Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 11, 2023
The chances of having a ferry service between India and Sri Lanka by the end of this year seem likely provided both India and Sri Lanka are clear about the details
India-Lanka ferry service is still on rocky seas Replying to the demands for grants for the departments concerned in the Tamil Nadu Assembly early this month, Highways and Minor Ports Minister E V Velusaid that efforts are underwayto launch a short ferry service between Rameswaram and Sri Lanka in a few months’ time. The idea is to link Rameswaram and Talaimannar first, covering a distance of 50 kilometres. This will be followed by another ferry service, linking Rameswaram and Kankesanthurai (KKS),a distance of 100 km. Accordingly, the Tamil Nadu Maritime Board has sent a detailed project report to the Union government for approval, the minister said.“The Rameswaram minor port does not have facilities. The State has been in touch with the Union Government, which is keen on starting the project and is ready to fund the development of the port, costing INR10-15 crores, to launch the ferry service,”news reports have since quoted Tamil Nadu officials. Accordingly, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Union Ministry of Shipping and Waterways have agreed to the project, the report claimed. “The ferry can go at a speed of 30 knots between Rameswaram and Talaimannar,” the Times of India report said. “With a 150-passenger seating capacity, the travel time will be one and two hours to Talaimannar and Kankesanthurai, respectively. The sheltered waters of Palk Bay would aid the project”, the report added.
The Union and State governments in India, and also Sri Lanka are on the same page as regards launching ferry service," an official told the newspaper.
This followed a recent video conference involving officials of the Sri Lankan High Commission in New Delhi, the MEA and India’s Ministry of Port, Shipping and Waterways, and also the Tamil Nadu Government, according to the news report. The Union Government will accordingly float ‘Expression of Interest’ to identify operators to operate from Rameswaram, it added. “The state government is interested in readying the entire project in six months. The construction of the Rameswaram jetty is the only bottle-neck. The Union and State governments in India, and also Sri Lanka are on the same page as regards launching ferry service," an official told the newspaper.

Inherent contradiction 

However, an inherent contradiction is discernible in the official positions of the Tamil Nadu government and that of its Sri Lankan counterpart. It relates not only to the chosen route but also the timing of the ferrylaunch. According to NimalSiripala de Silva, Sri Lanka’s Minister of Shipping, Ports and Aviation, the ferry service would be launched not on the routes mentioned by the Tamil Nadu minister, but on the Kankesanthurai-Karaikal route, the latter being an enclave of the Union Territory of Puducherry. It will be launched as early as 29 April this year, a Sri Lankan Shipping Ministry statement said further. As discussed between the Minister De Silva and India’s MEA on 26 March, two immigration and emigration offices, one each in Kankesanthurai and Karaikal, would be set up for this purpose, and preliminary measures have already commenced in this regard. The immigration office at the KKS jetty and the port are fully operational and ready to start, Minister De Silva said. The minister also clarified that neither government would provide the ferry to operate the service. Instead, India’s MEA will float tenders for operators with boats having a carrying-capacity of 150 passengers to operate the service. Considering that traders from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka’s North and East are the targeted segment, the baggage allowance, put at 100 kgper passenger, will be an attraction. The one-way ticket charge is also proposed at an affordable US$ 50 per passenger, though it would be for the selected ferry operator to fix the ticket-cost.

Restoring ‘Boat Mail’ 

