Indian fishermen are hoping that the Narendra Modi government will get back Katchatheevu island from Sri Lanka as a goodwill gesture for helping the island nation financially and materially as it is facing a dire economic situation.
“We hope India gets back Katchatheevu from Sri Lanka. If Katchatheevu comes back to India, then the Indian fishermen will have about 20 nautical mile of fishing area and they will not venture into Sri Lankan waters,” P. Jesuraja, President, All Mechanised Boat Fishermen Association, told IANS from Rameswaram.
Indian Prime Ministers and Tamil Nadu Chief Ministers have come and gone but the one persistent unresolved issue between two is getting back Katchatheevu islet that was transferred to Sri Lanka decades back.
The news of the arrest of Indian fishermen and apprehension of their boats by the Sri Lankan Navy is almost a daily occurrence. However, the only consolation is that the earlier reports of Sri Lankan Navy opening fire on and killing Indian fishermen no longer figures in the news.
“More than 500 Indian fishermen were shot dead by Lankan Navy and an equal number seriously injured and maimed,” Jesuraja said.
Now the fishermen are hoping that India will try to secure a permanent solution for the vexed issue – say by getting back the Katchatheevu as a gift or even on a long lease.
“If Katchatheevu is returned back to India by Sri Lanka it is a welcome move and the fishermen issue will get solved,” Tamil Nadu BJP Fisherman Cell President S. Satish Kumar told IANS.
The 285-acre islet in the Palk Strait was transferred to Sri Lanka by India during Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s regime in 1974.
At that time, DMK President, late M. Karunanidhi was the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and he didn’t raise any objection to the transfer nor did he approach the courts against the transfer to protect the interests of the state’s fishermen.
As per the India-Sri Lanka agreement in 1974, fishermen of both countries can use Katchatheevu to rest and dry their nests and can worship at the St. Anthony shrine there.
According to Jesuraja, till 1983, there was no problem between the Indian and Lankan fishermen as both fished even crossing the borders.
“At that time, the number of Indian fishermen was less. But now the number of fishermen and fishing boats have increased several times, resulting in the pressure on fishing areas,” he said.
The Sri Lankan Navy was focussed on preventing arms smuggling by the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE). With LTTE vanquished, the Navy is focusing on International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) violators.
Jesuraja said the IMBL from Rameswaram is about 12 nautical miles – the shortest for any nations – and the first five nautical miles are left for small boats to fish.
Between five and eight nautical miles, the area is rocky and fishing nets cannot be laid. Fishing can be done by about 1,500 mechanised boats only between 8-12 nautical mile from Rameswaram coast.
This resulted in pressure on fishing and fishermen knowingly or unknowingly crossed the IMBL, which, in turn, results in their arrest by the Sri Lankan Navy.
Jesuraja said as per the Katchatheevu transfer agreement, Sri Lanka cannot have its security force in that island but the island nation violates that.
In recent years, Tamil Nadu leaders are seeking the return of Katchatheevu.
In 2008, then AIADMK General Secretary J. Jayalalithaa filed a case in the Supreme Court contending that the transfer of the islet to Sri Lanka is illegal as the Indian Parliament has not approved the same, citing an earlier apex court order in what is known as Berubari case.
Following this, resolutions for retrieval of Katchatheevu and restoring the fishing rights of Indian fishermen have been passed in the Tamil Nadu Assembly.
In a memorandum submitted to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, present Chief Minister M.K. Stalin said: “More than 3,500 mechanised fishing boats and 9,000 traditional craft are engaged in fishing in the Palk Bay area. Often the fishermen are apprehended by Sri Lanka on the pretext of crossing IMBL, which strains the bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka.”
He said the retrieval of Katchatheevu back to India and restoration of the traditional fishing rights of Indian fishermen in the Palk Bay area are on the topmost agenda of his government.
“The government has been taking proactive steps for the retrieval of Katchatheevu Island unilaterally given by the Government of India to Sri Lanka in 1974, so as to protect the traditional fishing rights of Tamil Nadu fishermen,” Stalin added.
According to the Tamil Nadu government, during the past 11 years, 3,690 fishermen were arrested and released by the Sri Lankan Navy.
“From 2014, about 300 Indian fishing boats were apprehended by Lanka and about 150 were released. Only 35 boats were taken back,” Jesuraja said.
Due to prolonged berthing and due to vagaries of nature, Tamil Nadu boats berthed in various Sri Lankan harbours were damaged beyond salvage which resulted in permanent loss of livelihood to the Tamil Nadu fishermen.
Stalin has also urged Modi that the Indian government may arrange for fishermen level talks between the fishers of two countries as the Joint Working Group meeting is likely to be convened shortly.
Meanwhile, Jesuraja said that Indian fishermen have no quarrel with the Sinhalese fishermen as they are into deep sea fishing. The quarrel is only with the Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen who don’t go deep sea fishing.
The Sri Lankan fishers who use gill nets for fishing are against bottom trawling by Indian fishers as it damages the marine ecology.
Sri Lanka has banned bottom trawling.
According to Jesuraja, Indian fishermen need time to switch over from trawlers to other vessels and deep sea fishing under the Blue Revolution Programme of the central government is not remunerative.
Initially it was said the total outlay per deep sea fishing boat including net would cost about Rs 80 lakh out of which fishermen would give about Rs 8 lakh, there would be a bank loan of Rs 16 lakh while the Central government would provide Rs 40 lakh and the state government Rs 16 lakh, he said.
“But the boat cost after fitments came to Rs 90 lakh and nets to Rs 30 lakh. We had to borrow about Rs 40 lakh. Meanwhile the diesel prices went up while fish catch came down and the operation is not economical. We would want the loan to be written off and return the boats,” Jesuraja said.
(Venkatachari Jagannathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)