliberate acceleration of the production process particularly at the stage of firing of the ceramic ware in the kiln. By such deliberate acceleration, the culprits had ensured an output higher than what was reflected in the production statistics, enabling them to divert the created excess clandestinely, out of the factory to be sold to shops outside.

The following day we gave our report to the Minister explaining in detail what we had discovered. The Minister told us that his suspicions about the people behind the racket, had been confirmed by our findings. Late that evening, the Minister telephoned me and said that he had shown our report to a certain gentleman who was he said, with him at the time. I was aware that this gentleman was an influential person in the political set up at the time. The Minister then said that the particular gentleman would like to speak to me regarding the concerned subject. I recall clearly overhearing certain audible protests made by the gentleman concerned at the other end. Eventually, this gentleman came on line and spoke to me apologetically saying that although he had had suspicions about this particular supervisor, he had not till the time the irregularities had been revealed by our inspection, been able to confirm his suspicions. He further assured me that he would initiate an inquiry against him and see that he was disciplinarily dealt with. He further said that he had assured the Minister that he would guarantee that no irregularities would be permitted to occur in the factory in the future. The Minister came on line again and thanked me and Siva for giving him the report while apologizing, in his characteristically gentlemanly manner, for having disturbed me at that late hour.

Poverty the biggest polluter in developing countries

This was also the time when developed countries were obsessed with the spectre of a rapidly depleting ozone layer and were frantically adopting sophisticated pollution prevention measures in their industrial production processes. This was the run up to the Kyoto Protocols. They were equally anxious to impose these high standards in the running of ‘struggling’ industries in developing countries which were trying desperately to break free of the poverty trap. While having a conversation with the Minister on the subject, I casually expressed the view that it was grossly unfair of developed countries to badger developing countries to conform to these high standards of pollution prevention, as these highly industrialized, affluent countries had built up their economic and material prosperity on decades of indiscriminate abuse of the environment and on the worst forms of exploitation of women and children.

Developing countries on the other hand, which suffered from widespread poverty and were struggling to industrialize, could not possibly think of maintaining pristine environments by investing in costly additional facilities to minimize environmental pollution, which meant burdening the end product by the additional cost that had to be incurred thereby, which clearly meant eroding the competitive edge our exports enjoyed. Furthermore, I said that China, was the least concerned, despite the pressures brought to bear on them by the West, about maintaining pollution standards, in their determined drive towards rapid industrialization, which was accorded the highest priority in their single minded endeavour to reduce mass poverty in that country. I also said that our major concern should be the alleviation of poverty through a sustained developmental thrust ,as poverty was our biggest polluter.

The Minister who had listened carefully to what I said, wanted me to prepare a brief note incorporating these points and hand it over to Sarath Perera who was the Additional Secretary handling the subject. This was accordingly done by me. To my surprise a major headline carried in the following day’s newspapers read – ” The Ministry of Industries takes the view that the strict industrial pollution standards followed in the developed Western countries need not be adopted here.” It should be remembered that these decisions were taken more than 30 years ago when more than 60% of the population of this country was living at subsistence level, occupying substandard housing with no proper facilities for sewage and waste disposal.

Poverty alleviation was hence, a major policy imperative we had to pursue relentlessly. There was no gainsaying that there was widespread environmental pollution stemming from widespread poverty. But the hard logic that had to be underscored was that, poverty was indeed, irrefutably, the biggest polluter in poor developing countries. This was why they were according the highest priority to poverty alleviation and were trying frantically to break loose of what seemed an inexorable poverty cycle, through rapid industrilisation.

I also benefitted by attending a workshop on “Modern Management Techniques” at the D.S.E. Berlin in June – July 1983. I had to leave the Ministry of Industries under somewhat distressing circumstances. Mahinda Bandusena who was Senior Asst. Secy. of the Ministry at the time, and I were entrusted by the Minister the rather unenviable task of handling disciplinary inquiries against certain errant Heads of Corporations coming under the Ministry. It was a painful task given to us as some of the Corporation Heads were our close friends. But the Minister did not seem to be affected by these sensitivities and insisted that we carry on with these Inquiries.

