Katchatheevu: Island of contention

Increasing face-offs with the Sri Lankan Navy have deeply impacted livelihood, say the fishermen of Tamil Nadu. They believe any serious attempt to resolve the issue should involve reclaiming Katchatheevu; the government must secure the islet from the island nation, to which it belongs now, on a 100-year lease

March 10, 2024 01:14 am | Updated March 11, 2024 10:20 am IST

Turning desperate:Tamil Nadu fishers started an indefinite strike on February 17 this year to condemn Sri Lanka’s action against their brethren. They did not put out to sea for nearly 10 days. They hoisted black flags atop their boats. A scene at Rameswaram.

Turning desperate:Tamil Nadu fishers started an indefinite strike on February 17 this year to condemn Sri Lanka’s action against their brethren. They did not put out to sea for nearly 10 days. They hoisted black flags atop their boats. A scene at Rameswaram. | Photo Credit: L. BALACHANDAR

The fishermen of Tamil Nadu, frustrated by action against their brethren on the high seas by neighbouring Sri Lanka, announced an indefinite strike from February 17 this year. For the first time, the fishermen of Ramanathapuram stayed away from the two-day annual festival of St. Antony’s Church at Katchatheevu held on February 23 and 24. Their protest lasted nearly 10 days. At the intervention of Ramanathapuram MLA Muthuramalingam, alias Kadar Batcha, they gave up their relay fast and resumed fishing on February 27. He assured them that the fishermen in Sri Lankan jails would be bailed out through diplomatic channels. From the beginning of January 2024, at least 75-90 fishermen from Rameswaram alone were detained and over 10 vessels were impounded. While the arrested fishermen were released a fortnight later with a warning, four fishermen, found to be repeat-offenders, were handed prison sentences ranging from six months to two years.

Speaking to The Hindu, fishermen leader P. Jesu Raja of Rameswaram said the fishermen go out to sea for 10 months a year, excluding the annual two-month ban. In the remaining 300 days, bad weather forces them to stay away from the sea for 30-60 days. Hence, they are able to fish for only 240 days or eight months a year.

In this limited period, they have to contend not only with the Sri Lankan Navy that has stepped up the arrests but also the Sri Lankan courts that impose jail terms on boatmen, fishermen, and boat-owners. Such harassment has caused psychological issues among the fishing community as a whole and created a sense of insecurity. “Our livelihood has come under a big threat,” he said.

Ceded to Sri Lanka

Getting back Katchatheevu on a 100-year lease from Sri Lanka is the only solution to this vexing problem, say fishermen leaders in the coastal districts of Tamil Nadu. After Katchatheevu, a small uninhabited islet in the Palk Strait, was ceded to Sri Lanka as part of a bilateral agreement in the 1970s, the fishing rights of the fishermen have become an important point of discussion at multiple levels. The only time when Indian fishermen visit the islet is during the St. Antony’s Church festival.

Fishermen claim that the Sri Lankan Navy arrests them on the charge of poaching and impounds their vessels for violating the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL). But the ruling DMK and the Opposition parties in the State have criticised the Centre for its lackadaisical attitude towards the issue. The war of words between the ruling party and the Opposition has sometimes been bitter.

In 2014, Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, had promised the fishermen that if he was voted in, this issue would be resolved permanently. However, a decade has passed, and the issue persists, fishermen say. The Opposition parties, which have now come together in the INDIA bloc, have also been promising an end to the problem. In this politically charged situation, fishermen leaders add that the Union government should secure Katchatheevu on a 100-year lease from Sri Lanka. This will help to prevent the arrest of fishermen from Rameswaram, Pamban, and Thangachimadam on the charge of poaching, they say. The traditional fishermen and their leaders say they will switch to deep-sea fishing, and for this, they have been seeking financial support from the Centre.

‘A body blow’

Fishermen of Pudukkottai district, who joined their Rameswaram counterparts in the recent protest, view the punishment, which was awarded recently by a Sri Lankan court to the three Tamil Nadu fishermen for poaching, as a “body blow”. “On earlier occasions, fishermen arrested on poaching charges would be released in three to four months. But a Sri Lankan court this time sentenced two fishermen to six-month imprisonment and the third to one year in jail. This punishment has dealt a body blow to the Tamil Nadu fishermen as a whole,” says T. Maruthu, vice-president, Meenavar Visai Padagu Sangam of Jegathapattinam, a coastal village in Pudukkottai.

