It is here, on this island off the Jaffna peninsula in the Northern Province, where India has displaced China to sign a pact with the Sri Lankan government for a joint renewable energy project.
Its 5,000 inhabitants, all fisherfolk, are unaware of the intense geopolitical jostling over their island and two others nearby, Nainatheevu and Analatheevu, that went on most of last 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 deal with Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu who sail into the waters around Jaffna three days a week, destroy fishing nets of the local people, and themselves use “erratai madi” or double-fold nets to bottom trawl the seabed.
The Sri Lanka-India Memorandum of Understanding for the project was among several signed in March during the visit of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, as Delhi extended a helping hand to Colombo during the economic crisis with financial assistance worth $2.4 billion.
In Jaffna, Delhi is being urged to resolve the long-running fishing crisis, and view the opportunity presented by Sri Lanka’s crisis not through an India vs China lens, but as a chance to reset its engagement with Sri Lanka with people-friendly projects, including in the Tamil areas.
All of 50 sq km, Delft, also known by its Tamil name Neduntheevu, is located in the Palk Strait. A choppy one-hour boat ride from a Jaffna jetty called Kurikattuwan, Delft lies just 45 km north-east of Tamil Nadu’s Rameswaram. In between is Katchatheevu, which India ceded to Sri Lanka in 1974.
Sri Lanka’s territorial waters in this entire area are a matter of severe contestation between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen. “300 to 500 boats. They come at night on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Those are their fishing days, and they come that close,” said 42-year-old Regeeswaran, pointing to a buoy not far from the shore.
His neighbour, J Arokiyadas, complains that when the Sri Lankan naval unit stationed on the island arrests Indian fishermen trespassing in these waters, “they get calls from the big guys in Colombo ordering their release”.
India and Sri Lanka have been engaged on the fishermen’s issue for nearly two decades, but have not been able to resolve the matter.
When the alarm bells went off in Delhi though in January 2021, it was for a different reason.
Last year, days before Sri Lanka unilaterally cancelled an agreement with India and Japan to develop the east container terminal at Colombo Port, it awarded a $12-mn renewable energy project on Delft, Nainatheevu and Analatheevu to a Chinese company called Sinosoar-Etechwin.
The contract was for joint development of the solar farm with state-owned Ceylon Electricity Board, under the government’s Supporting Electricity Supply Reliability Improvement Project. It was to be funded with a loan from the Asian Development Bank.
India lodged a strong protest, flagging its security concerns over the project, as the location is close to the Indian coastline. Of the three islands, Delft is the closest to Tamil Nadu.
Delhi offered its own project, with a 75 per cent grant of the project cost. Colombo froze the agreement with the Chinese, but did not respond to India either. Through the year, China and India continued to push for their respective projects.
On December 3, a day after Sri Lanka’s former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa concluded his visit to Delhi where he discussed financial assistance, China’s ambassador to Sri Lanka Qi Zhenhong tweeted that “security concerns” of a “third party” had led to the “suspension” of the Chinese project in the the three islands off Jaffna, announcing as well that Sinosoar was setting up a solar-diesel power plant in the Maldives.
Colombo had finally blinked.
“We originally intended to carry out this project under a loan from an international financial institution, and a Chinese firm was selected through the standard bidding process, but the Indian government has offered a 75% grant for this purpose. Therefore, we have cancelled the contract for the time being,” Duminda Dissanayake, then Minister of State in charge of Solar Power, Wind, and Hydro Power Generation Projects Development, told Sri Lankan media in December 2021.
In March, India and Sri Lanka finally signed “an MoU for the implementation of a hybrid renewable energy project on the three islands”.
Delft, named by Sri Lanka’s Dutch colonial rulers after a city of the same name in Holland, is a flat, nearly elliptical piece of land, mostly barren, with hardly any rise over the waters around it. During the civil war, many people here fled to India. Drinking water as well as fuel have to be transported from Jaffna. A few curious tourists visit to see Delft ponies, a strain of wild horses from the horses of the Dutch rulers. The island also has remnants of fortifications. A lone baobab tree, native to Africa, also stands testimony to the colonial cross-currents that blew over Delft. Palmyrah trees are the main vegetation.
Regeeswaran has not heard of either the Chinese or the 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 out several nets in the water at night. When the Indian trawlers sail in, they sweep away our nets, and the next morning, we can’t find them. An entire day goes just looking for the missing nets. That’s another Rs 10,000 in diesel cost and a wasted day,” he said.
Arokokiyadas said the Indian practice of “bottom trawling” — dragging heavy-weighted double fold nets through the seabed such that even the smallest of fish do not escape capture — is depleting marine life on their side. “Earlier, we could throw out the nets and we would get 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 by local fishermen to the Delft police about trespassing by Indian fishermen. Sri Lanka regularly arrests Indian fishermen. In February, the Sri Lankan Navy arrested 21 fishermen, but it is a revolving door. Even during Minister Jaishankar’s visit, four Indian fishermen were arrested by the Navy in these waters.
“Fishermen from Rameswaram come on three days, but fishermen from as far away as Nagapattinam, Vedaranyam and Karaikal come seven days a week,” Kurus said.
Last month, on the occasion of an annual religious feast on Katchatheevu, Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen, with the backing of the governments on both sides, held talks towards finding a resolution. Such engagement between the fishermen has been ongoing for several years. Kurus also took part in these talks.
“The Indian side asked for two years more in order to change their fishing practices, or shift to other livelihoods. But we don’t have two years,” he said. “After the war ended, it took us two-three years to put together a livelihood, get loans from banks for nets and boats, but we have seen lakhs worth of nets get destroyed in the blink of an eye. The fact is, this is our sea, and we cannot pursue our livelihood here. Every net that is destroyed sets us back economically and in every other way by several years,” he said.
Ahilan Kadirgamar, who teaches economics at Jaffna University, said India must solve the fisheries issue, and the only way to do this is to ban trawlers. “Once you do that, fishermen can’t come this far from the Tamil Nadu coast,” he said.
Kadirgamar said Sri Lanka’s economic crisis has given India “a new opportunity” to reset its image in Sri Lanka, and its ties with the people of the country, especially in the north.
“This is really an important moment for India’s engagement with Sri Lanka, especially in the north. Solving the fisheries issue is crucial. People will remember India well if it helps to rebuild livelihoods, and engages in broader programmes to address self-sufficiency,” he said.