India not involved in Palaly airport project, says Minister

September 19, 2018 10:06 pm | Updated 11:23 pm IST - Colombo

India is not involved in developing Sri Lanka’s northern airport, a senior Minister has said, contradicting a statement by the Airports Authority of India (AAI).

Earlier this week, Indian media reported that the AAI had signed an agreement with the Ministry of External Affairs, to prepare a detailed project report for the development of the airport in Palaly, located some 20 km north of Jaffna in the island’s Tamil-majority Northern Province.

However, Minister for Transport and Civil Aviation Nimal Siripala De Silva told Parliament on Tuesday that “there is no truth in that report. We have no intention to hand over the airport to India or any other country”, according to local newspaper Daily Mirror .

His statement, which came in response to a question from an Opposition lawmaker, not only countered what the AAI has said, but also contradicted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s recent remarks that Sri Lanka would develop the northern airport into a regional hub with Indian assistance. Colombo and New Delhi have been keen on beginning commercial operations from this airport, with flights to south Indian cities.

Mixed signals

When contacted, Mr. De Silva said that as per the Cabinet paper, the contract of developing the airport was being awarded to the Sri Lankan Air Force. Queried on the divergence from his Prime Minister’s remarks, he told The Hindu on Wednesday: “I am not aware of any discussion with India… as far as I am concerned, I am developing the airport” Addressing a public meeting last month, Mr. De Silva said that the Sri Lankan government planned to upgrade the airport in Palaly, with an LKR 1600 million (roughly $9.5 million) allocation.

On the mixed signals from the Sri Lankan leaders, sources in Colombo said Mr. De Silva’s remarks pertained to a more immediate effort aimed at swiftly commencing commercial operations, while the AAI’s report was on a more “long-term” development plan with Indian assistance. A comprehensive upgradation would “happen in stages”, said a source familiar with the ongoing negotiations.

Residents of northern Sri Lanka, most of whom are Tamils, have strong cultural ties and familial connections with south India. In early 2014, the Northern Provincial Council passed a resolution calling for direct flights from Palaly and Trincomalee (in the eastern province) to India. Such a service is seen as an easier option for tourists, pilgrims, and refugees, currently living in India, who wish to return home. At present, those travelling from Jaffna travel about 400 km south to Colombo, by bus or private transport, for over seven hours, in order to board a flight bound north again, to India.

Earlier, the Sri Lankan Air force and a private operator ran commercial flights between Colombo’s domestic airport in the southern suburb of Ratmalana and Jaffna, but the services were stopped due to technical and commercial reasons. “We are hoping to resume operations in a month’s time,” Chief Airport Manager Aruna Rajapaksha told The Hindu .

The last time flights operated between India and northern Sri Lanka was in the 1987-1990 period, when the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was in the island on a controversial war-time operation. Then, soldiers and, at times, mediapersons from India travelled to Jaffna and Trincomalee.

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