Earlier, at a meeting with MEA’s Joint Secretary (IOR) Puneet Agrawalin Colombo in December last year, Minister De Silva requested early commencement of the ferry service.At the meeting, Sri Lanka sought increasing the quantum of India’s concessional loan for developing the Kankesanthurai Port, attributing the higher cost to fluctuation in the price of construction material. It was over and above the US$ 45.27-million Indian assistance granted in 2018 for upgrading the KKS Harbour into a commercial port and for strengthening the country's efforts to become a regional maritime hub.Public sector Dredging Corporation of India has already deepened the KKS Harbour. India has also funded the dredging of the approach channel, with the larger cargo ferries in the future in mind.
The one-way ticket charge is also proposed at an affordable US$ 50 per passenger, though it would be for the selected ferry operator to fix the ticket-cost.
At the time, the choice of destination on the Indian side had shifted from Karaikal to Puducherry, after it was found that the private port at the former site was facing bankruptcy proceedings. Ferry operators also reportedly indicated that the longer trip to Puducherry could cause sea-sickness among passengers unused to sea-travel. Hence, the decision was to run the ferry service reportedly between Kankesanthurai and Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu, not far away from Karaikal. However, the bankruptcy proceedings seems to be in the concluding phase, with one private operator, Adani Group, likely to take over from another, Marg, in the none-too-distant future. This could then entail the possibility of the Sri Lankan minister’s announcement coming true, though not by the month-end. Whichever the Indian destination that New Delhi finalises, as long as the clearances and works are completed in time, the chances are bright for the ferry service commencing operations at the end of the north-east monsoon cyclone season by the year-end.  The Sri Lankan statement of December also quoted Indian official Agarwal as underlining the appropriateness of reviving the long-forgotten passenger ferry service between Dhanushkodi in Sri Lanka and the temple-town of Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu. Minister De Silva agreed to the proposal and also emphasised that the Sri Lanka railway service can also be connected with the passenger ferry service, and thus revive the pre-Independence, Colombo-Chennai train travel by the ‘Boat Mail’, with an intervening ferry trip from Danushkodi / Rameswaram to Talaimannar in Sri Lanka.
The bankruptcy proceedings seems to be in the concluding phase, with one private operator, Adani Group, likely to take over from another, Marg, in the none-too-distant future.
The ‘Boat Mail’was diverted from original Danushkodi point to Rameswaram after a train full of passengers and also the railway station and the pier were all washed away in a cyclone in 1964. The Rameswaram-Talaimannar service also went on long hibernation in 1984, after sea-based Tamil militancy of the LTTE’s ‘Sea Tigers’ made those waters unsafe.

Trade and tourism

According to the recent Times of India report, there are also plans to include partial cargo service in the next phase of the Rameswaram-centred ferry service. Subsequently, cargo services will be allowed from Rameswaram to Sri Lanka with 300-500 tonne capacity. “The State Government has already sent a detailed proposal worth INR600 crore to have a bigger facility to the Union ministry of shipping and the discussion is going on," the official said. Sri Lanka is steadfast with Kankesanthurai as their entry port for the ferry service to Tamil Nadu. The Indian port-of-call is yet to be finalised by the Government of India and Tamil Nadu through consultations. Going by the Tamil Nadu minister’s statement in the State Assembly, some basic issues need to be sorted out and for good—and early—so that whatever the route finalised in consultations with Sri Lanka, it should become operational as early as possible. Independent of all this, there is a huge scope for improving trade and tourism between the two countries, including religious tourism. As is known, ferry service works out cheaper than air travel, and there is also a limited adventure in sea-travel, especially with short cruise trips.Budget pilgrims from Tamil Nadu and the rest of Indiacan visit prominent Hindu places of worship, namely, the KeerimalaiNaguleswaram temple, and the Kathirgamam or Kataragama temple down South, which is of religious significance to both Hindus and Buddhists.  That is also when budget tourist operators enter the scene.
Going by the Tamil Nadu minister’s statement in the State Assembly, some basic issues need to be sorted out and for good—and early—so that whatever the route finalised in consultations with Sri Lanka, it should become operational as early as possible.
Likewise, pilgrims from Sri Lanka will have easy access to Velankanni church, Nagore dargah, Tirunallar Saneeswaran temple and other places of religious importance in the Cauvery delta districts, which are dotted with other Hindu temples all across, with easy access to Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple and Palani Murugan temple. Budget pilgrims from Sri Lanka’s majority Buddhist community can also take the ferry service to travel all the way up to Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and other religious centres, and also Lumbini, the birth-place of Lord Buddha in Nepal. Incidentally, Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-Buddhists are also ardent devotees of Lord Venkateswara in Tirupati. As may be recalled, Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka invariably have separate shrines for Lord Ganesha and Lord Vishnu. In turn, all these can then help the revival of the Boat Mail, with Indian railways considering the extension of it all the way to Bodh Gaya and Sarnath, apart from Buddhist pilgrim centres and other places of tourist interest, en route.
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