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A Chennai-Colombo corridor to boost Indo-Lankan connectivity

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A host of factors have contributed to the current economic crisis in Sri Lanka, most of which have been debated and analysed in detail by several commentators. Though the current government is being blamed for the crisis, especially the leadership of the Mahinda Rajapaksa clan, the crisis has been created by unfair policies followed by previous Lankan governments.

India’s Neighbourhood First policy has been operationalised and actualised with an immediacy that has drawn praises from all quarters. By extending a line of credit for procuring basic supplies, dispatching fuel supplies and arranging for a currency swap, India has stepped up to its role as a friendly and responsible neighbour. Being a first responder, India’s actions are being seen in opposition to the almost cold and calculated way that China has responded to the crisis. 

As of date, Sri Lanka’s request for a $2.6 billion loan has not been responded to very favourably by Beijing. As per some, if a loan is extended, a significant chunk will be used to service previous loans by China, ensuring that Colombo remains obliged to circle China’s orbit for a long time. In this scenario, a Chennai-Colombo corridor – for closer people-people relations and rejuvenating the free trade agreement between the two countries – can be seen as providing a means to create unbreakable linkages between the two nations on a mutually beneficial basis. Details and justification of this proposed corridor are laid out in the succeeding paragraphs.

India’s engagement with Sri Lanka

While close cultural ties exist between both nations since time immemorial, the current connection needs a fresh look as ties have been marred by an era of confusion and a blow-hot-blow-cold relationship. The last three decades have been a rollercoaster with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), fishermen and Tamils at the centre of politics. Due to this, China has gained a foothold in the island nation with a debt trap used for leasing the strategic Hambantota port for 99 years and inching uncomfortably closer to India’s core strategic interests.

The failure of the accord between the Sri Lankan government and LTTE and later involvement of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), which led to several civilian deaths and Indian soldiers killed and wounded, created bad blood between the two countries. IPKF suffered about 1,165 persons killed in action with more than 3,000 wounded. 

India’s concerns for the Tamil minority also underwent a major upheaval after the assassination of a former Indian prime minister. While India facilitated the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution, devolving more powers to the Tamil population in the north and east, its pending implementation has continued to widen a rift between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil population.

India has also shied away from strategic involvement in Sri Lanka. In fact, except for Indian Oil, there has hardly been any major investment from the Indian government directly, though the private industry-led engagement has taken place. On the one hand, Sri Lanka tried to get the best of both worlds by playing India and China against each other. On the other, China was playing its own game in obtaining a 99-year lease in Hambantota and Colombo Port City project. 

India only recently moved to strongly protest prospective Chinese projects on three islets in the northern portion of Sri Lanka, which were later awarded to Indian companies. With Sri Lanka slipping into an unprecedented crisis, a new level of relationship needs to be established between India and Sri Lanka. The establishment of a Chennai-Colombo corridor is one of these mechanisms.

A Chennai-Colombo corridor

The proposal of a Chennai-Colombo corridor is not related to the existing connectivity options but looks at the dynamics of Indo-Sri Lankan relations to forge a new connection between both countries.

Instead of a geographic entity, it is an idea whose time has come. A connection on similar lines existed between these cities when tickets purchased at either location were valid for the entire journey. The operationalisation of this corridor will establish a link with the entire Sri Lankan population. While the distance between the borders is merely 24 km away between Dhanushkoti (India) and Thalaimannar (Sri Lanka), it is recommended to be used besides other available means of communication. Chennai-Colombo connectivity could herald a new mass surface means of communication in addition to air connectivity.

The surface communication can utilise a mix of rail, road and ship communication to ensure seamless communication between these two locations. And while travelling on say, a bus, the vehicle can be loaded onto ships and offloaded onto the destination without passengers needing to disembark even once. A similar model is followed on Mekong Ganga while travelling from Vietnam to Cambodia. 

While stretches here will be long, resources in the form of heavy travel ships exist. Tickets purchased in Colombo should be valid on all modes of transport till Chennai and vice versa. We already have visa-free travel between India and Nepal and a similar arrangement can exist for movement through the Chennai-Colombo corridor. Passports certified for work/travel should be adequate to address some of our national concerns. Fears of demographic inversion and associated concerns should be addressed by ensuring adequate checks and balances. 

Sri Lankans travelling on this corridor can be encouraged to use the Indian rupee for their expenses besides adopting mutual currency usage in all expenditures whether personal or institutional. This corridor can allow free trade without any duty for the products manufactured in both the countries with the special exclusion of third party/country products. Basic facilities related to food, clothing, shelter and medicine can and must be extended to each other on favourable terms. Contractual jobs in skill deficit areas should be allowed.

The proposal can be further fine-tuned after examining the same in detail and study of both nations from a population perspective. An exit strategy from Chinese engagement in Hambantota and Colombo Port city project should be operationalised and Indo-Sri Lanka linkages should be taken to next level.

Irrespective of their conflict position during the World Wars, most European countries have coalesced into a Union for the larger good of their population. A similar model can be put in place in South Asia with India as the hub. The Sri Lankan crisis can act as a catalyst to embark on this path wherein the Chennai-Colombo corridor can be one of many options.

Maj Gen Ashok Kumar, VSM (Retd) is a Kargil war veteran and defence analyst. He is visiting fellow of CLAWS and specialises in neighbouring countries with a special focus on China

The views expressed are personal

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