In the wake of 32 Indian fishermen being apprehended by the Sri Lankan navy in two days, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami has once again written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Palaniswami has requested that the Prime Minister direct the Ministry of External affairs to take necessary action to secure the release of these fishermen, as well as their five mechanised boats.
Eight fishermen from Tamil Nadu were arrested by the Sri Lankan army on March 4, for allegedly fishing in the Katchatheevu island waters. According to the Chief Minister's letter, they set sail from Akkaraipettai in Nagapattinam District. In his third letter to the Centre, in a week, Palaniswami stated that one of the fishermen apprehended, attempted suicide out of fear and mental stress.
In addition to this, 15 fishermen from Ramanathapuram district and nine fishermen from Pudhukottai district, have reportedly been apprehended by the Sri Lankan navy on Sunday. The Chief Minister has requested the Centre to use diplomatic channels to secure the immediate release all 85 fishermen and 128 fishing boats in Sri Lankan navy's custody l.
Labelling the arrests as a sharp escalation in harassment and apprehension of Tamil Nadu fishermen, the Chief Minister demanded that, "The traditional fishing rights of our fishermen in the Palk bay must be restored by annulling the Indo-Sri Lankan agreement of 1974 and 1976 as the constitutional validity of these agreements have been challenged on extremely valid and legal grounds in the Supereme Court." This agreement is regarding the Katchatheevu island which is an uninhabited islet in the Palk Strait. It has been the centre of a long-standing dispute between the fishermen of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.
In 1974, according to a report in Livemint, Katchatheevu was ceded to Sri Lanka by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. M.Karunanidhi who was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, at that point, immediate wrote to Gandhi on how the land was historically a part of Ramnad's zamindari. According to the report, the agreement did not specify fishing rights, allowing Indian fishermen to go about their activity around the island.
In 1976 however, another agreement was finalised to determine the boundary in the Gulf of Mannar and Bay of Bengal, reportedly restricting both countries' fishermen from fishing in other's waters.
Palaniswami in an earlier letter to the centre claimed that this 'harrassment' was creating 'a sense of panic' among the fishermen community ahead of the Katchatheevu festival and questioned the Centre's lack of efforts in resolving the fishermen's sensitive livelihood issue.
"We have been repeatedly requesting the Government of India to sanction the comprehensive project for conversion of mechanised trawlers to deep sea long liners. But despite our repeated requested, neither has the package of Rs.1650 crore been approved by the Government of India nor does there seem to be adequate pressure built on Sri Lanka to desist from day to day harassment and arrest of our fishermen."
He alleged that Tamil Nadu's fishermen appear to have been left at the total mercy of the Sri Lankan Navy. He further accused the Sri Lankan navy of picking up fishermen randomly, incarcerating them for months together and failing to return their boats for years despite commitments made in the talks which take place from time to time.
Meanwhile, the arrests have led to outrage amongst the fishermen community across Tamil Nadu. Fishermen in Rameswaram have even decided to boycott the two-day Katchatheevu festival, scheduled for March 11 and 12. "We are protesting these endless arrests of our people. The current Chief Minister and leaders before him have written multiple letters to the Prime Minister and the Central Government. They are of absolutely no use and we have lost trust in the system. The fishermen community has instead decided to hold indefinite protests from March 7th," said Tamil Nadu and Puducherry Fishermen's Association General Secretary, NJ Bose.