In a recent parliamentary speech during a No Confidence debate, Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought attention to the island of Katchatheevu. This uninhabited island, nestled in the Palk Strait between Tamil Nadu, India, and Sri Lanka, has long been a subject of political debate and contention due to its unique historical and geographical significance.
This topic of “Katchatheevu” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.
The Island of Katchatheevu: Features and Significance
Katchatheevu is a 285-acre uninhabited island with a length of approximately 1.6 kilometers and a width of slightly over 300 meters. It boasts a unique structure that includes an early 20th-century Catholic shrine, St. Anthony’s Church, which hosts an annual festival. The festival witnesses participation from Christian priests and devotees from both India and Sri Lanka.
Hot-Button Political Issue
The island’s location in Tamil Nadu has made Katchatheevu a contentious political matter, influencing India’s diplomatic discourse with its southern neighbor, Sri Lanka.
Location and Historical Context
Katchatheevu’s relatively new geological timescale is attributed to a 14th-century volcanic eruption.
The island’s ownership has transitioned through various historical periods:
- In the early medieval era, it was under the control of the Jaffna kingdom of Sri Lanka.
- In the 17th century, the Ramnad zamindari, based out of Ramanathapuram (located 55 km northwest of Rameswaram), claimed authority.
- During the British Raj’s Madras Presidency era, control was established by the British Raj in 1921.
- This period witnessed a challenge over ownership between India and Sri Lanka, as the British delegation marked Katchatheevu in Sri Lanka, while the Ramnad kingdom claimed ownership.
Cession and Controversy
India’s Cession of Katchatheevu
In 1974, India ceded Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka through the Indo-Sri Lankan Maritime Agreement. The then-Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, made this decision based on the perceived low strategic value of the island and the desire to strengthen ties with the southern neighbor.
- Fishing rights for Indian fishermen were retained, allowing access to Katchatheevu for specific purposes such as resting, drying nets, and visiting the Catholic shrine. These rights were interpreted by Sri Lanka to be limited to those activities, and without the need for a visa.
1976 Agreement and Fishing Uncertainty
During India’s emergency period in 1976, a bilateral agreement was established. This agreement barred fishing in each other’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). However, Katchatheevu’s location on the edge of the EEZs of both countries has led to uncertainty regarding fishing rights in the surrounding waters.
Unsuited for Permanent Settlement
Katchatheevu’s lack of a reliable drinking water source has rendered it unsuitable for permanent human habitation, contributing to its status as an uninhabited island.