COLOMBO: Sri Lanka has scuttled Indian Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari’s proposal to build a bridge across the Palk Strait.
“We are against it because people of Sri Lanka are opposed to it. We cannot let India build a bridge,” the Lankan Minister of Highways, Lakshman Kiriella, told the media here on Friday.
As per Gadkari’s plan, announced in the Indian parliament on Wednesday, the bridge will link Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu with Talaimannar in the Mannar district of north Lanka. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is to fund the project, which India sees as being part of a trans-Asian road network.
But ever since the idea of a land bridge was mooted in 2002 by Ranil Wickremesinghe in his earlier stint as Lankan Prime Minister, it has drawn intense flak in Lanka. No one was surprised when Wickremesinghe’s “Hanuman Bridge” project was abandoned the moment he lost power in 2004.
However, the issue came to the fore again, when Gadkari revived the idea. But to the Indian Minister’s discomfiture, Wickremesinghe had abandoned the idea of building the Hanuman Bridge. As Prime Minister in 2015 he denied having received any such proposal from the Narendra Modi government.
However, Prime Minister Modi took up the issue when Wickremesinghe visited New Delhi in September. But on return to Colombo, Wickremesinghe categorically denied having discussed it during the Delhi visit.
Meanwhile, arguments against a land link between Lanka and India began to be voiced by intellectuals and opinion leaders. Udaya Gammanpilla, head of the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU), a Sinhalese nationalist party, said that the bridge will result in Lanka becoming another state of India. Archeologist and anthropologist, Rukshan Jayawardane, told Express that joining the island with the mainland will be a basic geographic change which will fundamentally alter the situation in the island.
“ The question has to be considered by experts in various fields, and then, finally, the people of the island have to be consulted through a referendum,” Jayawardane said.
He pointed to the existence of a deep animosity towards Lanka in Tamil Nadu and said that this creates fears about hostile elements from Tamil Nadu storming North Lanka or infiltrating into Lanka. Lanka already has a severe problem with Tamil Nadu fishermen poaching in Lankan waters using banned fishing methods. And Tamil Nadu is claiming Kachchativu.
“And, if there is a confrontation between New Delhi and Tamil Nadu, the latter could well use Tamil-speaking North Lanka as a rear base to the detriment of Lanka’s interests,” Jayawardane said.
The majority Sinhalese fear that a land bridge will make it easier for lndia to send its army to Lanka. Earlier in 1987, India had sent the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). According to former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, Tamil Nadu kings had invaded Lanka 54 times in history.
An on-line petition against the project alleged that “Kala Azar” (oriental sore or Leishmaniasis) and the poisonous Alligator plant were brought to Lanka by the IPKF. So was the toxic parthenium weed. The petition raises fears of the return of cerebral malaria, bubonic plague and cholera. The blame for the “Weligama Coconut Wilt” disease, which destroyed coconut plantations in Lanka, is placed at the door of coconut imports from Kerala.
There are fears of the revival of illegal migration (the Kalla Thoni syndrome of the 1950s and 60s) from overpopulated and impoverished Tamil Nadu to Lanka. It is pointed out that the tunnel across the English Channel has posed serious problems for UK’s border security.