Today (15 Aug.) is India’s Independence Day and will be celebrated by India’s Jaffna Consulate – an event that Jaffna looks forward to as one of its important festivals with good food and Indian artistes coming for our enjoyment and to celebrate all we share.
Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan culture are India’s children. We are inseparably connected. We, especially Tamils, go to India for vacations, saris, medical treatment, Hindus to temples for blessings like our Prime Minister and President, education, female boarding-schools, movies, etc.. In the 1960s, it was common for MG Ramachandran fans to cross the Palk Straits illegally to watch the premieres of his movies and be the envy of lla.
It is unfortunate that the connectivity is strained as a result of our two major communities having their relations strained by racism. India was forced to intervene because our war was threatening India’s security with gun fights between Tamil factions in Chennai. The Thirteenth Amendment, while not fully satisfying Tamils, was a via media that provided structure for Sinhalese and Tamils to live together. Unfortunately, there are communalists on both sides of the ethnic division who argue that the amendment is useless and use the unlawfully postponed provincial council elections to argue that provincial councils should be eliminated, stripping Tamils of the few powers they have over their lives through the partially implemented agreement. Few Tamils realize that if not for India repeatedly reminding our government of its obligation to implement fully the Indo-Lanka agreement, they would be far worse off.
In these circumstances, India joining the rest of the International Community to help end the LTTE as stated by Tamil Leader and Elder Statesman R. Sampanthan without any acrimony towards India, must give Tamils pause to ask why India did that.
When the LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi on Indian soil, began drug-dealing, and smuggling uzi-machine guns from Israel to drug cartels in South and Central America it signaled that it had grown too big for its boots and threatened peace globally. That is why the IC had to act as it did in 2005-9. Who is the thinking Tamil who can argue that after that dastardly murder and threat to law and order, India had to help the LTTE achieve Tamil Eelam? This is why Mr. Sampanthan argues that having snuffed out the LTTE stopped the Sri Lankan army from wiping out all signs of Tamils in Sri Lanka, as is happening even now through settlements. India, together with the IC, has an inexorable obligation to ensure a just order for Tamils.
Thinking-Sinhalese too realize that their own well-being and advancement depend on reaching a modus vivendi with minorities. However, there are obstacles to progress from inveterately entrenched communal forces. This is why liberal-minded Sinhalese are scared to put forward the required solutions. Research shows that many Sinhalese are willing to devolve power to Tamil areas but fear, for electoral reasons, being public about it. Only India has the wherewithal to assist and strengthen those Sinhalese who support a rights-based society.
Connectivity through Palaly Airport
I assess that India is mindful of the obligations that devolved upon it with the Thirteenth Amendment and helping Sri Lanka triumph over the LTTE. It is overdue for the IC to blunt the prevailing triumphalism here and build peace with rights for all. As India’s Consul in Jaffna, Shri S. Balachandran sees it, enhanced connectivity is the need of the hour:
“Strong people-to-people ties are key to strong bilateral relations. In this regard, we consider connectivity as an important factor to further strengthen people to people ties. Sri Lankan Government is keen to start short haul flights from Palaly to airports in South India at the earliest. We are working with GoSL so that we can transform this dream into reality soon.”
I believe that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe shares this vision as I heard him at Jaffna University’s Engineering Faculty promising the airport soon; but it has not happened.
Inexcusable Delay and Excuses
The delay entails huge losses to our economy given the advantages of an international airport at Palaly. First, the increased trade. Then the millions of tourists to India will see Sri Lanka as contiguous and hop over. Once in Jaffna, it would be natural to visit Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, and the beautiful beaches of the East.
Add to that the convenience of our travelers to India. The Jaffna Consulate entertains visa applications only from the 5 districts of the North. In 2016, some 25,000 travelers were given visas. By 2018, the number had risen to 30,000. Imagine the waste in travelling from Jaffna to Colombo Airport and then flying back over Jaffna to India. The diversion of so many passengers from Colombo, some think is bad, but it could save funds presently expended on more runways and terminals at over-crowded Katunayake.
In 2015, when the air-force held 7800 acres of land, many Tamils too, including it is said the Chief Minister, objected to the airport thinking all that land would be swallowed up. Some southerners objected to the losses to Colombo tour operators if tourists started their journeys from Jaffna. But is it fair to keep the North as a backwater and prevent its development?
Excuses have been trotted out ignoring the advantages to Sri Lanka’s economy. The 1.6 km runway with only 1 km in good condition is not good enough argued our airports authority. India promptly had a team come and OK the airport and generously offered to repair the 600 m of bad runway. India also offered to develop the airport with customs and immigration facilities. But Sri Lanka continued to balk.
