SL Navy play host to all visitors: Katchateevu comes alive in all its magnificence | Sunday Observer

SL Navy play host to all visitors: Katchateevu comes alive in all its magnificence

The Katchateevu St.Anthony’s Church annual feast this year was a great success, with nearly 9,000 devotees from both, India and Sri Lanka attending on February 23 and 24.

SL Navy play host to all visitors : Katchateevu comes alive in all its magnificenceThere were some 1,900 Indian devotees, mostly fisher folk, and about 7,000 Sri Lankan devotees visiting the shrine, besides a large number of journalists, from India and Sri Lanka, and several dignitaries and Navy top brass. The Sri Lankan Navy under the direct supervision of Commanders D.F.A. Thomarathne and Dinesh Bandara offered the rare opportunity to around 40 journalists from the print and electronic media based in Colombo, of witnessing the feast in Katchateevu.

The journalists, accompanied by uniformed sailors, took off from the Navy headquarters at Chaitiya Road at 6 am on the 23rd and reached the Kankesanthurai (KKS) Navy camp around 8 pm and again set out the same night at 2.30 am to the KKS harbour to be transported to the Katchateevu island in a navy gun boat. The gun boat doing 16 knots took about 3 hours to reach the island and we were transported in smaller boats to the island, and reached there around 8 am the following day.

About 2,000 Indian devotees, both men and women, had come in 62 large and medium-size fishing vessels. Some of them, who the Sunday Observer spoke to, said, they came every year to receive the blessings of St.Anthony, the Saint of ‘ a million miracles’ and that they had brought valuable gifts – a high quality flag poll and other indoor kits for the shrine. It was a spectacular sight to see their anchored vessels, lined up one after the other, as were the Sri Lankan navy boats rocking and rolling in the waves.

The new church built by the Sri Lankan Navy stands magnificently and the holy mass was conducted in it while the old church built by an Indian devotee, belonging to the Indian fisher community, stood next to it. Devotees who attend the feast never fail to pray at the old church as well to receive the blessings of St.Anthony.

The SL Navy provided meals, drinking water and refreshments, to the devotees and all those present at the feast, in addition to ensuring their safety. A large number of Catholic priests and Sisters were present at the feast.

SL Navy play host to all visitors : Katchateevu comes alive in all its magnificence

This year’s feast marked the second of its kind conducted at the new church. For the first time in history, the Feast Mass was held in Sinhalese as well and was conducted by the Bishop of Galle Diocese Raymond Wickramasinghe. Meanwhile, the Feast Mass in Tamil was conducted by the Bishop of Jaffna Dr. Justin Bernard Gnanapragasam.

This annual religious celebration was attended by State Minister of Child Affairs, Vijayakala Maheswaran, Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne, Commander Northern Naval Area, Rear Admiral Jayantha De Silva, the new Commander due to assume office, Rear Admiral Merril Wickramasinghe, India’s Consul General in Jaffna A.Natarajan, Jaffna Government Agent Nagalingam Vedanayagan , senior judges from Vavuniya, Jaffna and Kayts, senior officers and a large number of personnel from the tri-services and the Police.

The Sri Lanka Navy facilitated the transportation of devotees, thanks to the opening of the second stage of the Delft Jetty. The Navy also provided meals and all infrastructure facilities, including, installation of sanitary and drinking water facilities. Temporary jetties were made ready for people to secure their boats conveniently, and special SLN lifesaving and medical teams were deployed to ensure the safety of the devotees attending the annual festival. The Navy was at hand to welcome the guests along with several other VIPs from politicians to senior military personnel and members of the clergy.

A large majority of the Indian pilgrims were fishermen. Some of them who we spoke to said, they prayed for divine blessings for a settlement to the cross-border issue which continues to deprive them of their livelihood.

The stringent measures now being implemented to prevent them from fishing in Sri Lankan territorial waters, such as the confiscation of their vessels and the apprehension and detention of their men have caused them grave hardships.

The issue could only be amicably settled through fishermen-to-fishermen talks, since government-to- government talks have not been able to reach any settlement during the last 14 years.

When the Sunday Observer brought to their attention the fact that the thousands of vessels that poached in the Lankan waters and their prohibited ‘bottom trawling ‘ method had contributed to the progressive destruction of the fish stocks and impaired the breeding environment, thereby immensely affecting the Northern fishermen, they said, these are issues that can be settled through talks. Although their government has advised them to go deep-sea fishing to avert cross-border problems and multi-day boats are being built at boat-building yards in Cochin , Kerala, with government grants for purchasing them, it would take at least two to three more years for them to venture into deep-sea fishing, they said. They need a two-year respite and goodwill gesture from the SL government to fish in Sri Lankan waters at least 70 days in a year to ward off their poverty, they said.

