The nagging problem of Katchatheevu

Though fisherfolk want to resume fishing in the islet, India cannot allow it

Updated - February 29, 2024 12:50 pm IST

Published - February 29, 2024 01:45 am IST

A view of Katchatheevu in Sri Lanka. File

A view of Katchatheevu in Sri Lanka. File | Photo Credit: L. Balachandar

Katchatheevu islet, a part of Sri Lanka and located about 14 nautical miles from Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu, is back in the limelight for the wrong reasons.

On February 17, fishermen associations in Ramanathapuram district announced that they were boycotting the annual two-day festival, scheduled for February 23 and 24, at the St. Anthony’s Church in the uninhabited islet. Every year, this event brings together the people from both sides of the Palk Bay separating India and Sri Lanka. The fisherfolk also announced that they would observe an indefinite strike. These decisions were a mark of protest against the Sri Lankan government’s continuing arrests of Indian fishermen on charges of poaching.

Shift in approach

Though the response of the Sri Lankan authorities is not new, there seems to be a shift in the way the island nation’s judiciary treats those accused of poaching. In February, Sri Lankan Navy personnel arrested 42 fishermen belonging to Rameswaram and Thangachimadam in Ramanathapuram, as well as other regions in India, in two separate incidents. A Sri Lankan court sentenced five of those fishermen to prison terms of between six months and two years, for the repeat offence of poaching. While ordering the release of the rest, the court warned that they would have to serve a jail term if they were caught again. “The fishing community of Ramanathapuram district was shocked by this,” said fisher leader P. Jesu Raja.

Watch | How is the St. Antony’s church festival at Katchatheevu celebrated? | Video Credit: L. Balachandar

According to one version, the original shrine of the Church was built by the Ramnad Diocese more than 100 years ago. As per the Sri Lankan Navy records, it was constructed in 1901. Though it was taken over by the Jaffna diocese after India ceded Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka in 1974, the two countries organise the festival together. In recent years, people from other States such as Karnataka have also been attending it.

Explained | The Katchatheevu controversy

Over the last 15-odd years, it has been a practice for the Church authorities to extend an invitation to the Verkodu parish, which, in turn, seeks applications from pilgrims. On producing valid documents, pilgrims are allowed to cross the Palk Strait using trawlers. Their actions are monitored by Central and State agencies such as the Customs and the Police. Apart from exchanging pleasantries and gifts, pilgrims from both sides also pray for improved relations between the two countries.

This year, the agitating fishermen and their families in Ramanathapuram argued that it wouldn’t be fair for them to participate in a festival held in Sri Lanka when their own “brothers” were in jail in the neighbouring country. They were staying away from the celebrations to show solidarity, they said.

Whenever fishermen from Tamil Nadu are arrested in Sri Lanka, India’s High Commission in Colombo and Consulate in Jaffna provide consular and legal assistance to the imprisoned fishermen and work towards their early release. New Delhi has been asking Colombo to treat the fishermen issue as “a purely humanitarian and livelihood concern.” It says both sides should ensure that force is not used under any circumstance. Even though the Sri Lankan authorities release the fishermen as a matter of routine, they do not return the impounded fishing vessels. The Ramanathapuram fishermen believe that this adds insult to injury. This time too, vessels were impounded and not returned.

Resolving the issue

For about 10 years, the fishermen have been hoping that their issue will get resolved. Sushma Swaraj, as External Affairs Minister, had even organised a high-level meeting of fishermen from both the countries to work out a solution. “But this could not deliver results fully due to various political developments,” Mr. Jesu Raja said.

Now, sections of the fisherfolk expect the Indian government to impress upon the Sri Lankan government to allow fishing activity in Katchatheevu, as was the practice in the past, and also retrieve the islet since the population of fishermen in Sri Lanka who depend on the Palk Bay is smaller compared to those from Tamil Nadu. But the Central government, which assured Sri Lanka that it would abolish bottom trawlers in a phased manner, hopes that the fishermen will diversify their activities to include deep sea fishing, seaweed cultivation, and open sea cage cultivation. If the fishermen are to do this. the deep-sea fishing scheme, which has been a non-starter so far, will have to be revised with liberal norms to ensure greater participation.

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