I remember one particular case where I conducted an inquiry against a Chairman of a Corporation who had defalcated a substantial amount of money. There was enough evidence to conclude that the said Chairman had defrauded the Corporation and my report was submitted to the Minister along with my findings. The Minister summoned me the next morning and I found the Chairman seated before the Minister with his head bowed. The Minister at that stage gave me the file containing my report asking me to read the section on my findings. At the end of it, the Minister asked the Chairman what he had to say. As the Chairman remained silent, the Minister berated him saying that he was being badly let down by the Chairman and wanted the latter to pay back the full amount of money he had misappropriated immediately. The said Chairman I was told, had post haste paid back the full amount of money and had thereafter got himself warded, purportedly seeking treatment for high blood pressure. He had remained in hospital for a week and on his return to office, had been given another severe tongue lashing by the Minister who I was told, had felt sorry for him and accommodated him in another Statutory Board in the Ministry.

I still recall vividly an incident which happened when the Ministry Votes were being debated in Parliament with myself, Bandu and other Ministry official looking on from the Officials’

Box. We were embarrassed no end when Mr. Jeyaraj Fernandopulle who was at the time in the Opposition, pointed to us and said in Sinhala –”There you can see the Minister’s Supreme Court, Mr. Chandra Wickramasinghe and Mr. Mahinda Bandusena. They are the two who sit in judgment over Chairmen of Corporations”. (Recorded in Hansard.)

All this was in addition to the normal duties I was saddled with. Mahinda Bandusena too was similarly burdened with this additional workload. The Minister who was however, impatient to have these inquiries finalized in double quick time (which would have been most unfair by the accused persons most of whom happened to be our friends), summoned the two of us to his office at Flower Road and berated us for ‘delaying’ these inquiries. We both thought that the Minister was being unfair by us and tried to explain to him why we could not possibly accelerate these inquiries. However, the Minister was in no mood to hear us out. As we left the Minister’s office I told Bandu that I was leaving the Ministry and would look for a suitable place immediately.

I telephoned Mr. DBIPS Siriwardhana that afternoon and conveyed my intention of leaving the Ministry. I remember distinctly his cynical laugh while asking me “Do you take these characters seriously? They are just birds of passage and you should not get emotionally affected by what they say”. However, as I was insistent on leaving, he asked for two days for him to try and do something. However, within half an hour, he rang back and asked me whether I was interested in the post of Additional Secy. in the new Ministry of National Security where he had just been appointed Secretary. I promptly said that I would be privileged to serve under him but at the same time expressed certain doubts about my being able to secure my release from the Industries Ministry. Mr. Siriwardhana laughed and said that Minister Mathew should be happy to see me leave, having given me a blackguarding!

The next morning Mr. Mathew called me to the Ministry and was very sweet to me. I was with him for a good two hours and in between consultations he had with officials, he asked me what I thought about some new projects that came up for discussion and also sought my opinion about certain officers who visited him that morning. I however, was discreetly reticent particularly in expressing my personal views on certain officers most of whom were known to me well. When he was about to leave office I thought it was time for me to inform him that I would be leaving the Ministry. From the manner he reacted, it was clear that it came as a shock to him.

He asked me where I was going and the Minister in charge of the Ministry concerned. When I informed him that it was the new Ministry of National Security which had been created by the President, he realized that he would not be able to block my release. He then asked me who would succeed me and when I suggested a few names he did not seem happy with them and said that he would find a suitable successor. I liked Mr. Mathew despite the reputation he had for using strong arm tactics. Apart from the last episode which he obviously regretted, going by the manner he treated me the following day, I must say that he was extremely good to me during my stay of four years in that Ministry.

However, when I was leaving the Ministry to take up the appointment as Additional Secy. in the newly created Ministry of National Security, I was somewhat amused when a member who regularly served on these Tender Boards, told me that he was happy to see me leave, as I did not make money for myself nor did I allow others to do so! Although I was momentarily taken aback by what the person said, I knew again that it was indeed, a grudging compliment paid to 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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