Not Katchatheevu, it’s Trincomalee!

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The Indian Prime Minister studiously ignored the appeal made by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. K. Stalin to ‘take back’ Katchatheevu Island: Sri Lanka’s ownership was recognised by New Delhi in 1974. When Stalin made the demand that India should acquire Katchatheevu located in the Palk Straight, Modi, who spoke at the same platform in Chennai refrained from referring to Katchatheevu or its ownership, but urged the people of India to assist the people of Sri Lanka who are suffering due to an unprecedented food and energy crisis.

India has no strategic interest in this 163-acre uninhabited island and New Delhi recognised Sri Lanka’s sovereignty over the island when the Indo-Lanka maritime agreements were signed in 1974 and 1976 demarcating the sea border. The only concession given was for Indian fishermen to land on Katchatheevu to dry their nets but no fishing rights were given to them.

Although, Tamil Nadu politicians made calls now and then on Katchatheevu, the Indian Government did not respond to them and the Supreme Court also had given verdict that the island belonged to Sri Lanka. However, New Delhi’s interest is not on this barren uninhabited island, but in the most strategic Trincomalee Port in Eastern Sri Lanka.

Trincomalee served as a major maritime seaport in the international trading history of Sri Lanka with Southeast Asia and its strategic importance has a lot of history as well. Trincomalee Port, the fifth-largest natural harbour in the world and its entrance is guarded by two headlands, and there is a carriage road along its northern and eastern edges. The British selected Trincomalee as Southeast Asian Headquarters of Allied Forces during the Second World War, underpinning its strategic importance.

Sri Lanka has announced its plans to develop Trincomalee as a major commercial seaport. The Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) announced its plan to go for an Expression of Interest to develop Trincomalee Port as an industrial port. The SLPA invited bids from firms across the globe to come and develop the port as an industrial hub. The investors could also utilise close to 2,400 hectares of land that surrounds the port of Trincomalee.

Singapore-based Open-Source Intelligence analyst, Saikiran Kannan said, “Whoever gets the contract to redevelop the port will get the chance to establish dominance over the Indian Ocean.” In an article ‘India Today’ stated that if India or the US/Japan gets a piece of this, they will also get a chance to counteract China in the region.

In addition to Indian interest, many other countries have expressed their keenness to invest in Trinco Port and in the proposed economic zone attached to the harbour. Earlier, US firms have expressed interest in developing oil refineries at the Trinco Harbour site. In August 2021, Sri Lanka received an unsolicited proposal to develop the site near the port along with a land area 10 times greater than the Colombo Harbour. Recently, there were speculations that Saudi Arabia being likely to pump around USD 5 billion to take control of the Trincomalee port on a 99-year lease and invest in a large-scale oil refinery.

India always considered that Trincomalee Port and 99 oil tank farm off the harbour were crucial for India’s security. That interest was finally included in the letters exchanged by President J. R. Jayewardene and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi under the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987 on New Delhi’s insistence.

Earlier this year two countries signed a deal under which subsidiary of Indian Oil Corporation, Lanka IOC was given 49 per cent stake in the joint development of the Trincomalee Oil Tank farm, with Ceylon Petroleum Corporation keeping 51 per cent. Under the agreement two sides will jointly refurbish 61 of the 99 tanks at the farm, 24 will be developed by CPC and 14 by LIOC. This arrangement is for the next 50 years. Indian analyst Nirupama Subramanium said that India and Sri Lanka would have finally achieved the implementation of an agreement contained in an exchange of letters between then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J. R. Jayewardene as part of the annexure to the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 29 July 1987 — that the tank farm would be developed jointly.

India is also involved in the development of the 100-megawatt solar power plant in Sampur, in Trincomalee. This is again something that was signed a couple of months ago in 2022. This joint venture is between National Thermal Power Corporation Limited from India and the Ceylon Electricity Board.

The recent assistance India extended to Sri Lanka to ride over the economic crises will certainly help to further strengthen cooperation between the two countries. As Nirupama Subramanium said, India’s interest is to prevent a third country from entering Trinco Port and 850-acre oil tank farm facility. However, the agreements reached recently will bring much-needed investments to Sri Lanka and will definitely help to get its dwindling economy back on rails. It’s a win-win situation, a senior diplomat said.

By Sugeeswara Senadhira