As the election campaign in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu hots up with less than three weeks to go for the polls, the issue of Indian fishermen as well as rumblings over Kachchativu Island, are once again being heard from across the Palk Strait.
Both leading South Indian parties, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) of M. Karunanidhi and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) of Jayram Jayalalithaa have made the Sri Lankan issues part of their campaigns to win votes, but while they attempt to exert pressure on the Indian central government, the woes of the northern fishermen in Sri Lanka continue, despite a flurry of diplomatic activity in the past few weeks, to defuse the mounting tensions.
|A Navy personnel stands guard on the shores of the island of Kachchativu
Adding to their woes are demands by South Indian politicians to make a claim for the island of Kachchativu, a barren island 15 miles north-east of Rameshwaram and about 14 miles south-west of the Delft Island. The island is not inhabited by any permanent inhabitants and the only significant structure on it is a Roman Catholic Church dedicated to St. Anthony where an annual feast draws devotees from South India and Sri Lanka.
After a lapse of 28 years a full Mass was held last Sunday (March 20) drawing a crowd of more than 5,000 devotees of whom over 3,000 were IndiansFather Anton Amalarajan, Parish Priest of the Delft Island which oversees the Kachchativu Church, said, with the assistance of the Navy, a group of devotees had gone to the island and cleaned up the area in preparation of the feast.
Despite the goodwill generated by the arrangements made by the Sri Lanka Government to facilitate Indian devotees to attend the feast, last Tuesday Lankan fishermen who had left from the northern coastal town of Velvetithurai were detained by the Indian Navy. Family members had been informed of the arrest.
The same day efforts were afoot at the Fisheries Ministry in Colombo with Minister Rajitha Senaratna in attendance to listen to both aggrieved parties. First he met with representatives of fisheries societies from northern districts of Jaffna, Mannar, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu and then with a delegation of Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu. They were accompanied by two officials of the Indian High Commission in Colombo.
However, S.Thavaratnam, President Jaffna Fishermen’s Association who led the delegation told the Sunday Times that the northern fishermen were losing their patience and were not willing to allow Indian fishermen to fish in Lankan territorial waters as requested by the Indian delegation.
The Indian delegation had suggested that a time frame be given to educate the Indian fishermen on the violation of laws when they cross the International Maritime Boundary Line. They had pointed out that as a practice the Indian fishermen entered the Lankan waters as there was no restrictions even during the conflict in Sri Lanka. “The Indian fishermen explained the difficulties they face due to the depletion of fishing resources which has forced them to poach into the Lankan territorial waters,” a Ministry official said.
Mr.Thavaratnam said that he can guarantee that Sri Lankan fishermen will not intrude into Indian waters and warned that if Indians entered Lankan waters, they would have have to face the consequences.
“After many years the fishermen of the north are able to engage in fishing without restrictions and hence they were in no mood to allow interference to their livelihood,” he said.
No final agreement was reached at the meeting but the matter will be taken up at a higher level at the India-Sri Lanka Joint Working Group on fishing which will meet in New Delhi tomorrow. The Sri Lankan delegation will be led by Ranjith Uyangoda, Additional Affairs Secretary to the External Affairs Ministry. He will be accompanied by officials from the Ministry of Fisheries, the Sri Lanka Navy and Sri Lanka High Commission in New Delhi and the Deputy high Commission in Chennai. The Indian delegation will be led by T.S. Thirumurthi, Joint Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs.
The meeting which takes place after a lapse of five years will discuss the proposed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on development and co-operation in the fisheries sector and the issue of Indian fishermen poaching in Lankan waters.
The fishermen’s issue has been a long drawn out dispute and was taken up when Minister Basil Rajapaksa led a Sri Lankan delegation to New Delhi in October 2008. The meeting ended with the issuance of the “India-Sri Lanka Joint Statement on Fishing Arrangements” where the two sides agreed to “put in place practical arrangements to deal with bona fide Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL).
|The only permanent structure on Kachchativu island, the Roman Catholic Church
These practical arrangements included the designation by the Government of Sri Lanka of sensitive areas along the Sri Lankan coastline. The government of India upon being informed of these sensitive areas would take action to prevent Indian fishing vessels venturing into these identified sensitive areas. It was also agreed not to fire on Indian fishing vessels. Other measures included the fishing vessels carrying valid registration/permits and the fishermen’s valid identity cards issued by the Government of Tamil Nadu.
Sri Lanka Navy’s hand seems to be somewhat tied after the 2008 agreement and Navy sources admit they are not even in a position to fire a warning shot into the air.
A senior Naval official told the Sunday Times that despite patrols along the IMBL by the Sri Lankan Navy and the Indian Coast Guard the poachers slip in after dark and slip out before day break.
“It is a gigantic task to stop them. Further more we have limited resources at our disposal which has made things even more difficult. We also have to be mindful about the sensitivity of the issue and have to act accordingly.
“One wrong move and it could lead to a diplomatic stand-off between the two countries as happened recently, following the arrest of some 150 plus fishermen by their local counterparts in the northern peninsula.
“There must be a quick solution at a government to government level, because at the end of the day we are to lose the most,” he said.
He said the Indian fishermen did not even spare fish eggs and other marine life. They also damaged the fast depleting coral reefs he charged.
He was speaking barely hours after three Sri Lankan fishermen were reported to have been arrested on the high seas by the Indian Coast Guard for alleged poaching. All this while six Sri Lankan fishermen are languishing in Indian prisons. Meanwhile the Indian Government has agreed to pay one million Indian rupees (around Rs 2.3 million) on a Court order, to the family of Canisius Perera, , the President of the Fisheries Society in Negombo who was killed due to a shooting incident in 2007 when he was visiting detained Sri Lankan fishermen in Tamil Nadu.