On the two days of the festival they were permitted to come to the Katchateevu island as pilgrims, but not on other days. Earlier they came to rest, mend their nets and dry them in the island. They said, more than 170 Indian fishing vessels are now in detention in Sri Lanka, some have been released while many are languishing in prisons under trying conditions. About 40 –50 fishermen are confined to small prison cells, prone to disease and without medical care and denied bare necessities, they alleged.

They buy boats with bank loans to the tune of Rs.15 – 20 lakhs and it is distressing that such boats are now in detention, they lamented. Earlier the fishermen were arrested only when they entered the Sri Lankan territorial waters, but now it is is done when they touch the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL). Further expressing their woes, the fishermen said, several rounds of talks were held over the past several years but no settlement has been reached. It is not fishermen’s representatives who take part in talks, instead, it is businessmen engaged in fish trade who come for the talks, so that, reaching settlements have not been possible, they opined.

They alleged, the fishermen of Southern Sri Lanka possessed large multi-day boats and some of them have been found venturing into Indian territorial waters in Gujarat and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The fishermen of Northern Sri Lanka are poverty-stricken because they do not have such boats; it was the same situation for the fishermen of Pudukottai and Rameswaram, they said.

Sea-cucumber fishing is a grave offence in India but bottom-trawling is not, they said, adding that if need be, they would stop coming in large boats to Sri Lanka if permission would be granted for them to come in country-boats to do fishing on a restricted number of days, they said.

SL Navy play host to all visitors : Katchateevu comes alive in all its magnificenceK.Ramachandran, RS Fishermen’s Board, Mangala Village, Ramanathapuram District, Sippi Sesu, Chairman of the Pamban Fishermen’s Association,S.Amerithus, Chairman of the Rameswaram Mechanised Boat Fishermen’s Association and Jesu Raja, Chairman of the Ramanathapuram District Mechanised Boat Fishermen’s Association all of Tamil Nadu were the fishermen that we talked to. The Consular General for India in Jaffna A.Natarajan, who was present at the St.Anthony’s feast in Katchateevu speaking to the Sunday Observer said, the festival is significant in that it is a bilateral festival attended and celebrated by fishermen and people across the Palk Strait.

The Government of India contributed financially every year for the festival. The Indian fishermen came for the first time after the consecration, last year, of the new church built by the Navy, Natarajan said.

They had brought a statue of St.Anthony, a flag pole and other kits for the mass as gifts.

The Government of India is striving to resolve the long-unsettled fishermen’s cross-border issue and strengthen relations between the fisher folk of the two countries, and he was optimistic that this would be achieved before long, he said.

Naval Commander I.H.J.Buddhika who was at the helm of the gunboat taking the journalists to and fro the Katchateevu island, said : “ We made a barrier 6 months ago along the IMBL and after that the number of Indian fishermen coming for poaching has reduced considerably.

They come as a large fleet of fishing vessels numbering 1,000 to 1,500. They come three days in a week- on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Earlier they engaged in bottom-trawling in our waters, but now that they are not allowed to come here they have restricted their fishing to their own territorial waters. We deploy patrol boats round the clock. We have observed, one vessel enters far into the Sri Lanka territorial waters to spy on approaching SL Navy patrol boats and, on sighting them, alert the thousands of Indian vessels already engaged in poaching in a different location and they flee.

The Indian vessels are made of steel and they ram against the Sri Lankan fishermen’s fibre glass boats causing extensive damages.

Apart from that the Indian fishermen also damage fishing nets and other fishing gear of the Lankan fishermen who had been deprived of their livelihood for three decades due to the conflict. It is very unfair for them to do so in our territorial waters.”

Fr.M.Jero Selvanayagam, Parish Priest, St.Anthony’s Church, Passaiyoor told the Sunday Observer, the Katchateevu feast for several years was being celebrated by both, the Indian and Sri Lankan pilgrims .

Fishermen of both Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka have been using the island for many years as a place for resting and drying and mending their fishing gear and that practice has been continuing even during the long drawn out war.

The Katchaiteevu St.Anthony’s Church has been built by the Navy and handed over to the Jaffna Catholic Church. The Indian Catholic Church is represented by a large number of priests, saints and Sisters. Flag polls and other kits needed for the mass have also been brought by them. Religious activities, processions and other programs were held throughout the first day – the evening of February 23, he said.

Jaffna Government Agent Nagalingam Vedanayagan, speaking to us said, he was grateful to the Navy for providing all infrastructure, sea transport, meals to all pilgrims, security and drinking water, working round the clock and engaging a large number of their sailors.

He also thanked the officials of the different Ministries and government departments for extending their unrestrained support and cooperation towards the success of the St.Anthony’s feast in the Katchateevu island, he said.

Pix: Saman Sri Wedege and Sri Lanka Navy