The Katchatheevu controversy

Context: On August 18, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. K. Stalin revived the debate over Katchatheevu, an uninhabited and barren 285 acre islet about 14 nautical miles off Rameswaram. He reiterated the demand for retrieval of the islet from Sri Lanka, which will, according to him, put a permanent end to the problems of fishermen of the State.

Where is Katchatheevu?

Katchatheevu is a small uninhabited island in Palk Strait, that connects the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea. It is a disputed territory between Sri Lanka and India, claimed until 1976 by India, and administered by Sri Lanka at the moment.

Katchatheevu map

Island’s history

Katchatheevu island was formed due to volcanic eruptions in the 14th century. 

The Raja of Ramnad (present-day Ramanathapuram, Tamil Nadu) owned Katchatheevu island and it later became a part of the Madras Presidency.

In 1921, both Sri Lanka and India claimed this piece of land for fishing and the dispute remained unsettled. The 285-acre land was jointly administered by India and Sri Lanka during British rule. 

What is the Katchatheevu island issue?

Fishermen of both countries have been fishing in each other’s waters without conflict for a very long time. The issue emerged when India-Sri Lanka signed maritime boundary agreements. The agreements marked the international maritime boundary of India and Sri Lanka.

The agreement aimed to facilitate resource management and law enforcement in the Palk Strait. Now, Indian fishermen were only allowed to use the island for resting, net drying and the annual St. Anthony’s festival. They are not permitted to use the island for fishing. However, Indian fishermen continued trespassing the Sri Lankan water boundary, searching for a better catch in the area.

The next few decades went well but the problem turned serious when fish and aquatic life in the Indian continental shelf depleted, which resulted in an increased number of Indian fishermen in the region. They are also using modern fishing trolleys which harm marine life and the ecosystem.

LTTE era and restrictions on movement

During the LTTE (LiberationTigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist group in Sri Lanka) era, the  Sri Lankan government restricted the easy movement of Sri Lankan fishermen in waters raising military operations issues.

 In 2009, Sri Lanka started heavily guarding its maritime boundary in the Palk Strait. It was done to reduce the possibility of the return of Tamil insurgents to the country.

The Indian fishermen considered this an opportunity. But, with the end of the war in 2010, Sri Lankan fishermen again started their movement in Palk Bay and reclaimed their lost legitimate territory.

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