JAFFNA: Representatives of Indian companies who exhibited their products at the Jaffna International Trade Fair from January 27 to 29, were unanimously of the view that for the development and trade and investment between India and the Tamil-speaking Northern Province of Sri Lanka, the construction of a road linking Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu with Thalaiamannar in North Sri Lanka is a must.
“Better connectivity is the bottom line for the development of trade and investment,” said Harish Singla of Goyum Screw Press from Ludhiana.
Goyum Screw Press is one of the 65 Indian companies from the small and medium scale sector which participated in the fair partly sponsored by ASSOCHAM of India.
“Having to land our goods at Colombo in the south, we take another eight hours to reach Jaffna in the far North. This journey puts investors and traders off. It would make matters straight and simple if we are able to go by road from Rameswaram to Thalaimannar across Palk Strait and thence to Jaffna,” explained Amandeep Azad of Azad Engineering Company based in Ghaziabad.
As on date, there are now only four points of entry into Sri Lanka from outside the island, and all are in South Sri Lanka (Colombo port and airport, and Mattala airport and Hambantota port in the deep south). And of the four, only Colombo and airport are functional.
“The other advantage in having a direct road link with India is that it will eliminate the Colombo-based middle men. This will bring down prices in the Jaffna market,” added Azad.
According to Jaffna trade sources, more than 40 percent of the goods sold in the Jaffna market are from South India.
There is a lot of support in Tamil-speaking North Sri Lanka for a road link with India because it will make travel to and fro much easier and cheaper. But the Sri Lankan government and opinion makers in South Sri Lanka are opposed to a land link with India on grounds of security in the light of past invasions and migrations from India.
Illicit immigration was a major problem in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1980s and 1990s, Tamil militants were using the Palk Strait to link with their logistic and support bases in Tamil Nadu. Even today, thousands of Tamil Nadu fishing trawlers poach in Sri Lankan waters just 2 nautical miles from the Sri Lankan coast.
In 2002, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is an ardent supporter of the idea of establishing economic ties with South India, put forth the idea of building the “Hanuman Bridge” across the Palk Strait. Experts of the two countries met and drew up a technical plan for the bridge. But the plan drew heavy flak from South Sri Lankan Sinhalese nationalists and was given up.
A wiser Wickremesinghe declined to revive the Hanuman Bridge project when he came back to power in January 2015 although he has been pleading for Sri Lanka’s integration with the South Indian states which, according to him, has a collective GDP of US$ 500 billion.
The Prime Minister is pressing India to enter into an Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) with Sri Lanka the soonest. But Sri Lankan nationalists are opposing ETCA tooth and nail saying that it will lead to an influx of Indian personnel who will flood the Sri Lankan labour market.
The road link project is seen as a danger precisely because it will help Indians, especially Tamils from Tamil Nadu, enter Sri Lanka more easily than now.
But the Indian entrepreneurs at the fair pointed out that Thalaimannar will have Sri Lankan customs and immigration personnel to keep an eye and check on incoming people and goods.
However strong the argument for a road link may be, the present situation is not conducive for it. The recent discovery of a “plot” by the pro-LTTE Tamil Diaspora to assassinate Tamil National Alliance MP M.A.Sumanthiran with a claymore mine adds to the fear of Tamil militants entering the island through Tamil Nadu.
Also, there is little likelihood of the road link coming up in the context of US President Donald Trump’s decision to build a wall across the border with Mexico to keep Mexicans from entering the US.
According to reliable sources, the Sri Lankan government wants the air link between Palaly (Jaffna) and Tamil Nadu restored. But the Indian government-aided project to upgrade Palaly airport is stalled because the Airports Authority of India which is to execute the work has quoted a very high price.