A US medical team, Operation Pacific Angel, in Aug. 2016 brought equipment in a huge plane (“as tall as a Palmyra tree”). That convinced Tamils that the aviation authorities’ excuses were just that – excuses. By then the land had been released by the air force and only 3400 acres remained, abating Tamil suspicions that the airport was an excuse to keep the land.
India’s High Commissioner HE Taranjit Singh Sandhu visiting on 20 July, 2018 pressed for an agreement and promised that India was ready to fly 4 months later on Deepavali Day, 2018. Sri Lanka argued that they had only 150-seat planes and not the 70-seaters required. India countered to arrange for these planes on lease with 2 flights each day for India and Sri Lanka, so that Sri Lanka would earn the lease payments. No deal!
A Lot More to the Reluctance
Clearly Sri Lanka is not voicing its real objections. This is seen in PM Wickremesinghe – who wants the airport – having agreed to it as part of the arrangement under which the TNA has been supporting the government and is insisting that the government keep its side of the bargain. Wickremesinghe as a free market advocate also knows what good the expanded airport can do for Sri Lanka. Yet, when he speaks of the advantages of Palaly airport he speaks only of flights to Hyderabad and Bangalore and rarely of flights to Chennai or Trichy.
The real objection seems the Sinhalese fear of being overwhelmed by “hordes of Tamils” who would come to work here and take away jobs – a replay of the 1930s when Tamils from Tamil Nadu came as labourers. That xenophobia brought out the worst in the Sinhalese, prompting D.S. Senanayake to rant on New Year’s day, 1939: “We are one blood and one nation. We are a chosen people. The Buddha said that his religion would last 5500 years. That means that we, as the custodians of that religion, shall last as long.”
Not to be outdone, SWRD Banadaranaike joined the refrain, “I am prepared to sacrifice my life for the sake of my community, the Sinhalese. If anybody were to try to hinder our progress, I am determined to see that he is taught a lesson he will never forget.“
For that, an admiring Mrs. Srimathie Abeygunawardena “likened Mr. Bandaranaike to Hitler and appealed to the Sinhalese community to give him every possible assistance to reach the goal of freedom.” (Above three quotations from Rajan Hoole’s Arrogance of Power.)
Fighting Xenophobia: The New Tamil Nadu
Xenophobia has destroyed Sri Lanka. Fighting it takes courage, not pandering to it by hiding facts from the public. Knowledge is the best weapon.
Ignorance fosters racism. It feeds our egos to think Tamils are backward and they will, given the airport, come to us in droves to take over Sri Lanka. It comforts us to think that we are at the mountain-top and that Tamil hordes from Tamil Nadu will come to steal our jobs.
But what is the new reality? Sri Lankan Tamils might have been successfully reduced to the rubbish heap, but not the Tamils of Tamil Nadu as even Sri Lankan Tamils, in their own arrogance, fail to see the advances made by their Indian brethren.
In reality, Tamil Nadu is one of the most vibrant Indian states since the liberalization of 1991. With 6% of the population, it is 9.6% of India’s economy with a GDP of 250 billion US$ – compared to Sri Lanka’s 87 billion US$.
40% of the relevant age cohort is in university. It is far superior in having doctors, with every district having specialty hospitals. It receives the highest number of tourists among Indian states, and is the most urbanized Indian state. It has an installed power capacity of 23,000 MW (against Sri Lanka’s 4000 MW) of which 45% is renewable!
TN’s once weak indices, literacy, and life-expectancy, are now comparable to Sri Lanka’s. Population growth is zero. There is no chance that Tamils will come here for jobs. Instead, wheat-eating North Indians go there for menial jobs. The daily wage-rate there is SLRs. 2500, compared to our SLRs 1500. It will be easier for our rice-eaters to get job considering TN’s lower cost of living and cultural fit.
The Good News
The hot news that I received, with pictures, on the 13th from Uthayan’s N. Logathayalan is that the PM and Mangala Samaraweera have put their foot down and the building of the airport is progressing into an international airport over the last few days. India is finalizing a 300 million LKRs Palaly aid-package. Despite the talk of a 1.6 km runway, a 3.8 km runway is being built to provide an international airport. MPs Sumanthiran and Mavai Senathirajah are dedicated to ensuring the PM’s honouring their agreement.
In keeping with the tradition of the name “Bandaranaike International Airport,” the request has been made to name this “Thanthai Chelva International Airport.” The PM will be in Jaffna on the 16th instant to examine progress.
Thanks to India, Sri Lanka is being pulled into the Comity of Civilized Nations.