Friday’s announcement that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe will explore the feasibility of a land bridge between India and Sri Lanka across the Pal Strait, has hit the headlines in Sri Lanka.


But the audacious idea of establishing a land link is not new. It has been pursued before, only to be abandoned quickly because it is a political hot potato in Sri Lanka.


Harbouring atavistic fears about intrusions from Tamil Nadu, Sri Lankan opinion makers have, many times in the past, raised the red flag about the possibility of Sri Lanka’s losing its sovereignty if a land connection is established with India. In a manifestation of the “island mentality”, Sri Lankan opinion makers draw comfort from the fact that a sea stands between their island nation and the rest of the world, especially the populous and increasingly powerful India.


Speaking to the media after the Modi-Wickremesinghe talks, Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra said that the idea of giving India “land access to the ports of Colombo and Trincomalee” was proposed by the Sri Lankan President and that both leaders agreed to take this forward by carrying out a feasibility study.


The land access would help bring about economic prosperity to both countries and also regional cohesion, Modi had said.


It is significant that the Indian Foreign Secretary made it a point to mention that the idea came from the Sri Lankan President. It showed that the Indian side is aware that when the idea was proposed by Wickremesinghe in 2002 and when the Indian Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari proposed it in 2015, it ran into rough weather in Sri Lanka and had to be abandoned.


When Wickremesinghe proposed the construction of the “Hanuman Bridge” in 2002, he was keen on building a strong economic cum strategic relationship with India to contain the Tamil Tiger insurgency in North and East Sri Lanka. The Hanuman Bridge was part of a package of concessions to India that included the grant of the oil tanks in Trincomalee and a part of the petroleum distribution network to the Indian Oil Corporation.


In June 2002, Wickremasinghe handed over to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha, a Concept Paper jointly prepared by governmental agencies in Sri Lanka and India on the proposed bridge. The Concept Paper touted the project as a feasible one. But the bid was abandoned when the political tide in Sri Lanka turned against Wickremesinghe in 2004 on the issue of the concessions he gave to the international community and the LTTE as part of the 2002-2004 peace process.


In 2015, the Indian Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari proposed the building of the 23 km bridge with ADB help of US$ 3.5 billion. But this time, Wickremesinghe, who was Prime Minister then, was non-committal on it. Again, when the nationalist politician Udaya Gammanpila asked him in 2017 to comment on Gadkari’s proposal, Wickremesinghe said that the bridge could be built after the Northern Highway was built.


Always propagating closer economic links with India, especially its Southern States, Wickremesinghe now feels that the political climate in his country is conducive to closer ties with India, given the significant role India has been playing in rescuing Sri Lanka from an economic abyss. Hence the proposal to give India “land access to the ports of Colombo and Trincomalee.”


In May 2023, two Sri Lankan economists, Gayasha Samarakoon and Muttukrishna Sarvananthan said in a paper published by Routledge that a land bridge would bring down the transport cost in India-Sri Lanka trade by 50%.


The 23 km bridge could be traversed in less than an hour. And from the arrival point at Talaimannar, it would take another 7–8 hours to reach Colombo by road (roughly 367 km). Hence, the total of 9 hours of travel time by road would be a tiny fraction of the 40–122 hours’ time if the sea route was taken, the economists pointed out.


They further said that the waiting time for customs clearance and other formalities could also be significantly reduced because the land route would involve only exports/imports to/from India, whereas the Colombo Harbour be handling trade to and from all over the world.


Lower transport costs would also depress the prices of goods and services in Sri Lanka. An uptick in the two-way trade via the proposed bridge would create thousands of direct and indirect jobs.


But to reap the maximum benefit of the proposed bridge, the Sri Lankan domestic road networks have to be improved, the economists said. A highway from Talaimannar to Katunayake along the north-western/western coast could be built to join the Katunayake-Colombo Expressway. This could cut down travel time considerably. Besides, a highway linking Talaimannar and Trincomalee (via Vavuniya and Horowpathana) would provide speedier and easier access to Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province,” the economists pointed out.


Significantly, India is interested in land access to the Colombo and Trincomalee ports.


The road link with India would also contribute to the economic development of backward provinces like the Northern Province (encompassing the Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu, and Vavuniya districts) and the North Central Province (encompassing the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa districts).


“These districts are the lowest contributors to the national economy for a very long period. The poverty and unemployment rates of these provinces are the highest in the country and the human development index of these provinces is the lowest in the country,’’ the economists said.


Furthermore, the business communities in the Northern and North Central Provinces have long complained about their inability to directly engage in international trade. Presently, the businesspersons in the Northern and North Central Provinces can engage in export/ import trade only through exporters/importers in Colombo. The proposed bridge would boost direct international trade between the northern, north-central, and eastern regions of Sri Lanka and India (particularly Southern India).


Currently, only a small fraction of Indian tourists visits the Northern, North Central, and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka due to the long distance from Colombo, where the main international airport is located. The proposed bridge would boost tourist traffic to the marginalized Northern, North Central, and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka, the economists said.


However, nationalism runs deep in Sri Lanka. An aspect of Sri Lankan nationalism is a constant suspicion about India’s moves, rooted in fears about Indian hegemony. The prospect of being flooded by traders and professionals from over-populated India frightens Sri Lankan businessmen and professionals. Hence the opposition to the Economic and Technical Partnership Agreement (ETCA) proposed by India.


Sri Lanka is thought to be too weak to resist India. As Sunday Times put it editorially: “The problem for Sri Lanka is that it has no muscle, no clout to bargain as equal partners for win-win solutions when in Delhi. It is a lopsided balance sheet.”


Writing in August 2015 in Colombo Telegraph, Prof.Chandre Dharmawardana expressed fears of a cultural absorption of the Sri Lankan Tamils in case there was a huge influx from India.


“While Sinhala and Tamil cultures have co-existed within Lanka, any free access to a direct connection to Tamil Nadu will erode the identity of Lankan-Tamil culture, and to a lesser extent, the Sinhalese culture. The latter, used to centuries of such interactions may survive the challenge of a land bridge, while Lankan Tamil culture will be stifled and homogenized by a direct embrace with Tamil Nadu. In effect, while we must have vigorous links with India, our dealings need to be at arm’s length” Prof.Dharmawardena said.