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 emphasized 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 a favorite of free-market advocates whose main policy is “promoting trade”. As KG points out, the idea was first tabled in 2002 by Ranil Wickremesinghe, the local “Davos Man”, a name coined by the Harvard political writer Samuel Huntington. KG’s thesis merits further discussion regarding its economic fallout and other issues.
The Economic argument.
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 USA and Mexico. However, even though there is a North American Free Trade agreement covering Mexico, USA and Canada, the Bush administration built large fortified walls (not bridges!) against the flow of Mexicans into the USA. Large numbers of illegal Hispanics are an exploited under class in southern USA. The Hispanic population in the USA (legal and illegal) may exceed 20%, 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 USA, and no “Hispanic rights activist” has dared to ask for the US anthem in Spanish. Contrast this with the insensitive TNA-clamour for singing the Sri Lankan anthem in Tamil, just after a bitter clash of three decades.
Given a bridge to India, 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 to the island, even without a bridge. 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.
In contrast to the idea of connecting Sri Lanka to India, 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, U.S. 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 thrust is not for a bridge to India, but in augmenting and developing alternative cargo facilities, e.g., 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 by-pass 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-neighbor” 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, March 21st 2011), 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 USA discounted by some 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.
Health and Epidemiology
Sri Lanka enjoys a high level of public health compared to South India. While the WHO claims to have globally eradicated small pox, questions linger about India. Sri Lanka is free of many diseases that are recurrent and endemic in South India. The vast majority of the poor use public places as open toilets. Large numbers of people are slum dwellers who look for recyclables and food in garbage dumps in South Indian cities for their livelihood. The gulf between the rich and poor in India is extreme, and exacerbated by the draconian caste system in Tamil Nadu.
Road transport between the two countries will bring non-endemic species of microbes, parasites and sicknesses to Sri Lanka from the North. Even between between USA and Canada, boarder controls in regard to food stuffs, meat (esp. after the incidence of mad-cow disease) etc. are very stringent. The very lax 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, while it has much to loose.