A bridge across Palk Strait:Keep India at arm’s length


Ex-diplomat K. Godage has recently written to The Island pointing out the strategic dangers of building a land bridge connecting India and Sri Lanka. KG has pointed out the threat to the sovereignty of Sri Lanka from such a bridge. The wars in Afghanistan feeding Pakistan with Jihadists, Muslim-Hindu and Sikh antagonisms etc., have made India a free market for arms, narcotics, and Jihadists. These, too, can travel freely over a bridge and add to Lanka’s existing problems.

However, such links are favoured by free-market advocates whose main policy is ‘promoting trade’. As KG points out, the idea was first mooted in 2002 by Ranil Wickremesinghe, the local Davos Man.

KG’s thesis merits further discussion regarding its economic fallout and other issues. Open borders benefit the larger industrial power. It could benefit a poorer neighbour if the latter has mineral and other resources, or cheap labour to offer. This is the case between the US and Mexico. However, even though there is a North American Free Trade agreement covering Mexico, the US and Canada, the Bush administration built large fortified walls (not bridges!) against the flow of Mexicans into the US.

Large numbers of illegal Hispanics are an exploited under class in the southern US. Hispanics may account for about 20% of the US population with a majority in some southern states speaking Spanish and little English. Republican Presidential candidates like Donald Trump routinely use racial put-downs on Hispanics. Spanish is NOT an official language of the US, and no ‘Hispanic rights activist’ has dared demand that the US anthem be sung in Spanish. 

If the proposed bridge is built Sri Lanka will be receiving impoverished, uneducated, unemployable south Indians speaking Dravidian languages. The existing racial tensions will become even more exacerbated. One has to hark back to the pre-1970s, when Kalla Thonis came here. They promptly acquired forged rice ration books in Jaffna and exploited the goodies of Sri Lanka’s welfare state. The rise of terrorism brought in another type of illegal immigration and arms transport across the Palk strait until May 2009.

What has actually happened since the defeat of terrorism is the linking of the Colombo Port to global markets, thanks to the regional free-trade agreements, and the new container facility in Colombo built with Chinese help. Colombo has now surpassed all the Indian and other south-Asian ports in the container volume it handles. Similarly, the BIA air-cargo handling has become a preferred global distribution hub. Textiles, footwear, machine parts, electronics etc from neighbouring countries like India, Vietnam and Bangladesh are brought to the center, sorted out by destination and then re-loaded on to cargo planes and ships. The Middle East, Europe, the US And Japan are the main destinations for the cargo. Japan’s SGI Holdings, Germany’s Deutsche Post DHL, APL Logistics, and other international companies have selected Sri Lanka over India, Thailand etc. This is because of Sri Lanka’s strategic position, efficient customs and clearance services as well as its significantly cheaper shipping costs (see July 17, Nikki Asian Review).

Thus, the need is not for a bridge to India but for developing alternative cargo facilities as envisaged in the Colombo Port city and in the Hambantota and Mattala projects.

The ecological impact of a bridge in the fragile Palk strait environment is very serious. Of course, it is less serious than the Rama Sethu plan to dig a deep channel in the Palk strait to allow container ships to bypass the Southern route and follow the Indian maritime waters. The Rama Sethu project is disadvantageous to Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, successive Sri Lankan governments have failed to lodge their protests. Even "concerned-neighbour" status was not accorded to Sri Lanka during or prior to the construction of the Nuclear Reactor in Koondamkulam (see my article in The Island, Mar21st2011,http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat*article-details&page*article-details&code_title*21267), although it impacts directly on the safety of the Sri Lankan North.

The exploration for oil and gas in the region of the Palk Straits and the adjoining Indian ocean should be abandoned. No small nation has successfully maintained its oil wealth and its sovereignty; the smaller nation has to pay suitable ‘kappan’ (dues) to powerful oil consortia. Even Canada, dictated by the US, ‘sells’ its oil and gas to the US with discounts amounting to 40%! It is better to leave the fossil fuels deep down in the earth and develop our solar energy resources, until Sri Lanka becomes a strong nation.

Public health in Sri Lanka is at a very satisfactory level compared to South India. Sri Lanka is free of many diseases in South India.

Road transport between the two countries will bring microbes, parasites and diseases to Sri Lanka. Even between the US and Canada, boarder controls in regard to food stuffs, meat (esp. after the incidence of mad-cow disease) etc. are very stringent. The law and order situation in South Asia is such that adequate border controls cannot currently be imposed.

In conclusion, at the moment, Sri Lanka will not gain from a land bridge to India; it will stand to lose.

Chandre Dharmawardana,

Ottawa, Canada.

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