In Jaffna waters, India sinks China’s tender, but an old net problem arises
It is here, on this island off the Jaffna peninsula in the Northern Province, that India supplanted China to sign a pact with the Sri Lankan government for a joint renewable energy project.
Its 5,000 residents, all fishermen, are unaware of the intense geopolitical jostling around their island and two other neighbours, Nainatheevu and Analatheevu, which has continued for most of the past year as Delhi successfully persuaded Colombo to cancel a project awarded to a Chinese company, and offered its own instead.
What they do know is that they have to contend with Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu who sail the waters around Jaffna three days a week, destroy local people’s fishing nets and themselves use “erratai madi” or double ply nets. trawl the seabed.
The MoU between Sri Lanka and India for the project was among several signed in March during the visit of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, as Delhi reached out to Colombo during the economic crisis with a financial assistance worth $2.4 billion.
In Jaffna, Delhi is urged to resolve the long-running fisheries crisis and see the opportunity offered by the Sri Lankan crisis not through an India vs. China lens, but as a chance to reset its engagement with Sri Lanka. Lanka with people-friendly projects, including in Tamil regions.
Covering an area of 50 km², Delft, also known by its Tamil name Neduntheevu, is located in the Palk Strait. A hectic hour by boat from a jetty in Jaffna called Kurikattuwan, Delft lies just 45 km northeast of Tamil Nadu’s Rameswaram. In between is Katchatheevu, which India ceded to Sri Lanka in 1974.
Sri Lanka’s territorial waters throughout this area are the subject of fierce disputes between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen. “300 to 500 boats. They come at night on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. These are their fishing days, and they are getting close,” Regeeswaran, 42, said, pointing to a buoy not far from shore.
His neighbour, J Arokiyadas, complains that when the Sri Lankan naval unit stationed on the island arrests Indian fishermen who enter these waters, “they receive calls from the bigwigs of Colombo ordering their release”.
India and Sri Lanka have been engaged on the issue of fishermen for almost two decades but have not been able to resolve the issue.
When alarm bells rang in Delhi in January 2021, it was for a different reason.
Last year, days before Sri Lanka unilaterally canceled a deal with India and Japan to develop the Port of Colombo’s eastern container terminal, it awarded a $12 million renewable energy project dollars on Delft, Nainatheevu and Analatheevu to a Chinese company called Sinosoar-Etechwin.
The contract was for the joint development of the solar park with the state-owned Ceylon Electricity Board, as part of the government’s project to improve the reliability of electricity supply. It was to be financed by a loan from the Asian Development Bank.
India lodged a strong protest, noting its safety concerns over the project, as the location is close to the Indian coast. Of the three islands, Delft is the closest to Tamil Nadu.
Delhi proposed its own project, with a grant of 75% of the project cost. Colombo froze the agreement with the Chinese, but did not respond to India either. Throughout the year, China and India continued to promote their respective projects.
On Dec. 3, a day after former Sri Lankan Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa concluded his visit to Delhi where he discussed financial aid, Chinese Ambassador to Sri Lanka Qi Zhenhong said tweeted that “safety concerns” by a “third party” had led to the “suspension”. of the Chinese project in the three islands off Jaffna, also announcing that Sinosoar was setting up a solar-diesel power plant in the Maldives.
Colombo finally blinked.
“We originally planned to do this project with a loan from an international financial institution, and a Chinese company was selected through a standard tender process, but the Indian government offered a grant. 75% for this purpose. Therefore, we have canceled the contract for the time being,” Duminda Dissanayake, then Minister of State for Development of Solar, Wind and Hydropower Projects, told Sri Lankan media. lankan in december 2021.
In March, India and Sri Lanka finally signed “a memorandum of understanding for the implementation of a hybrid renewable energy project on the three islands”.
Delft, named by the Dutch colonial rulers of Sri Lanka after a city of the same name in Holland, is a flat, nearly elliptical, mostly barren land with virtually no elevation above the waters surrounding it. During the civil war, many people fled to India. Drinking water and fuel must be transported from Jaffna. A few curious tourists come to see Delft ponies, a strain of wild horses descended from the horses of Dutch rulers. The island also has remains of fortifications. A solitary baobab, native to Africa, also bears witness to the colonial counter-currents that blew through Delft. Palm trees are the main vegetation.
Regeeswaran has not heard of either the Chinese or Indian renewable energy project. His only concern is the “destruction” of his livelihood by Indian fishermen.
“Each net costs Rs 30,000. Each of us lays several nets in the water at night. When the Indian trawlers arrive, they take away our nets, and the next morning, we no longer find them. A whole day is devoted to the search for the missing nets. That’s another Rs 10,000 in diesel cost and a lost day,” he said.
Arokokiyadas said India’s practice of ‘bottom trawling’ – dragging heavy double-ply nets across the seabed so that even the smallest of fish don’t escape capture – is depleting marine life on their side. . “Before, we could cast the nets and we caught fish. Now we only do crab here,” he said.
Leeliyan Kurus, who heads a federation of six fishermen’s unions on the island, shows thick files full of complaints from local fishermen to Delft police about the intrusion of Indian fishermen. Sri Lanka regularly arrests Indian fishermen. In February, the Sri Lankan navy arrested 21 fishermen, but it’s a revolving door. Even during the visit of Minister Jaishankar, four Indian fishermen were arrested by the navy in these waters.
“Fishermen from Rameswaram come for three days, but fishermen from as far away as Nagapattinam, Vedaranyam and Karaikal come seven days a week,” Kurus said.
Last month, during an annual religious festival in Katchatheevu, Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen, with the support of governments on both sides, held talks to find a solution. This commitment between fishermen has been going on for several years. Kurus also participated in these talks.
“The Indian side has asked for two more years in order to change their fishing practices or switch to other livelihoods. But we don’t have two years,” he said. “After the war ended, it took us two to three years to earn a living, get loans from banks for nets and boats, but we saw hundreds of thousands of nets destroyed in the blink of an eye. ‘eye. The thing is, it’s our sea, and we can’t pursue our livelihood here. Every net destroyed sets us back economically and in all other respects by years,” he said.
Ahilan Kadirgamar, who teaches economics at Jaffna University, said India needed to solve the fishing problem and the only way to do that was to ban trawlers. “Once you have done that, fishermen cannot come that far from the coast of Tamil Nadu,” he said.
Kadirgamar said Sri Lanka’s economic crisis has given India “a new opportunity” to restore its image in Sri Lanka and its ties with the people of the country, especially in the north.
“This is truly an important moment for India’s engagement with Sri Lanka, especially in the north. It is crucial to solve the fishing problem. People will remember India well if it helps rebuild livelihoods and engages in broader programs to ensure self-sufficiency,” he said.