Over 5,000 devotees across the Palk Strait took part in this year’s feast amid palpable tension over alleged fish poaching
Aananda Jeya Baskaran used to visit the annual St. Anthony’s feast on the uninhabited island of Katchathivu with his family since his childhood.This time he came to the ‘Guardian of Fishermen’ in mid-sea with a particular prayer. He sought the saint to help him secure the release of his trawler that was seized by Sri Lankan authorities nearly five years ago.
The father of three from Thangachchimadam, Rameswaram in southern India is hopeful that he would be able to secure the release of his boat, which he’s purchased on a loan, and soon return to the sea with his fishing crew.
Baskaran’s trawler was seized by Sri Lankan Navy in 2018 while fishing in Sri Lankan territorial waters near Karaianagar. It is to be auctioned along with some 100 Indian trawlers as provided in recent legislation.
“Nowadays, I am working on other boats as a laborer to support my family and repay the loans,” Baskaran told UCA News and added that he was yet to receive any compensation as declared by the government of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu for its affected fishermen.
Like Baskaran, hundreds of Catholics from India and Sri Lanka gathered at St. Anthony’s shrine on the islet in the Palk Strait on March 2 to mark the annual feast with prayers, vows and dedications.
The islet falling in Sri Lanka’s custody following the bilateral agreements between India and Sri Lanka is uninhabited, just a few nautical miles from the International Marine Boundary Line (IMBL) between the two countries.
Indian Catholics are allowed to enter and access the shrine without any visa processing as per the understanding reached between the two countries decades ago.
Over 5,000 Catholics across the Palk Strait took part in this year’s feast, held after a gap of three years due to the global Covid-19 pandemic. Last year, a group of only 80 individuals, most of them clergy from India, were permitted due to the restrictions.
W. A. Jude Fernando from Chilaw town in the North Western Province of Sri Lanka traveled with over two dozen other Catholics in his parish. However, on reaching the island he realized many of his friends and colleagues who used to come regularly for the feast could not make it this year due to increased transport expenses and the cost of living.
“We used to come with our families to meet and exchange goods with our visiting friends from India under the shadow of St Anthony’s. This time, it is not the same,” he said.
There were a total of 2,198 Catholics from the coastal areas of Tamil Nadu – Rameswaram, Thangachchimadam, Karaikkaal, and Nagapattinam came for this year’s feast. From Sri Lanka, at least 2,900 Catholics arrived from Jaffna, Mannar, Thalaimannar, Chilaw, and Negombo.
The main Mass was conducted by Auxiliary Bishop Anton Ranjith Pillainayagam of Colombo focusing on the theme of being kind to each other in a world that is getting increasingly selfish while stressing Christian morals and values in a digitalized environment.
Outside the shrine, things were a tad different.
Even though the fisherfolk across the Palk Strait considered each other ‘brethren,’ the ongoing issue of Indian fishermen poaching fish in the Sri Lankan waters has strained this relationship in recent years.
Bottom trawling, a fishing practice commonly in use by Indian fishermen, is banned in Sri Lanka since 2017 as it damages marine resources and fish banks, posing a threat to marine resource sustainability.
Sri Lanka’s amended Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act make it illegal to fish from, operate, or own a boat engaged in bottom trawling. Any offense carries a fine of Sri Lankan rupees 50,000 (US$155) and up to two years of imprisonment.
Double bottom trawling, locally known as “middle net” fishing in India, involves two fishing vessels pulling one trawling net on the surface of the bottom sea. The average catch from this method is around five tonnes.
Indian fishermen are often accused of over-fishing and trespassing into Sri Lankan waters and damaging their nets and equipment.
“Ultimately, the blame is on us. We understand the hardship the Sri Lankan fishermen face. But they blame us for fishing all seven days and damaging nets. After all, they are our brethren and we have to come to a common agreement to resolve this issue,” S. Emrit, a leader of the Rameswaram Fishermen Federation told the UCA News.
Meanwhile, fisherfolk in Northern Sri Lanka reiterated that they will not allow Indian fishermen “even for a minute” to fish in their territorial waters.
Annarasa, president of Kayts Rural Fishermen Federation, said Indian fishermen should understand that our fishermen are still struggling to put food on the table for their families a decade after the end of the civil war.
“The ongoing economic crisis has made things worse for us, with skyrocketing inflation and fuel price hike. Amidst all this, the Indian fishermen come into our waters and damage our nets,” Annarasa told UCA News.
On March 23, the Northern Sri Lankan fishermen staged a massive protest in Mannar against attempts to provide fishing licenses to Indian fishermen and demanded strict action against those who violate the regulations.
The Sri Lankan Navy has stepped up patrolling near the IMBL to chase away straying fishermen and sometimes making arrests.
On April 5, a group of twelve fishermen from Tamil Nadu were allegedly chased by the Sri Lankan Navy near the IMBL, a charge it denied while reiterating that violators shall be subjected to legal action.
Last month alone, 28 Indian fishermen were taken into custody along with their four trawlers in two separate incidents. Following legal action, the fishermen were granted bail and repatriated. But their vessels were seized and declared state property.