Bridging the Palk Strait: benefits will accrue to Sri Lanka and India | Sunday Observer

Bridging the Palk Strait: benefits will accrue to Sri Lanka and India

13 August, 2023

The proposed bridge across the Palk Strait dividing Sri Lanka and India will benefit Sri Lanka and India, Sri Lankan economists say. Gayasha Samarakoon and Muttukrishna Sarvananthan say in their research paper published by Routledge in 2023, that a land bridge would bring down the transport cost in India-Sri Lanka trade by 50 percent. They also say that it will boost the economic development of the relatively under-developed Northern and North Central provinces of Sri Lanka and the southern districts of Tamil Nadu.

These areas are far away from the current growth centres in the two countries, which are the Western Province in Sri Lanka and the Northern districts of Tamil Nadu around Chennai and Coimbatore.  

During President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visit to India in July, Wickremesinghe and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed to explore the “feasibility of building a bridge across the Palk Strait to give India land access to the ports of Colombo and Trincomalee.” 

India and Sri Lanka have air and sea connectivity but there is no land connectivity. President Wickremesinghe and Premier Modi are now keen on establishing a land link also in order to bring the two countries closer for the common good and also for the larger purpose of integrating the South Asian region through a road network.

India has land connectivity with all its South Asian neighbours except Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka, being an island, has no land link at all with South Asia. Given the new trend of building international highways to link South Asian and South East Asian countries, a bridge across the sea linking Sri Lanka and India, makes sense.  

Ships from ports on India’s Eastern seaboard like Vishakhapatnam, Kolkata and Chennai now have to go around Sri Lanka to reach Colombo, the island’s main port. But if a land link is established with a bridge across the Palk Strait, traders can use road/and rail transport which are cheaper and less time-consuming, Samarakoon and Sarvananthan say. Their calculation is that the transport cost will come down by 50 percent.   

Not a New India   

A bridge across the Palk Strait is, however, not a novel India. As early as 1913-14, the British, then ensconced in India and Ceylon as rulers, planned to link the two countries by a rail bridge to bring South Indians to work in the island’s tea and rubber plantations. Rail tracks were laid on the Indian side up to Dhanushkodi, and on the then Ceylon side, up to Talaimannar. But the track across the Palk Strait was not laid because World War I intervened.

The idea was in cold storage till Wickremesinghe became Prime Minister in the early 2000s.  As part of his bid to build a close relationship with India for the security of Sri Lanka against terrorism during the 2002-2004 peace process, he proposed a bridge to India and named it “Hanuman bridge”. The Hindus believe that Hanuman of the Ramayana had used his army of monkeys to build a bridge across the Palk Strait for Lord Rama’s army to cross over to Lanka to fight with the Lankan King Ravana.

The Sri Lankan and Indian governments had asked experts on both sides to work on the bridge idea. Many papers were presented at a seminar held in Colombo in August 2002 under the aegis of the Sri Lanka Institution of Engineers and the Indian Institution of Engineers (Tamil Nadu Centre). The Sri Lankans envisaged a four-lane 23 km highway with a parallel single rail track that would cost of LKR  88 billion at that time. A Concept Paper was presented to the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha.

But the project did not take off, partly because Jayalalitha was against the land link that might facilitate LTTE infiltration into Tamil Nadu, and partly because the Sri Lankan Government was facing a backlash from Sri Lankan nationalists, who feared LTTE infiltration from Tamil Nadu.  

After Wickremesinghe lost the November 2005 Presidential election to Mahinda Rajapaksa, the land link idea was abandoned. But a decade later, in June 2015, Indian Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari proposed the building of the bridge with ADB assistance of US$ 3.5 billion as part of the Asian Highways Project (AHP).

But Gadkari made the announcement without consulting the Sri Lankan leadership, perhaps imagining that Wickremesinghe, who was Prime Minister from 2015 to 2019, would give it the nod. But he was non-committal on this issue.  

However, Gadkari repeated the idea in 2016. He drew a hostile response from certain factions in Sri Lanka. Some said that if the bridge was built 60 million people from Tamil Nadu would swamp Sri Lanka.   


However, President Wickremesinghe revived the proposal during his talks with Modi on July 21 in New Delhi. He now feels that the political climate in Sri Lanka and its relations with India have improved because of the generous Indian aid for Sri Lanka’s economic recovery. Significantly, till now, the “land link” proposal has not come in for public opposition in Sri Lanka. And fortunately, two Sri Lankan economists, Gayasha Samarakoon and Muttukrishna Sarvananthan support the idea.

They say that the 23 km bridge could be traversed in less than an hour. From the arrival point at Talaimannar on the Indian side, it would take another 7–8 hours to reach Colombo by road (roughly 367 km). The total travel time between India and Colombo would be 9 hours with a few more hours added to meet customs requirements.

Compare this with the time taken to transport goods by sea from Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu to Colombo. It is between 116 and 122 hours (about five days) in the case of non-container ships, and between 40 and 46 hours (i.e., nearly two days) in the case of container ships. This is “excessive”, the two economists said.

The waiting time for customs clearance and other formalities will also be significantly reduced if the land route is used because the land route will involve only exports/imports to/from India, whereas the Colombo Harbour would be handling trade to and from all over the world.

Business communities

Lower transport costs would bring down the price of goods in Sri Lanka. And an uptick in Indo-Lankan trade would create thousands of direct and indirect jobs. The road link would also contribute to the economic development of backward provinces like the Northern Province and the North Central Province.  

“Districts in these provinces have been the lowest contributors to the national economy for a very long period. The poverty and unemployment rates of these provinces are the highest in Sri Lanka and the Human Development Index (HDI) of these provinces is the lowest in the country,’’ the economists pointed out.  

“Furthermore, the business communities in the Northern and North Central Provinces have long complained about their inability to directly engage in international trade. Presently, businesspersons in these 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 Eastern and 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. However, the direct Alliance Air ATR flight from Chennai to Jaffna has been a hit on both sides, with satisfactory load factors. But the proposed bridge would bring down prices further and increase tourist traffic to these marginalised provinces. It will help Sri Lanka achieve its target to get three million tourists per annum.