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Indian and Sri Lankan Tamils set to expand interaction with revival of historic ferry service

People to people ties between Indian and Sri Lankan Tamils are set for exponential growth with new ferry service

A passenger ferry service between Karaikal port in India’s Puducherry and Kankesanthurai port in Jaffna in North Sri Lanka is finally scheduled to start operating by the end of April.

Funded by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), the Sri Lankan Navy, a  passenger terminal is being constructed at Kankesanthurai port to facilitate the four hour long ferry service. The ports will require the necessary infrastructure to facilitate customs, immigration and emigration. The vessel is expected to carry around 150 people and will operate only during the day for the first phase of the operation. A round trip is expected to cost around USD 50 , which is around LKR 20000 and INR 6000-7000 and passengers would be able to carry up to 100kg of luggage.

This cross national ferry service, though long anticipated, is not by any means a new venture. In fact it’s a resuscitation of a colonial era transport service between the two countries. The earliest iteration of such a service in popular memory was the Indo-Ceylon Express or Boat Mail- a train and ferry service between Chennai and Colombo, through the Tuticorin port in the 1900’s. Passengers had to buy one ticket for the entire length of the combined journey that would start with them getting on a train in Chennai, getting down at Tuticorin after a journey spanning more than 20 hours and from Tuticorin, taking a boat mail to Colombo.

In 1914, the route from Chennai to Colombo changed to a shorter one through Dhanushkodi and Thalaimannar. However the train-boat mail service met its perilous fate in 1964 when a cyclone washed the passenger train into the sea and destroyed the entire railway infrastructure at Dhanushkodi. Thereafter, the train service only operated till Rameswaram from where the passengers took a ferry to Thalaimannar.

The final blow however was delivered during the 80’s, when this service was finally suspended, owing to the start of the civil war between the majority Sinhala population and the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka that continued for more than 20 years. The mass casualties sustained by the minority Tamils and the grievous loss of life and property faced by them, understandably sparked outrage amongst the Indian Tamils. The Indian government couldn’t risk the conflict in the neighbouring country spilling over to India.

Since the civil war formally ended in 2009, there have been several attempts to restart this cross national transportation service. In June 2011, two years after the end of the civil war, there were talks about resuming ferry services between the two countries after a gap of 30 years. This time, there was to be a direct route- from Tuticorin to Colombo. In fact an Indian vessel called Scotia Prince even carried several hundred people through this route. A Sri Lankan counterpart to the Indian vessel was expected to soon follow, carrying passengers to India, twice a week. However, the popular opinion in South India towards the Sri Lankan government was not conducive to the successful operation of such a service at the time.

In the decade that followed, Sri Lanka went through significant political and economic upheavals. The Sri Lankan government had, since the end of the civil war, been focused on rebuilding the nation from the damage to its economy caused by the protracted ethnic conflict.  To that end, it opened up to infrastructural investments from foreign powers like China under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Sri Lanka in fact, became the face of the BRI in South Asia, as India, suspicious of China’s geopolitical ambitions in the region, refused to be a part of the BRI. This also contributed to the souring of relations between India and Sri Lanka in that decade.

However, the nature of Chinese investments and the terms under which it provided loans under the BRI has been the subject of a lot of scrutiny all over the world. Most of the Chinese sponsored projects in Sri Lanka- such as the airport in Mattala city and the Chinese built port city in Colombo, expected to be a thriving economic hub failed to produce the desired outcomes. Furthermore, an important aspect of the Chinese investments in Sri Lanka that is often overlooked is that these projects were solely focused on the development of the Southern part of the Island nation, leaving the northern region and its ports deserted and virtually inoperable.

Today, in the face of the unravelling of many such BRI funded projects in other low and middle income countries like Pakistan and Turkey, many political analysts have suggested that the Chinese loans are one of the main reasons for the debt crisis that Sri Lanka finds itself mired in. Fourteen years after the end of the civil war, the Sri Lankan government is once again facing the prospect of rebuilding its economy from the ashes of a decade’s worth of bad economic decisions.

Consequently, Sri Lanka is now turning to its closest neighbour with the intention of reviving cultural ties and fostering greater economic cooperation. India has expressed interest in investing in projects that would help the long neglected northern Sri Lanka to thrive. In this current climate, the revival of the age old ferry service connecting the South of India to Jaffna in Sri Lanka spells the beginning of a new, more positive and fruitful chapter in India- Sri Lanka bilateral relations. Jaffna, situated in the north of Sri Lanka, is a stronghold of Tamilians in the country and the cross-national ferry service is expected to be economically beneficial for the region because many Indian citizens are involved in business endeavours in the Jaffna peninsula and the ferry might encourage the expansion of such inter-national business ventures centred around North Sri Lanka. Further, it is also expected to give tourism in both countries a boost because of the shared cultural and religious heritage between the populations of both the countries.

The ferry will make it convenient for people wanting to go on a pilgrimage to Buddhist and Hindu holy sites or visit sites of historical importance to both communities in each other’s countries.

Also Read: Sri Lanka gets breather from China but debt trap problem remains