Amid growing Chinese presence, resumption of old ferry service will boost India-Sri Lanka connectivity
Sri Lanka has always been a very important and strategically critical Indian Ocean neighbour and removing the bottlenecks in their relationships has been a top priority for New Delhi.
The Neighbourhood First policy is a significant cornerstone of India’s foreign policy to bolster relationships with its immediate neighbours, with the focus on connectivity and cooperation. As a part of that strategy, the Indian government is working towards enhancing ties with southern neighbour Sri Lanka which with it shares traditional cultural and social bonds. This includes Chennai-Jaffna flights that have strong historical linkages, housing projects, cultural centres, hospitals and ferry services.
The resumption of Nagapattinam (India) to Kankesanthurai (Sri Lanka) ferry services speaks volumes of the initiative taken to renew people-to-people contacts and cultural ties after a long span of civil strife and economic meltdown in Sri Lanka. While a ferry service was launched between Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu and Colombo in May 2011, it was suspended six months later because of lack of commercial viability.
India has a long history of maritime trade with Sri Lanka which was disrupted due to the country's civil war. Kankesanthurai situated in the Jaffna town in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka was a key stronghold of the Tamil Tiger rebels. The port at Kankesanthurai was closed by the Sri Lankan Navy after it was targeted by the rebels and this disrupted the ferry service to India in the 1980s. After 40 years, talks resumed to restart the ferry services between Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu, India and Kankesanthurai near Jaffna in Sri Lanka.
Benefits of ferry service
The ferry services established by the Tamil Nadu Maritime Board and the Shipping Corporation of India, flagged off with 50 passengers and 12 crew members but the hi-speed ferry has the capacity of 150 passengers and would cover a distance of 110 kms in about 3.5 hours. Travellers can now easily go to northern and eastern Sri Lanka in about four hours, instead of flying to Colombo and taking a road trip of up to 10 hours. At the request of the Tamil Nadu Maritime Board, India's Ministry of External Affairs sanctioned Rs 8 crore for upgrading the Nagapattinam port, including dredging the channel and refurbishing the passenger terminal building and approach road.
This ferry service is expected to boost both the country’s economic partnership vision, a roadmap for energy, air and maritime connectivity that was finalized during Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visit to India in July 2023. Prominent Indian pilgrimage centres like Thanjavur, Madurai and Tiruchi are expected to witness an influx of Sri Lankan refugees. Investment in port facilities, custom procedures and immigration processes can enhance the overall travel experience. Enhancement of regional peace and security can foster mutual goodwill and understanding between people of both the countries.
Wickremasinghe and Indian Prime MInister Narendra Modi recalled the ancient cultural and trade links and highlighted the importance of connectivity in video messages that were beamed at a ceremony in Nagapattinam. Modi said, “Connectivity is not only about bringing two cities closer. It also brings our countries closer, our people closer and our hearts closer.” (‘PM Modi lauds ‘new chapter’ as India, Sri Lanka resume ferry service after 40 years,’ Press Trust of India, 14 October, 2023. Source: https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/pm-modi-lauds-new-chapter-as-india-sri-lanka-resume-ferry-service-after-40-years-2449012-2023-10-14)
Offsetting the growing Chinese presence
The resumption of passenger ferry services between the countries comes in the wake of growing presence of China in the Indian Ocean Region, especially in Sri Lanka. China is the island nation’s biggest lender and creditor. Besides, it is taking increasing control over maritime trade with undertaking operations of Hambantota port. China has financed its construction and taken it on a lease for 99 years. India, aware of rising Chinese presence in Sri Lanka and its debt-trap diplomacy, has gone a step ahead to consolidate cultural relations with Sri Lanka, so much so that the island nation recently supported India in its face-off with Canada.
In August 2020, Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Jayanath Colambage declared that Sri Lanka would adopt an India First approach in its foreign policy though Colombo would always be open to dealing with other major countries for economic development (Hindu, 2020). This means Sri Lanka would never engage in anything that would harm India’s strategic interest.
Despite China’s expanded footprints in South Asia, India and Sri Lanka has been able to sustain a functional relationship though both had a turbulent past. Facilitating sea connectivity between both the nations was a long pending issue. This was given a lease of life with resumption of ferry services. For India, Sri Lanka has always been a very important and strategically critical Indian Ocean neighbour and removing the bottlenecks in their relationships has been a top priority for New Delhi. Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has said Sri Lanka has benefitted from several policies of the Indian government. “In future we are looking at grid connection, pipeline and economic corridor. And, of course, support for all in Sri Lanka to live in equal dignity and equal rights,” Jaisankar said in reference to protection of Tamil minority rights in that country. (‘India, Sri Lanka launch ferry services across Palk Straits after four decades’, Hindustan Times, 14 October, 2023. Source: https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/india-sri-lanka-launch-ferry-service-across-palk-strait-after-four-decades-101697293597392.html).
The New Delhi-Colombo relationship is not just reciprocal but strategic. Recent instances are the help extended by the Indian Navy to tackle the oil spill on the east coast of Sri Lanka in 2020 and intelligence input provided to Sri Lanka before and in the aftermath of terror attacks in 2019.
(The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Jangipur College, Kalyani University, West Bengal. Views are personal. She can be reached at email@example.com.)