Text of D.O. Letter dated 19-7-2023 of the Hon’ble Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Thiru.M.K. Stalin to the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India Thiru. Narendra Modi regarding Srilankan Tamils and Fishermen issues:
I am given to understand that the President of Sri Lanka will be on a two-day visit to New Delhi, the first since he assumed office in 2022. Several long pending issues exist between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka arising out of geographical proximity along with economic and cultural links. I seek your support in addressing the following two broad issues, which are of great concern to the people of Tamil Nadu, during the diplomatic talks with the visiting Sri Lankan President:-
1) Retrieval of Katchatheevu island and protection of the traditional fishing rights of Indian fishermen.
2) Addressing the genuine aspirations of the Tamil-speaking people in Sri Lanka and ensuring their rights and freedom are protected.
1.Retrieval of Katchatheevu and protection of traditional fishing rights of our fishermen:-
Katchatheevu island has historically been a part of India, and fishermen from Tamil Nadu have been traditionally fishing in the waters around this island. However, the transfer of Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka, through an agreement, by the Union Government, without the State Government’s consent, has deprived Tamil Nadu fishermen’s rights and adversely impacted their livelihoods. Therefore, the then Chief Minister of the State, Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi, immediately opposed this and convened an All-Party Meeting on 29.6.1974 – the very next day of the Katchatheevu agreement and passed a resolution denouncing the unilateral move of the Union Government to cede Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka.
On 21.8.1974, a resolution was moved and passed in Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, disapproving the Agreement with an appeal to the Union Government to reconsider and respect the sentiments of the people of Tamil Nadu. Kalaignar again wrote a letter on 22.9.2006 to the then Prime Minister to retrieve Katchatheevu to create “congenial conditions for Tamil Nadu fishermen to lead a peaceful life.” The five times Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Kalaignar, had declared on the floor of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly that “The denial of access to Katchatheevu island has not only infringed upon our fishermen’s traditional fishing rights but has also led to significant economic losses for our coastal communities.” In 2013, Kalaignar, as the Leader of Opposition, moved the Supreme Court and sought that the Agreement between India and Sri Lanka dated June 26 and 28, 1974 and the Agreement dated March 23, 1976, and the related communications pertaining to such agreements, surrendering Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka be declared as unconstitutional and void.
I would also like to recall my appeal to you to retrieve Katchatheevu when you first visited Tamil Nadu in 2022 after I assumed office as Chief Minister.
Our fishermen face highly restricted access to traditional fishing grounds, increased harassment by the Sri Lankan Navy, and arrests by the Sri Lankan Navy on trespassing charges. Restoring the right to fish in
the traditional fishing grounds of Palk Bay has always been among the top priorities of the Government of Tamil Nadu.
I urge the Union Government to initiate diplomatic efforts to revisit the Agreement transferring Katchatheevu island and make all efforts to retrieve Katchatheevu as it will only re-establish the historical fishing rights and provide permanent relief to our fishermen. Until this is accomplished, the Union Government may take steps to restore at least the traditional fishing rights of our fishermen.
1(i) Frequent harassment and apprehension of Tamil fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy:
I need to highlight with a deep sense of concern that the incidents of attacks, harassment, and apprehension of Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy are occurring at an alarming frequency. The prolonged incarceration of our fishermen in Sri Lankan jails has caused considerable unease and fear in the coastal villages of the State. The Government of Tamil Nadu has been constantly demanding the Government of India to decisively use diplomatic channels to secure the immediate release of apprehended fishermen of Tamil Nadu and prevent the recurrence of such incidents.
Notably, from 2020 to date, the Sri Lankan Navy has apprehended 619 Tamil Nadu fishermen and seized 83 fishing boats in 48 incidents. Due to this, the livelihoods of fishermen were severely affected, and their families also suffered due to the arrest of the family’s breadwinner. Subsequently, the Sri Lankan authorities released 604 fishermen and 16 boats due to the concerted efforts taken by the State and Union Governments. In 2023 alone, the Sri Lankan Navy arrested 74 fishermen. Of the 74 fishermen, 59 were released and repatriated to Tamil Nadu. Since 2020,67 fishing boats have been in the custody of Sri Lanka. The latest incident occurred on July 9, 2023, when the Sri Lankan Navy apprehended 15 Indian fishermen. Further, during the same period, Tamil fishermen were attacked /assaulted by Sri Lankan Navy/ Sri Lankan Nationals in 38 different incidents. Such incidents often entail loot of materials, viz., ice box, fish catch, GPS, fishing gear, battery, and engine.
We appeal for initiating strong and enhanced measures to prevent the harassment of our fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy. Regular
patrolling, establishment of communication channels, and installation of warning systems could significantly reduce the incidents of harassment and apprehension.
1(ii) Issues about seized boats:
Before 2018, the fishing boats of India or Sri Lanka that were apprehended by the authorities on either side were released following due legal process by the Governments concerned as a regular enforcement practice.
Unfortunately, the Government of Sri Lanka amended its Fisheries Act in 2018, enabling the Sri Lanka to nationalise foreign fishing boats. Due to this enactment, the seized fishing boats of our fishermen that are in good condition cannot be salvaged and brought back to Tamil Nadu. Many fishermen have invested their life savings in acquiring and maintaining their boats, which are vital both for their trade and as the primary income source for their families. The nationalisation of these boats without proper compensation or alternative arrangements results in a loss of livelihood and pushes the fishermen into financial distress.
Therefore, I request that this issue may be taken up with the visiting Sri Lankan president to make necessary amendments to withdraw the nationalisation of apprehended fishing boats.
1(iii) Joint Working Group:
A reconstituted Joint Working Group (JWG) comprising officials of both countries was set up in 2016 to deliberate and evolve solutions to some of these issues. So far, five rounds of Joint Working Group meetings have been held, the last being in March 2022. However, the JWG is yet to successfully bring out an amicable solution to this festering problem. Regular meetings and consultations will help build trust, facilitate effective communication, and ensure smooth fishing operations.
- Addressing the aspirations of Tamils in Sri Lanka:
The State of Tamil Nadu and my Party have been at the forefront, upholding the rights and aspirations of the Tamils in Sri Lanka since 1956. It is imperative to protect the social, political, cultural and economic rights of the Tamils in Sri Lanka so that they can lead dignified lives as equal citizens of Sri Lanka. For this purpose, there must be adequate and meaningful devolution of powers to the provinces, which fulfils the genuine and unresolved aspirations of the Tamils in the island nation. I am sure that your support and intervention in these matters will bring about a positive change in the lives of our fishermen and their families and also help address the genuine aspirations of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. By addressing these concerns, India can safeguard the rights of our fishermen, protect their livelihoods, and improve our historical bilateral ties with Sri Lanka.