At a talk delivered at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai, during his earlier stint in office (2001-04), Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe mooted the idea of building a bridge — literally — across the Palk Strait, linking his country to India.

Now that he is back as prime minister and as part of a ‘cohabitation arrangement’ but through political consensus, unlike in the past, the two governments could consider reviving the proposal for mutual and greater benefits.

It’s a coincidence that in New Delhi, the BJP-NDA is back in power — though it’s only just that.

India may have the technology, but the required investments would be huge. Among other factors that pushed the proposal to the background included immediate reservations from then Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa about the LTTE targeting the bridge.

Today, there is no LTTE; there is instead an elected Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in Sri Lanka’s Tamil north. It is also favourably disposed to India in general and Tamil Nadu in particular.

There will still be security concerns, but in the changed, all-round political environment in particular, both nations are capable of addressing such issues jointly. If anything, challenge of every kind can be turned into an opportunity.

It could include the possible revival of a demand for the dormant Sethu Samudram project. Both the land bridge and the Sethu project could coexist.

It’s a win-win

What can a ‘land bridge’ across the Palk Strait do to improving bilateral relations, currently not in its best phase — and make it stay that way? A bridge helps in easy people-to-people contact. The native Sri Lankan Tamils, Tamil-speaking Muslims and upcountry Tamils of Indian origin from Sri Lanka have had traditional family, cultural, religious and trade relations with Tamil Nadu. Christians from the island nation have been thronging pilgrim centres across South India.

More importantly, for the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community in Sri Lanka it is a must to visit Buddhist pilgrim centres in north India, starting with Bodh Gaya in Bihar, which in fact was the mainstay of the ‘Boat Mail’, the train-cum-ferry service across the Palk Strait before Independence.

It enabled Indian pilgrims, particularly from Tamil Nadu, to visit pilgrim centres in Sri Lanka, going down to Kataragama, across the country in the south.

After the civil war, Sri Lanka has seen the highest number of tourist arrivals from India, year after year. More flights now connect Sri Lanka with Indian destinations rather than destinations in any other country.

Trade between the two nations are posited to grow, and Sri Lanka seems intent on expanding the base and source of trade and investments, going beyond Tamil Nadu. It has riches to offer the Indian investor in particular, given the low overheads and easier logistics.

More gains

A land bridge as such and otherwise, too, could build the kind of linkages that might have broken between the two countries.

When there is acknowledged realisation that the growth, development and strategic security of the two nations are inter-linked and for good, there is no escaping pragmatic ways to explore and exploit the same — and to bring the two peoples closer and together.

It’s in the absence of such mechanisms that estrangement over the post-Independence decades ended up in near-alienation from time to time. The political benefits thus accruing from a land bridge over the medium and long terms will be more than the immediate economic benefits in the short turn.

Even there, a land bridge with a parallel railway link forming a part of the project could connect Sri Lanka, not only to the whole of India, but going beyond South India, to the whole of Saarc barring the Maldives — with which both nations have good connectivity in every sense.

In the larger context, the bridge would connect Sri Lanka with the whole of the Eurasian landmass. With rail lines and pipelines beginning to crisscross Asia in particular, it could mean a lot to Sri Lanka in real and imaginative economic terms.

Through more of confidence-building measures, going beyond the power-change in Sri Lanka, and also as a part of future CBMs, a road-link could witness Indian goods getting directly traded via the southern Hambantota port, now at the centre of an ongoing controversy.

It can then be a win-win situation for all stakeholders, in political, economic and geo-strategic terms, particularly in the context of Indian openness to the Indian Ocean becoming a ‘zone of peace’.

Whether to take it up just now, or after Sri Lanka’s parliamentary polls, promised after the first 100 days of the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickeremesinghe cohabitation in office, is for the two governments to decide.

That way, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promised visit to Sri Lanka too might have to wait until after the parliamentary polls in that country.

But there are issues

Ahead of what promises to be a historic visit, Modi would have to address domestic constituency concerns from and in southern Tamil Nadu. It’s not only about the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka and the fishermen’s problem especially concerning Tamil Nadu which need to be addressed squarely, one way or the other.

Visiting Delhi on his maiden overseas visit as foreign minister, Sri Lanka’s Mangala Samaraweera indicated hopes of progress on both fronts, yet issues remain.

On the ethnic issue, the Tamil Nadu polity and legislature have taken a stand independent of the ruling TNA position in Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority Northern Province, which is all for a ‘political solution within a united Sri Lanka’.

Bilateral hopes of an early solution to the fishers’ row need to be linked to the pending Indian Supreme Court case on the IMBL-linked ‘Katchchativu case’, in which Jayalalithaa is the original petitioner — in her personal capacity or as AIADMK party chief.

Even on a trade-related bilateral free trade agreement (FTA), the first one India had signed with any country, there are tariff and non-tariff issues that Tamil Nadu in particular, and the Centre will have to address if the FTA has to achieve its full potential and grow into a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CEPA). This was hoped for, but it had got stuck in Colombo for the past over six years.

Given the growing resistance to ordinary Sinhala-Buddhists from Sri Lanka visiting or passing through Tamil Nadu, and the attacks on them, Colombo was said to be looking elsewhere across India for sourcing products for their daily consumption back home, and possibly routing it differently, if it came to that.

The Centre needs to address this issue as well , before it can take them up with or promise lasting solutions to Sri Lanka.

The writer is the director of the Observer Research Foundation’s Chennai chapter