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The Indo-Lanka Land bridge: Reviving the Proposal

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The Indo-Lanka Land bridge: Reviving the Proposal
Connecting growth nodal points
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Anewspaper reported recently that the Chairman of the National Transport Commission had informed that the proposal to construct a Land Bridge connecting India and Sri Lanka would feature at the second meeting of the SAARC Ministers of Transport. This was subsequently affirmed in a newsline which reported on the items discussed at the said meeting held in Colombo from 25-27 July 2009. Its inclusion in the SAARC domain suggests its relevance in the context of connectivity in the wider region. The latter’s strategic transport blueprint has already been conceived in the UN-ESCAP initiative of the Asian Highway and the Trans – Asian Railway. Previously, the link for the transport of goods and passengers between the two countries across the Palk Strait had been limited to a ferry service, which, too, was abandoned due to the internal conflict in the north of Sri Lanka . The subsequent efforts made for its revival had failed. On the other hand, the end of the warring between the parties, now offers a beacon of hope. The link could however be a more appropriate form to include road and rail transport. The latter will then facilitate a quantum leap in trade, tourism and other services. Its longer term benefit will specifically be the integration of the economic sub-region comprising Sri Lanka and the four Southern States of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Its short –term impact will be the potential outcomes of Sri Lanka’s connectivity to India’s world class Golden Quadrilateral Highway Network, and thereby to the previously mentioned UN-ESCAP road and rail initiative. This will complement the "bridge" already in place to close the digital divide, and the power divide by the supply of electricity along a route between Madurai and Anuradhapura with a submarine cable across the Palk Strait.

The revival of the proposal by Sri Lanka for building the Indo-Lanka Bridge to close the physical divide between the two massively contrasting land masses, may find it useful to look back on the continuum on same. Its origins date back to British colonial times. An Internet search indicates that the imperative for linking the two countries at that time had been for the transport of workers hired from Tamil Nadu to tea plantations here. Consequently, steps had been taken by the colonial administrators not only to propose the ‘Indo-Ceylon Bridge’ but also to also link the mainlands of the two countries that were separated from its contiguous territories by the islets fronting the Palk Strait, which could serve as its two ends. Available records show that the "Indo-Ceylon Bridge" had been proposed as far back as 1894 by the Consultant Engineer for railways in Madras. Its object had been to create a land route connecting Madras with Colombo, via Erode, Trichinopoly, Madurai and Rameshwaran ( in India ) and Mannar (in Ceylon ). Around this same time, the Chief Resident Engineer (Railway Extensions) in Ceylon was instructed by the Government "to inspect and report on the proposed route of the Indo-Ceylon Railway from Pamban to Talladi near Mannar." The serious consideration at the time of the proposed Bridge is reflected in its advance from a technical blueprint to actual costing. The 22-mile rail bridge over the Palk Strait had been estimated to cost one-fifths that of the entire project.


Pamban Bridge

Thus, by 1913/14, the southern tip of the Indian mainland at Mandapam was connected with Pamban Island by constructing a pre-dominantly rail bridge with a road segment. The town of Dhanushkodi in this island comprised the designated terminal for travel to and from India across the Palk Strait. The narrow gauge Pamban Bridge of 2.06 km length had a portion which could be lifted to permit boats to pass underneath. At this same time (in 1913), the mainland of Ceylon at its north- western town of Mannar was connected to its Mannar Island (or Talaimannar) by a broad gauge rail bridge across the sea separating them. Accordingly, the pier at Talaimannar became the landing jetty for travel to Ceylon across the Palk Strait. It is noteworthy that the first train from within Ceylon crossed over from Mannar to Talaimannar in 1914. Thus, although the rail tracks at the two ends of the envisaged Indo-Ceylon Railway were constructed, the Bridge linking them across the Palk Strait had not materialised. The likely reason for the latter was attributed by a Lankan Railway Engineer to the rail track in the entirety of the route being of different gauges and not of a uniform broad gauge. Meanwhile, it is notworthy that two years ago the track on the Pamban Bridge was converted to the broad gauge.

The commencement of train operations on the Talaimannar line enabled the carriage of the Indo-Ceylon traffic for several decades via a daily ferry service across the Palk Strait between Dhanushkodi (in India), and the Talaimannar pier ( in Ceylon ). This was considered the cheapest mode of transport of passengers and goods between the two neighbouring countries. The latter continued until 1967, when a cyclone destroyed the port of Dhanushkodi, and also damaged the Talaimannar pier. Boats, too, were damaged beyond repair. Nonetheless, in the early 1970s the travel between the two countries by train and ferry was revived from a landing jetty at Rameshwaran in Pamban Island and the repaired pier at Talaimannar with the operation of a single boat. Its popularity was reflected in the carrying of 900 passengers per trip plying thrice in each week, under normal weather conditions. Reportedly, it could not cope with the growing demand, resulting in the shutting out of thousands of passengers. However, as previously mentioned, the internal conflict in north Sri Lanka which began in 1983 with limited violence, became a widespread raging battle in the subsequent years. The efforts to bring about a settlement between the warring parties failed in spite of periodic calm during the times of peace negotiations.

It had a spillover influence over the border in Tamil Nadu. Hence, its outcome was an end to the revived ferry service across the Palk Strait. Several efforts were made by the Sri Lankan Government to discuss with India for re-starting the ferry service during the period 2002 to 2004 when a "Ceasefire Agreement " was brokered by the Norwegian Government serving as a Facilitator acceptable to both parties in the conflict. Nevertheless, India’s response was lukewarm with no result to show on ground. Its principal objector was the Tamil Nadu State Government.

On the other hand, the imperative to broaden links between Sri Lanka and India continued unabated. The Lankan Prime Minister at that time perceived the spillover effect of the conflict "as loud and emotional disputes which erupt from time to time in any vibrant democracy". Thus, in December 2001 during a visit to India he proposed to his counterpart the building of the Land Bridge across the Palk Strait linking Talaimannar in Sri Lanka and Rameshwaran in South India. He pushed for the Bridge stating that, "it would offer both sides huge economic benefits, with industry springing up on both ends of the project". He considered  the prospects arising from the Bridge as a continuum of the process which began with the Indo-Lanka Free Trade Agreement (ISLFTA) that was entered into in 1998 and operationalized in 2000. Further, he explained that the objective of the Bridge was to promote higher growth through the economic integration of Sri Lanka with the southern part of the Indian Subcontinent by creating a "Pearl River Delta" type compact linking Hong Kong and the province of Guangdong in China. He deduced that achieving the latter necessarily required," the linking of India and Sri Lanka with a Land Bridge, a railway and highway system, which would connect the ports of Colombo, Trincomalee and Chennai, with Madurai becoming a major manufacturing centre." In this context, the Bridge was to create an Indo-Lanka Development Corridor. This was observed by an eminent economist of global repute, Prof. Jeffery Sachs, who submitted that, ‘the Land Bridge should be the cornerstone for the economic integration between the two countries, and should be a contributory factor for creating a hub’.