The sentencing has come at a time when several mechanised trawlers, seized by the Sri Lankan government nearly 10 years ago from fishermen of Pudukkottai and other coastal districts, are yet to be released, the fishermen say. They say that more than 100 mechanised boats have been seized over the years from Pudukkottai fishermen alone. “But none has been released,” says Mr. Maruthu.

Jegathapattinam and Kottaipattinam are the coastal villages in Pudukkottai that account for more than 400 mechanised vessels. The seizure of mechanised boats has blighted the livelihood of the Pudukkottai fishermen who had invested their savings in these boats, Mr. Maruthu says. “Not all fishermen are well off. There are many who have taken loans after investing their precious savings in the purchase of mechanised boats,” says Hasan Mohideen, president of the Mechanised Boat Owners Sangam at Kottaipattinam.

“The arrest of our fishermen and subsequent seizure of their boats is a vexatious problem which has remained unresolved for years,” say fishermen. “We don’t know any other job than fishing, the only source of our livelihood. Confiscating our boats and not releasing them have made life miserable for the fishermen,” says Mr. Maruthu.

Both Mr. Maruthu and Mr. Hasan Mohideen have urged the Centre to intervene immediately and work out, in coordination with Sri Lanka, a long-term solution that would ensure the safety and well-being of Tamil Nadu fishermen.

Mid-sea attacks

Fishermen from Nagapattinam and Mayiladuthurai districts complain of mid-sea attacks by unidentified persons suspected to be Sri Lankans. They say that these attacks have affected their livelihood. At least eight incidents were reported between August and December last year, in which over 50 fishermen of these districts had been attacked mid-sea. They said they had been robbed of their fishing gear and mobile phones.

Many of the mid-sea attacks had occurred to the southeast of Kodiyakarai. While the Sri Lankan Navy has said on many occasions that it apprehends only fishermen who cross the IMBL, local fishermen claim they are attacked even while they are in Indian waters. In several cases, the Sri Lankan Navy has arrested the fishers and impounded their boats, which were taken either to Kankesanthurai or to the Trincomalee naval base.

According to R.M.P. Rajendira Nattar, president, Indian National Fishermen Union, the Sri Lankan government has, in the past few years, nationalised hundreds of boats belonging to fishermen of Nagapattinam and Mayiladuthurai districts. This means the boats will never be returned. This has led to the loss of livelihood.

He alleges that the ruling BJP has failed to keep its promise of a permanent solution and demands that the Centre ensure the security and livelihood of the fishermen by regulating fishing across the Palk Bay and hold talks with the Sri Lankan government to get back Katchatheevu or take the islet on lease to protect the Indian fishermen’s right to marine resources.

With the Lok Sabha election in India and the presidential election in Sri Lanka due this year, the traditional fishermen in Tamil Nadu, especially those engaged in fishing along the Palk Bay, are waiting for “some good news”. They hope that with the elections round the corner and the two-month ban on fishing starting in April, there will be no arrest by the Sri Lankan Navy till then, at the least. After the elections, they expect a proper solution to be worked out.

A voice from across the boundary line

A fishermen leader from the Sri Lankan Northern Province told The Hindu that the Sri Lankan fishers were upset at the use of banned nets by their Tamil Nadu counterparts. The use of purse seine nets not only damages the natural resources but also affects the catch. “When the fishermen are aware of the consequences of violating the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL), they cannot fault the Sri Lankan Navy personnel who are only doing their duty,” he said.

A counter-protest: Sri Lankan fishermen hoisted black flags along the Yalpanam coast on March 3. They urged the government to take more stringent action against trespassing Indian fishermen.

A counter-protest: Sri Lankan fishermen hoisted black flags along the Yalpanam coast on March 3. They urged the government to take more stringent action against trespassing Indian fishermen. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Above all, the Indian Coast Guard personnel patrolling the Palk Bay have GPS and they must warn the Tamil Nadu fishermen if they were found crossing the IMBL, especially since they knew well that they were fishing in international waters and claiming it as their right was unfair and unacceptable, the fishermen leader said.

He pointed out that the Sri Lankan courts had only now punished the Tamil Nadu fishermen, especially the repeat-offenders, and the penalty was welcomed by the Sri Lankan fishing community. “No doubt, India and Sri Lanka are friendly nations. During the economic crisis, the Indian government and the Tamil Nadu government, under Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, had given us aid. The people of Sri Lanka will not forget this help,” he said. But he hastened to stress that the Indian fishermen should confine fishing activities to Indian waters or they must face the legal consequences.

“The Tamil Nadu fishermen should go in for deep-sea fishing as their government is offering concessions. We know of fishermen from Rameswaram who are engaged in deep-sea fishing in Mangalore, Kochi, and other parts,” he added.

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