As the infamous Chinese debt trap cast a long shadow on Sri Lanka, India & the island nation are setting the clock back by reviving a passenger ferry 41 years after Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam-inflicted terrorism disrupted it.
It is a milestone in the relations between the two countries, which have been connected via air since the vanquishing of LTTE in 2009. The political leadership has heralded it as a new chapter in the “economic and diplomatic” ties of the two countries.
This initiative represents a revival of historical maritime connections from the early 1900s. The Indo-Ceylon Express previously operated between Chennai (in India) and Colombo (in Sri Lanka) via the Thoothukudi port. It ceased operations in 1982 when the Sri Lankan civil war erupted. The decision to reintroduce ferry services follows the signing of a passenger transportation MoU between the two countries in 2011.
Union Minister of Ports, Shipping & Waterways and Ayush Sarbananda Sonowal flagged off the Ferry service between Tamil Nadu’s Nagapattinam and Sri Lanka’s Kankesanturai on October 14.
This revival of passenger ferry service between the two neighbors comes when the Chinese debt trap tightens around the island nation close to the Indian peninsula. Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe will visit China next week as the crisis-hit country progresses on debt restructuring talks with its biggest lender.
Wickremesinghe took office in July last year after a popular uprising, brought on by an economic meltdown, had forced his predecessor out of power. His October 15-19 visit to Beijing will be his first to China since then.
China is the island nation’s biggest bilateral creditor. Sri Lanka owes Chinese lenders – bilateral and commercial – around $7 billion.
On Thursday, it agreed with the Export-Import Bank of China covering about US$4.2 billion of outstanding debt. However, it is still working with other vital bilateral creditors, including Japan and India, on reaching a debt restructuring plan. China refused to sit in the joint meeting with other lenders for debt restructuring. It has been negotiated separately.
World policymakers and bondholders observe these negotiations. Beijing has been a rising creditor to developing countries in recent times. Restructuring its debt is the precondition for Sri Lanka to unlock the next US$333 million tranche of a US$3 billion lending program agreed with the IMF this year.
China has undertaken the operation of Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. Beijing has financed the construction of the port and has taken it on a lease for 99 years.
On the other hand, India-Sri Lanka relations suffered from the three decades of LTTE’s existence. India sent its forces for peacekeeping in the island nations, and they took heavy casualties. The LTTE rebels and the Sri Lankan government equally despised them. It has been India’s only peacekeeping mission outside the ambit of the UN.
With the resumption of ferry services, India and Sri Lanka embarked on a new chapter in “economics and diplomacy.” It was realized after a decade, the proposal was mooted, and a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between the two countries.
This ferry route will connect Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu, India, with Kankesanthurai in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, offering a three-hour projected travel time. The Shipping Corporation of India (SCI) will oversee the operation. SCI documents highlight the service’s potential to provide affordable options for people from India and Sri Lanka to travel to Jaffna and Tamil Nadu.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “We are embarking on a new chapter in the diplomatic and economic relations between India and Sri Lanka. Launching a ferry service between Nagapattinam and Kankesanturai is an important milestone in strengthening our relations.”
The vessel designated for this ferry service has been named Cheriyapani. While ticket prices remain undisclosed, passengers can carry up to 40 kg of luggage without additional charges. Tamil Nadu’s Minister for Public Works, EV Velu, confirmed the state government’s close involvement in this initiative, emphasizing that the ferry can accommodate up to 150 passengers.
Post-LTTE Bilateral Ties
Before the Sri Lankan civil war, one of the most successful ferry services operated between Dhanushkodi, near Rameshwaram, and Talaimannar. Passengers from Chennai would board the Boat Mail Express at the Egmore railway station to reach Rameshwaram, where they would transfer to the ferry. The journey from there to Talaimannar, conducted on a coal-powered steam ferry, typically took around two hours.
LTTE demanded a separate country for Tamilians due to the majoritarian policies of the Sri Lankan government. The Sinhalese people are in the majority in Sri Lanka, and Tamils are in the minority. The Sri Lankan government made Sinhala the official language and later passed laws that curtailed educational opportunities for minority Tamils. Gradually, the movement turned violent, and LTTE emerged as the primary representative of the Tamilians in north and east Sri Lanka.
The Tamil cause, helmed by the LTTE, received support from the Tamil diaspora worldwide, including in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where many Sri Lankan Tamilians were arriving to escape the strife-torn homeland. The inflow of refugees, rising sympathy in India for Sri Lankan Tamils, and the threat of instability in Sri Lanka spilling over into India and the wider South Asia region led to India’s first overseas military intervention.
The cultural ties between the Tamil communities in India and Sri Lanka also resulted in the cessation of the ferry service.
Sri Lanka ended the LTTE insurgency in 2009. In 2011, a ferry service was proposed as Sri Lanka was striving to change its perception as a war-torn, refugee-producing nation. At that time, two services were considered, one connecting Thoothukudi (India) and Colombo (Sri Lanka) and the other linking Rameswaram (India) and Talaimannar (Sri Lanka).
The people-to-people connectivity will positively impact trade, religious tourism, and commerce in coastal regions of both countries. Both the countries have strong cultural and religious ties dating back to centuries. The countries share two common religions – Hinduism and Buddhism.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
- Follow EurAsian Times on Google News