COLOMBO: The idea of building a road bridge across the Palk Strait to link India and Sri Lanka, which the Indian Road Transport Minister, Nitin Gadkari, has revived, has a hoary past.
The ancient Hindu epic, the Ramayana, mentions the construction of a bridge to enable Lord Rama’s army to move to Lanka. At the end of the 19 th, Century, the British, who were then ruling India and Lanka, seriously considered the construction of a bridge across the 35 km stretch of sea so that tea and rubber plantation workers from Tamil Nadu could be moved easily between India and Lanka.
In his paper on the bridge Dr. Willie Mendis, Emeritus Professor of Town and Country Planning, Moratuwa University, says that the project was revived by a Madras-based Consultant Railway Engineer in 1894. The Madras railways quickly got a technical blueprint and costing done. By 1913-14, Mandapam was connected with Pamban Island by a rail bridge with a road segment. A terminal was built at Dhanushkodi. The Pamban Bridge had a portion which could be lifted to permit boats to pass underneath.
On the Lankan side, Mannar was connected to Talaimannar jetty by a rail bridge across the sea. And the first train from within Lanka, crossed from Mannar to Talaimannar in 1914.
Though the rail tracks at the two ends of the envisaged India-Lanka railway were constructed, the bridge across the Palk Strait was not. Mendis quotes a Lankan railway engineer to say that this was due to the difference in the track gauges. While it was broad gauge on the Lankan side, it was narrow gauge on the Indian side.
Over time, due to various factors, including war, the bridge building project was not pursued.
However, during the 2002-2004 Peace Process, the then Lankan Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, asked India to help build what he called the “Hanuman Bridge.” The Lankan side envisaged a four-lane highway with a parallel single rail track. The Lankan Board of Investment (BOI) fixed the cost at LKR 88 billion (USD 654 million at the present exchange rate).
According to Mendis, there was enthusiasm for the project among engineers on both sides of the Palk Strait. Many good papers were presented at a seminar held in Colombo in August 2002 under the aegis of the Lankan Institution of Engineers and the Indian Institution of Engineers (Tamil Nadu Centre). But New Delhi’s response was “lukewarm” because the then Tamil Nadu government was against the bridge, Mendis laments.
After Eelam War IV, however, the bridge idea was revived as part of the SAARC and Asian road connectivity projects. It was discussed by SAARC Transport Ministers at Colombo in 2009.