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Sri Lankan fishers not amused by Katchatheevu row

Since March 31, Prime Minister Modi has been repeatedly talking on the 81-hectare uninhabited island in the Palk Straits
Sri Lankan fishermen prepare to go out into the sea with their traditional boat. The government in the island nation has banned bottom trawling by mechanized boats.

Sri Lankan fishermen prepare to go out into the sea with their traditional boat. The government in the island nation has banned bottom trawling by mechanized boats. (Photo: AFP)

Published: April 04, 2024 12:25 PM GMT
Updated: April 05, 2024 04:52 AM GMT

Sri Lankan fishermen have blamed India for raking up a controversy over the uninhabited Katchatheevu island and ignoring the row over fishing in the Palk Straits.

Since March 31, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party has been repeatedly talking on Kachatheevu island at campaign rallies across the country.

The issue has been “politicized” to gain an advantage in the “upcoming elections” in India, said N.M. Aalam, general secretary of the Northern Fishermen Federation Union in Sri Lanka.

“It is misleading,” Aalam said while reacting to Modi’s remarks.

“Based on the bilateral agreements reached between the two countries, the island has been under Sri Lankan sovereignty since 1974,” Aalam noted.

The 81-hectare island originally belonged to the local kings of Rameswaram in India’s Tamil Nadu but after independence from Britain in 1947 it became an Indian territory. In 1974, the Indian government ceded it to Sri Lanka.

Modi, seeking a third consecutive term in office with the polls next month, has blamed the opposition Congress party of former prime minister Indira Gandhi and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the ruling party in India’s southern Tamil Nadu, for ‘gifting’ the Indian territory to Sri Lanka through a maritime treaty in 1974.

The northern areas in Sri Lanka are limping back to normalcy after a 26-year-old civil war.

Following complaints by fishermen, Sri Lanka banned all bottom trawling in 2017. The government said bottom trawling depleted marine resources.

Since the distance between India’s Dhanushkodi and the International Maritime Boundary Line is only nine nautical miles, breaches do occur.

Aalam said these days Sri Lankan fishermen seldom go to the sea because of the “continuous poaching” by Indian fishermen.

“Massive mechanized bottom trawlers destroy our nets and boats,” he observed.

India has promised to end bottom trawling in the Palk Straits under the Blue Revolution Scheme, but bottom trawlers from India are still active.

In 2015, Modi said the tensions over fishing must be handled as a “humanitarian concern.”

At least 178 Indian fishermen have been arrested and 23 of their trawlers seized by the Lankan Navy so far this year.

Fishermen from India flock to Sri Lankan water, saying “there is no fish on their side,” said Annalingam Annarasa, secretary of the Kayts Fishermen Cooperative Society in Sri Lanka.

“They destroyed their marine resources due to bottom trawling and are doing the same thing in our waters at the expense of our livelihood,” he stressed.

“Even after 15 years since the war came to an end in 2009, our community is still struggling. Now, the Indian fishermen are coming saying ‘there is no fish on their side’,” Annarasa said.

Despite the tension, Katchatheevu has been a link to host the annual St. Anthony’s feast on the island.

As per the bilateral agreements, Indian fishermen are allowed to dry their nets on Katchatheevu and participate in the annual feast without visa restrictions.

However, Indian fishermen boycotted the two-day feast this February, protesting the ongoing arrests by the Sri Lankan government.

Reacting to Modi’s remarks, Sri Lankan foreign minister Ali Sabry said on April 3 that there is no need to revive the issue as it was solved years ago.

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