Just as a plan for building a sea bridge and tunnel linking India and Sri Lanka seemed ready for take-off, opposition to the project in Sri Lanka has pushed it into choppy waters.

Ranil Wickremesinghe
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had proposed the sea bridge plan to India in 2002

On Wednesday, India’s Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari announced in Parliament that the Asian Development Bank had agreed to fully fund the US$5.19 billion Palk bridge project.

However, barely two days later, much to Gadkhari’s embarrassment, Sri Lanka’s Minister of Highways, Lakshman Kiriella denied Sri Lanka was on board the bridge/ tunnel project.

“We are against it because people of Sri Lanka are opposed to it. We cannot let India build a bridge,” he told the media in Colombo.

He went on to deny knowledge of the project the following day. “We are not aware of this proposal,” Kiriella told The Hindu.

The project envisages a 23-km-long bridge across the Palk Straits to link Dhanushkodi at the tip of Rameswaram in India with Talaimannar in Sri Lanka.

Its benefits are obvious. Currently, travel and trade between India and Sri Lanka is restricted to sea and air only. The bridge will provide the two countries with an overland option as well. It will boost people-to-people contact between the two countries, and increase trade and tourism.

While British colonial rulers considered building a bridge connecting India with Sri Lanka, it was Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who gave the project a fresh lease of life when he proposed it to India in 2002. India’s response at that time was lukewarm.

Instead, India favored dredging a shipping canal, the Sethusmudram, in the shallow waters of the Palk Strait. The canal was expected to boost India’s inland shipping by shortening the distance of sea travel between its west and east coasts by 400 nautical miles.

However, the Sethusamudram project ran into trouble as environmentalists in both countries and Hindu nationalists in India opposed it. The latter argued that dredging the canal would destroy the Ram Setu or Adam’s Bridge, a chain of low islands and reef shoals in the Palk Straits that Hindus believe are the remains of a bridge built by their deity Ram with the assistance of Hanuman’s monkey army. The canal project was put on the backburner.

With the Bharatiya Janata Party coming to power in India in May 2014 and Prime Minister Narendra Modi showing interest in infrastructure projects and trans-border travel and trade links in the region, the sea bridge project gained traction in India.

The Modi government is said to have discussed it with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe during the latter’s visit to India in September. However, on his return to Colombo, Wickremesinghe denied having discussed the sea bridge with India.

Opposition to the project at home could be behind the Lankan government’s repeated denials. It is likely that it would like to move cautiously on the project.

As in the case of the canal project, the sea bridge is being opposed as it will damage the rich bio-diversity of the area. But it is the vociferous protests by Sinhalese nationalists that have dominated discussion on the sea bridge in Sri Lanka.

Sinhalese nationalists are up in arms against the sea bridge. It will pave the way for an influx of Indians to the island and Sri Lanka would then cease to be a Sinhalese-Buddhist country in 50 years, points out Malin Abeyatunge while Gunadasa Amarasekara, a co-chairman of the Federation of National Organisations warns that if the bridge is built, Sri Lanka would no longer be a “separate country or an island as it would become a part of India.”

Veteran diplomat Kalyananda Godage goes further, viewing the sea bridge project as facilitating India’s imperialist ambitions of annexing the island. Discussions on the Internet abound with warnings of India using the proposed bridge to invade Sri Lanka.

Given the intensity of opposition to the sea bridge, Colombo’s hesitation is understandable. However, a more transparent approach on its part with regard to its discussions with India may be more useful than its current flip-flops and denials, which are only fuelling conspiracy theories.

An informed debate on the sea bridge project, its costs and benefits to Sri Lanka would help dispel many wrong perceptions that are floating around the island. Proponents of the project need to highlight that the sea bridge is not just about linking the island with India but with providing it with overland access to markets and opportunities in other parts of Asia.

In June, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal signed a Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) which provides for “seamless movement of people and goods across borders.”

Implementation of the agreement is expected to boost intra-regional trade substantially.

Additionally, South Asia is eyeing seamless travel and cargo movement to Southeast Asia and India is working towards signing an MVA with Myanmar and Thailand, which will provide it with overland access to Southeast Asian markets.

Sri Lanka can draw on these benefits if it comes on board the sea bridge project. But first it will need to overcome its many insecurities vis-à-vis India.

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached atsudha.ramachandran@live.in

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