By N. Lohathayalan –
The Palaly airport was begun on 359 acres of land by British armed forces. The first flight to India was on 10 Dec. 1947. Now, as of 17 Oct. 2019, it will function as the Jaffna International airport.
The ceremonial opening of the airport on 17 Oct. brings joy to not only the people of Jaffna but for all those to whom Sri Lanka is home. The benefits to all Sri Lankans are immense – see S.R.H. Hoole, “Our permanent umbilical connectivity to India...,” Colombo Telegraph, 15 Aug. 2019.
The request to upgrade the old Palaly Aerodrome was first forwarded by TNA MP, Mavai Senathirajah, in 2014 to the then Indian Consul in Jaffna. Promising to take serious note of the request, the Consul carried it to the Indian government where upon reaching the Indian Prime Minister, it received the status of an agreement between the governments of Sri Lanka and India in 2015. Yet, to implement the agreement even after budget estimates were made, all administrative arrangements were done in secrecy. With two governments involved, the veil of secrecy could not last long. By the end of 2015 when the plans became well-known, the Maithripala Sirisena – Ranil Wickremesinghe government officially gave its green light. When the matter reached the hands of the Colombo administrators, however, the administrators applied all brakes.
Perhaps these administrators mistakenly thought that as a result of the airport, the economy of the North may flower at the expense of the southern economy. Economists, however, think this is lopsided communal thinking and that the whole of Sri Lanka will benefit as trade with India surely will increase with tourism and cultural tie-ups.
At the same time, the then Chief Minister of the North, C.V. Wigneswaran, did not like the scheme. He firmly communicated his anti-development view to Indian officialdom. The Chief Minister was estranged from the TNA by then. It was a case of not wanting the TNA to get too much credit for the development that would come. As a result, India seemed reluctant to carry forward the development of the airport when the Northern Provincial Council (in the form of its head) was so opposed to it. India set out to ask if the TNA shared the Chief Minister’s views and concluded that they did not.
This was the time that the TNA was putting severe pressure not only on India but also on Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe over the airport. Mavai Senathrajah and M.A. Sumanthiran were the foremost pressure bearers. For these reasons India consented to the development of Palaly as part of its aid-plan to Sri Lanka. India then proceeded with its plans. The Indian Consuls in Jaffna – all three who served in succession – took a keen interest in the airport’s development, personally inspecting the airport sometimes.
Following this, to start flights from India in her development effort, on 14 March 2016 Deepak Sastri, Director of Chennai Airport, arrived with a team at Palaly and began technical and feasibility studies. As this was ongoing, Chef Minister Wigneswaran dropped a scare-mongering bombshell – he suggested that in the name of developing the airport all the lands in the locality belonging to Tamils would be taken over by the armed forces. Regardless, the Deepak Sastri team issued a report that stated that India’s work can be done within the little area around the airport.
Determined to contribute to Palaly’s development, the Indian government produced not only development plan drawings but also a three-dimensional figure of the airport. These plans alone cost Indian Rupees 15,000,000. When permission was sought from the Sri Lankan Civil Aviation Authority, further pressures appeared. The objection was now raised that if Palaly Airport was developed and direct flights are begun from Jaffna, income from Katunayake Airport would fall. The permission sought was denied. It was claimed that these Indian efforts would lead to a fall in Sri Lanka’s income. The project seemed to have run aground.
As 2017 drew to a close, and the year 2018 advanced, prospects for the airport project seemed dim. As a result the onus of satisfying officials of the Civil Aviation Authority devolved on the Prime Minister’s and his government’s shoulders.
The minority government to continue in office badly needed the TNA’s parliamentary support. However, the TNA was firm that we must have the Airport developed into international status. As a result the Prime Minister gave the commitment that at the same time Palaly becomes an international airport, Ratmalana Airport too would be upgraded to an international airport. With this offer the Prime Minister requested the Civil Aviation Authority to allow Palaly to be developed. It seemed that by raising communal objections in Sri Lanka, the elected Prime Minister could be check-mated by a determined civil service.
