Runway being concreted, rubberized
Yesterday was India’s Independence Day and was celebrated by India’s Jaffna Consulate – an event that Jaffna looked 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 its culture are India’s children. We are inseparably connected. We, especially Tamils, go to Indiafor vacations, sarees, medical treatment, Hindus to temples for blessings like our Prime Minister and President, education, female boarding schools, movies and so forth. In the 1960s, it was common for M.G. Ramachandran fans to cross the Palk Straitillegally to watch the premieres of his movies.
It is unfortunate that the connectivity is strained as a result of our two major communities having their relations strained by racism. Indiawas forced to intervene because our war was threatening its security with gunfights between Tamil factions in Chennai. The 13th 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 the amendment is useless and use the unlawfully-postponed 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. A few Tamils realise that if not for Indiarepeatedly reminding our government of its obligation to implement fully the Indo-Lanka Agreement, they would be far worse off.
In these circumstances, Indiajoining the rest of the international community to help end the LTTE as stated by Tamil leader and statesman R. Sampanthan without any acrimony towards India, must give Tamils pause to ask why Indiadid that.
Xenophobia has destroyed Sri Lanka. Fighting it takes courage, not pandering to it by hiding facts from the public. Knowledge is the best weapon
When the LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi on Indian soil, began drug-dealing and smuggling uzi-machine guns from Israelto drug cartels in South and Central America, it signalled 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 the dastardly murder and threat to law and order, Indiahad 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 realise that their own well-being and advancement depend on reaching a modus vivendiwith 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 many Sinhalese are willing to devolve power to Tamil areas but fear, for electoral reasons, being public about it. Only Indiahas the wherewithal to assist and strengthen those Sinhalese who support a rights-based society.
CONNECTIVITY THROUGH PALALY AIRPORT
I assess that Indiais mindful of the obligations that devolved upon it with 13A 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. The 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 we can transform this dream into reality soon.”
I believe Prime Minister Ranil 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 travellers to India. The Jaffna Consulate entertains visa applications only from the five districts in the North. In 2016, some 25,000 travellers were given visas. By 2018, the number had soared 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 overcrowded Katunayake.
In 2015, when the Air Force held 7,800 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 1.6km runway with only 1km 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 600m of bad runway. India also offered to develop the airport with customs and immigration facilities. But Sri Lanka continued to balk.
A US team on a medical mission around 2017 brought equipment in a huge plane (“as tall as a Palmyrah 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 3,400 acres remained, abating Tamil suspicions that the airport was an excuse to keep the land.
India’s High Commissioner Taranjit Singh Sandhu visiting on July 20, 2018 pressed for an agreement and promised that Indiawas ready to fly four months later on Deepavali Day, 2018. Sri Lankaargued that they had only 150-seat planes and not the 70-seaters required. Indiacountered to arrange for these planes on lease with two 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 PalalyAirport, he speaks only of lights 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 his religion would last 5,500 years. That means we, as the custodians of that religion, shall last as long.”
Not to be outdone, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike 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 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 liberalisation of 1991. With 6% of the population, it is 9.6% of India’s economy with a GDP of USD 250 billion – compared to Sri Lanka’s USD87 billion.
Thinking-Sinhalese too realise that their own well-being and advancement depend on reaching a modus vivendiwith minorities. However, there are obstacles to progress from inveterately-entrenched communal forces
40% of the relevant age cohort is in university. It is far superior in having doctors, with every district having speciality hospitals. It receives the highest number of tourists among Indian States, and is the most urbanised IndianState. It has an installed power capacity of 23,000 MW (against Sri Lanka’s 4,000 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 LKR 2,500, compared to our LKR 1,500. It will be easier for our rice-eaters to get jobs 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. Indiais finalising an LKR 300 million Palaly aid-package. Despite the talk of a 1.6km runway, a 3.8km runway is being built to provide an international airport. MPs Sumanthiran and Mavai Senathirajah are dedicated to ensuring the PM’s honouring of 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.