Sri Lanka And India Land Connectivity Has Distinct Advantages

(MENAFN- NewsIn.Asia) By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today

Colombo, July 31: During Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe's July 20-21 State Visit to India, Wickremesinghe and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed to explore the feasibility of building a bridge across the Palk Strait to give India“land access” to the ports of Colombo and Trincomalee.

India and Sri Lanka already have air and sea connectivity and the two leaders decided to improve and expand them. But there is no“land connectivity”. Both Wickremesinghe and Modi are now keen establishing a land link also in order to bring the two countries closer for the common good and for the larger purpose of integrating the South Asian region.


The Vision Statement issued at the end of Wickremesinghe's visit said that the two leaders agreed to“establish land connectivity between Sri Lanka and India for developing land access to the ports of Trincomalee and Colombo, propelling economic growth and prosperity in both Sri Lanka and India, and further consolidating the millennia-old relationship between the two countries. A feasibility study for such connectivity will be conducted at an early date.”

Explaining the concept to the media, Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra said that the idea was proposed by the Sri Lankan President and was backed by the Indian Prime Minister.

Land connectivity will help India's Southern States, which are now India's growth centres, to increase their trade with Sri Lanka and vice versa. Ships from ports on India's Eastern seaboard like Vishakhapatnam, Kolkata and Chennai, now have to go around Sri Lanka to reach Colombo. But if a land link is established with a bridge across the Palk Strait, traders can use road/and rail transport which are cheaper and less time consuming.

Long History

In 1913-14, the British rulers of India and Ceylon planned to use the rail link to bring Indians to work in the island's tea and rubber plantations. Rail tracks were laid on the Indian side up to Dhanushkodi, and on the Ceylon side, up to Talaimannar. But the track across the Palk Strait was not laid because World War I intervened.

The idea had to wait until Wickremesinghe became Prime Minister in 2002-2004 to be revived. His“Hanuman bridge” was part of his larger project to build a strong economic cum strategic relationship with India to contain the Tamil Tiger insurgency in North and East Sri Lanka. He granted India the 99 unused giant oil tanks in Trincomalee and a part of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation's distribution network to the Indian Oil Corporation and proposed a land link.

Sri Lanka envisaged a four-lane highway with a parallel single rail track that would cost of LKR
88 billion. Many papers were presented at a seminar held in Colombo in August 2002 under the aegis of the Sri Lanka Institution of Engineers and the Indian Institution of Engineers (Tamil Nadu Centre). A Concept Paper was presented to the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J.Jayalalitha.

But the project did not take off, partly because Jayalalitha was against the land link that could facilitate LTTE infiltration into Tamil Nadu, and partly because Wickremesinghe was facing a backlash from the Sinhala nationalists, who feared infiltration from India. At any rate, he lost the 2005 Presidential election to Mahinda Rajapaksa, a Sinhala nationalist.

A decade later, in June 2015, the Indian Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari proposed the building the 23 km bridge with ADB assistance of US$ 3.5 billion as part of the Asian highways project. But he made this announcement without consulting the Sri Lankan leadership, perhaps imagining that
Wickremesinghe, who was Prime Minister then, would automatically give it a nod. But Wickremesinghe was non-committal having been a victim of Sinhala nationalism earlier.

Indeed, Gadkaris persistence drew a hostile response in Sri Lanka. In 2016, Vasudeva Nanayakkara said that if the bridge was built the 60 million Tamils from Tamil Nadu would swamp Lanka. Another nationalist, Udaya Gammanpila, said that if the bridge was built he would demolish it.

Wickremesinghe Revives Proposal

However, Wickremesinghe now feels that the political climate in Sri Lanka is conducive to closer ties with India, given the significant role India has played in rescuing Sri Lanka from an economic abyss. Significantly, till now, no Sinhala nationalist leader has opposed the“land link” proposal made in New Delhi.

Wickremesinghe has support from two Lankan economists: Gayasha Samarakoon and Muttukrishna Sarvananthan. They said in a paper published by Routledge, that a land bridge would bring down the transport cost in India-Sri Lanka trade by 50%.

The 23 km bridge could be traversed in less than an hour. And from the arrival point at Talaimannar, it would take another 7–8 hours to reach Colombo by road (roughly 367 km). The total travel time between India and Colombo would be 9 hours
with a few more hours to accommodate customs requirements.

But the total time taken to transport goods from Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu to Colombo is between 116 and 122 hours (about five days) for non-container ships, and between 40 and 46 hours (i.e., nearly two days) for container ships. This is“excessive” the economists said.

They further said that the waiting time for customs clearance and other formalities could also be significantly reduced if the land route was used because the land route would involve only exports/imports to/from India, whereas the Colombo Harbour would be handling trade to and from all over the world.

Lower transport costs would bring down prices of goods in Sri Lanka. An uptick in trade would create thousands of direct and indirect jobs. The road link would also contribute to the economic development of backward provinces like the Northern Province and the North Central Province.

“Districts in these provinces have been the lowest contributors to the national economy for a very long period. The poverty and unemployment rates of these provinces are the highest in the country and the human development index of these provinces is the lowest in the country,'' the economists pointed out.

“Furthermore, the business communities in the Northern and North Central Provinces have long complained about their inability to directly engage in international trade. Presently, businesspersons in the Northern and North Central Provinces can engage in export/ import trade only through exporters/importers in Colombo. The proposed bridge would boost direct international trade between the northern, north-central, and eastern regions of Sri Lanka and India (particularly Southern India).”

Currently, only a small fraction of Indian tourists visits the Northern, North Central, and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka due to the long distance from Colombo, where the main international airport is located. The proposed bridge would boost tourist traffic to these marginalized provinces.

Unlike in 2002, 2015, 2016 and 2017, Sinhala nationalists have made no comment on the bridge proposal as on date. This is probably because it will be churlish to oppose closer links with India when India is helping Sri Lanka overcome a grave economic crisis.

But suspicions about India's moves run deep in the minds of the Sri Lankan ruling class, based on an atavistic fear of Indian hegemony. An imagined prospect of being flooded by businessmen, professionals and workers from over-populated India frightens Sri Lankan businessmen and professionals. Hence the opposition to the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) and the Economic and Technical Partnership Agreement (ETCA) proposed by India.

Sri Lanka is also thought to be too weak vis-à-vis India. Sunday Times said so in an editorial on Wickremesinghe's visit:“The problem for Sri Lanka is that it has no muscle, no clout to bargain as equal partners for win-win solutions when in Delhi. It is a lopsided balance sheet.”




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