Although the civil Aviation Authority officials agreed, they made the additional demand that the development must not be by using loans from India; for they saw loss of Sri Lankan control if that happened. So they said that development must be at India’s cost and development at the first stage must be in making the airport a Regional airport. The Prime Minister wanted the TNA badly. He is also a pro-development man. So he agreed and gave the greenlight to seek Indian aid for the next stage, making the airport an international one.
It was in this period that civil society\y groups came in droves to the Indian consulate in Jaffna. They noted that the Indians were focusing development on Jaffna whereas the East too had suffered during the war. It is like an ophthalmologist treating only one eye of a patient, observed a Batticaloa man. As a result, Indians began speaking of developing the Batticaloa airport as well.
It is as a result of all this that Ratmalana, Jaffna, and Batticaloa Airports were all upgraded to the status of international airports. As a result Jaffna gets to be Sri Lanka’s fifth international airport, the remaining two being Katunayake and Mattala.
In truth, it was during the second world War that the British forces established Palaly Airport to land small aircraft. Following that on 10 Dec. 1947 the first air services to India were begun
The 1950s and 1960s saw extensive cultural exchanges between India and Ceylon. Many went to India for their university education and returned as teachers in Jaffna schools. One English teacher, still living in the Jaffna town area, says that he would bicycle close to the airport, get a friend living there to carry him on his push-bike pillion the rest of the way to the airport, and take the bike to his own home. This teacher would take the flight from Palaly and return a week or two later, pick up his bike and go home. This is how he finished his studies – at the lowest possible cost he insists.
Travel to Colombo by Jaffna’s elite was also by the DC-10 flights from Palaly as seen in the photograph where Federal Party stalwarts are awaiting their fight to Colombo. Top government servants eligible for three sets of first-class railway warrants would get 3 of the 6 eligible journeys written out for KKS to Galle and back (the longest journeys by train and therefore the costliest) and then exchange these with Air Ceylon for tickets from Palaly to Colombo.
During the civil war the airport was taken over by the Sri Lankan Army. As a result, in 1985 without the consent of the locals a further 646 acres of land were acquired by the army. The airport and army camps were expanded in this period.
It was also in this period that the 1987 Indo-Lanka accord was signed and on the very day immediately following its signing of the Accord, Indian forces arrived on Indian aircraft without any entry visa. After this, when war broke out between the LTTE and Indian forces, thousands of mainly depressed-caste youths who had worked with India on almost compulsory conscription, such as from the EPRLF and ENDLF, escaped to Colombo in 1989 using the same airport. At the time the regular two-way journey cost Rs. 3000. But these youths were charged Rs. 5000 by the Sri Lankan air Force for their journey. At the time (about 1990) a sovereign of gold was priced at Rs. 4,500.
In this state of affairs, on 10 June, 1990, the Second Eelam War began. On 15 June 1990, the entire population of the area evacuated Jaffna under compulsion.
After this, the Air Force ran a regular service to Colombo and in the year 2013 internal flights were increased in number.
It was in this backdrop that on 17 Oct. 2019, Jaffna will have its international airport at a cost of Rs. 2.26 Billion. The President had agreed to open the airport with the Prime Minister. As he has given up his political offices, his opening the airport together with the PM removed objections to the function during election time. But after invitations were printed, he has been evasive. With everything going wrong for him, he is like a spoilt brat said an annoyed event organizer at the Kachcheri.
Another spoil sport, the air force commander no less, has denied permission every time someone asked for something. Most egregiously on 16 Sept. after a heavy morning’s work, Indian officials asked for tea. Responded the Commander, “You are doing this for Tamils but want me to serve you tea?” The Indians had to send a jeep to KKS and get refreshments.
Others have hinted, “Go ahead for now. After November 16 we will shut this airport down.” This is why all those who want the airport are pressing ahead to open the airport before the elections. Through our ballot, good Sri Lankans must ensure that the airport will not be shut down.
In the meantime, in case the President does not come, the PM has been cleared by the Election Commission to open the airport provided there are no political speeches, and other politicians are also invited.
However it goes, today, the 17th is a joyous day for all Sri Lankans. Thanks to the Prime Minister’s partnership with the TNA, and to Indian generosity and persistence in helping Tamils and the government to reach an accommodation to ensure a peaceful and inclusive Sri Lanka where development is for everyone.