India   Striking a deal to release each other’s fishermen under a practical arrangement, India and Sri Lanka on Wednesday decided to “complete the process” of releasing all bona fide fishermen from both sides in the next two weeks.

It was also decided to set up a joint committee comprising three members each from both sides to look into this contentious issue so that fishermen, who might have inadvertently crossed the International Maritime Boundary Line, are released in a time-bound manner in future.

The decisions were taken in a meeting between Sri Lanka’s minister of fisheries Rajitha Senaratne and agriculture minister Sharad Pawar. Officials from external affairs ministry also attended the meeting which took up the issue of releasing fishermen on a priority basis.

“We have decided to set up an institutional arrangement to look into the fishermen arrested on both sides and to expedite the matter (of their release),” Pawar said.

India and Sri Lanka on Monday released 52 fishermen each. At present, 240 Indian fishermen are in Sri Lankan custody whereas 160 Sri Lankan fishermen are in Indian jails.

“Process of releasing all these fishermen and their fishing vessels will be completed in the next two weeks”, said Raja Sekhar Vundru, joint secretary (fisheries) in the agriculture ministry.

Speaking about the outcome of Pawar-Senaratne meeting, Vundru said the joint committee would be set up soon. This mechanism will work keeping in mind the humanitarian and livelihood dimensions of the fishermen’s issue, he added.

Besides looking into the issue of releasing fishermen, the panel would also look into the issue of cooperation in the filed of fisheries and aquatic resource development in both the countries.

“The committee will meet at a regular interval and share information relating to all these issues”, said Vundru, adding the Centre here has been in touch with the state governments of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh where Sri Lankan fishermen are currently in custody.

The move comes ahead of the meeting between the fishermen’s associations of the two countries over the issue on January 20.

Most of the Indian fishermen were apprehended by the Sri Lankan authorities on charges of fishing in Sri Lankan waters. Similarly, Sri Lankan fishermen had also been apprehended by Indian authorities for straying into Indian waters.

Though the governments from both the sides had reached an understanding in October 2008 to put in place practical arrangements to deal with bona fide Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line, the setting up of a mechanism in this regard had been eluding due to one or the other reasons for the last over five years.

Pawar told reporters after the meeting that a draft memorandum of understanding has been prepared for fishery development/conservation and safety of fishermen. “We are expecting their views to finalize the draft soon,” he added. (Times of India)

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