COLOMBO : A bill to ban the pernicious practice of bottom trawling, which will affect thousands of Sri Lankans and Indians fishing in the sea between Sri Lanka and India, is to be passed by the Sri Lankan parliament by March end, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP, M.A.Sumanthiran, told Express on Monday.

“My private members bill has been converted into a government bill, and has been gazetted. It will now be bought to parliament on March 17 and passed later this month,” Sumanthiran said.

“Out of the nine provinces to which the bill was sent for comments, only the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) sought an amendment saying that time will be given to bottom trawler operators to switch over to another form of fishing and dispose off their boats. But the NPC’s call for an amendment will not stop the planned legislative process because fisheries is not a devolved subject in the constitution. Moreover, eight out of the nine provinces had accepted the bill in toto,” the Tamil MP said.

Sumanthiran, who represents the Northern district of Jaffna, had introduced the bill in April 2015 as he found that Sri Lanka could not morally and legitimately stop bottom trawling by Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan waters citing environmental damage, if Sri Lanka itself allows bottom trawling by its fishermen. He had found that there were over 500 Sri Lankan bottom trawlers, many of them being in the Tamil-majority Northern Province owned by Tamils.

Sumanthiran’s bill had been in cold storage since April 2015, as government was otherwise preoccupied with weightier matters and also because of the powerful bottom trawlers’ lobby. Moreover the government had given the Chinese, permission to bottom trawl in Sri Lankan waters under a five year license.

But bringing the bill back to parliament became a need of the hour when trawlers from Tamil Nadu in India continued to come close to the Sri Lankan shore in the Palk Strait in their hundreds every day despite the impounding of their vessels if arrested. The bill will be passed as there is consensus among the Sri Lankan political parties on it. Moreover, fishermen from the majority Sinhalese community in South Sri Lanka do not bottom trawl in shallow waters but go for deep sea fishing, unlike the Tamil fishermen of the North, who are still coastal fishermen.

But the issue has touched off a political controversy in the North.

M.K.Shivajilingam, a member of the Northern Provincial Council who spoke for the Northern Tamil trawler owners in the council, denied that he was an agent of the trawler owners who are basically businessmen, not fishermen, as such. He contended that both Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen should be given time to switchover to be realistic.

“The government should consult scientific organisations and device fishing methods which will not hurt the fishermen, before imposing a blanket ban on bottom trawling,” he told Express. He also contended that many nations have not banned it and therefore it is not necessary for Sri Lanka to ban it.

Shivajilingam charged that Sumanthiran and the Sri Lankan government are in cahoots to create tension between Sri Lankan Tamil and Indian Tamil fishermen and stoke a confrontation with India for political gain. He alleged that the bill has been brought into being and is being pushed with this intention.

“When I was in parliament I had warned the government that if tension with India is created through the fishing issue, India could turn against Sri Lanka and could prop up Tamil militancy as they did in the 1980s,” the firebrand leader of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) who is  also a close relation of the dead LTTE chief Prabhakaran, said.