Despatch from Sri Lanka | International

Reconnecting Jaffna to southern India

Photo for representation.

Photo for representation.   | Photo Credit: GettyImages


Alliance Air is launching direct flights from the northern Sri Lankan city to Chennai and Tiruchi

It takes about eight hours by road to cover the 400 km distance from the northern city of Jaffna to the capital Colombo. There are trains that reach sooner but finding seats in the popular service is often a matter of luck. For people of northern Sri Lanka embarking on a journey abroad, the first leg to Colombo can be tiresome, expensive or both.

But soon, they will be able to fly out of Jaffna on flights connecting their city to select south Indian cities. And that would mean they no longer need to take the long journey southward to Colombo, only to fly back in the opposite direction. The new service is set to be launched this week, with a test flight from Chennai to Jaffna scheduled on Thursday, October 17.

For northern Tamils, this is a historic development in their region, which was badly affected by the civil war that spanned three decades until 2009. In addition to linking them to the Indian cities they frequent, the opening of an international airport also enhances business and trade prospects in the Jaffna peninsula.

The Palaly airport, some 20 km north of Jaffna town, has now been renamed Jaffna International Airport. Similar plans are afoot in the east as well, with Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe recently visiting Batticaloa and renaming its airport the Batticaloa International Airport.

The Sri Lankan government has put in about LKR 3 billion (about ₹1.2 billion) to upgrade Palaly from a regional to an international airport, extending its runway up to 2.3 km, with a plan to further extend it by another kilometre in the next phase. A new Air Traffic Control room, terminal, taxiway and a parking apron have come up, according to Priyantha Kariyapperuma, Vice-Chairman of Airport and Aviation Services.

According to the initial buzz around the initiative, the new flight services were to connect Jaffna to New Delhi, Mumbai and Kochi. The early announcements sparked concern among northern residents who wondered why Tamil Nadu had been left out in the list of destinations, given their close links to the State — for religious visits, familial connections or business.

Modified plan

The plan appears to have been modified now, with authorities preparing to operate flights from Jaffna to Chennai, Tiruchi and Kochi. “It makes logical sense to begin with south Indian cities, because of the connections our people have there. But we couldn’t finalise the routes until the airline company gave us a confirmation,” Mr. Kariyapperuma told The Hindu.

Alliance Air, a subsidiary of Air India, has come forward to operate the services, beginning with Thursday’s test flight. It will likely run three flights a week and then add services depending on demand, according to Sri Lankan officials involved in the discussions.

Along with the development in Palaly, the government proposes to upgrade the other two regional airports — Ratmalana, located south of Colombo and Batticaloa — in the island to international airports. “We already have two — the Bandaranaike airport in Colombo and Mattala airport near Hambantota. Once this move takes off, the country will have five international airports,” Mr. Kariyapperuma added.

Simultaneously, aviation authorities are also reviewing the flight services between Colombo and Jaffna that is currently run by two domestic operators, with limited service. “Eventually, we must improve the service along that route so those visiting the country from abroad can come to Colombo and then fly to Jaffna if they wish to,” the official said.

When residents of the north begin flying to Chennai or Tiruchi directly, it will mark the revival of a once-popular air service connecting the neighbours. Way back in the 1960s and even in the mid-1970s, northern Tamils took 45-minute flights to land in ‘Madras’ or Tiruchi. Some passengers even recall travelling in an Air Ceylon Dakota aircraft, as they flew across the Palk Strait for a quick temple visit or shopping trip.

The service stopped somewhere along the way, further complicated by the civil war that cut the north and east from the rest of the island, and the world. The only Indian flight that many Sri Lankans remember with reference to the north is that of the Indian Air Force that dropped food supplies in Jaffna in 1987 — a symbolic gesture that outraged many in the south of the island, who saw it as blatantly violating their country’s sovereignty.

Sri Lanka has moved on since, as have bilateral ties in many respects. With the revived flight, perhaps a new chapter in Indo-Lanka relations is about to take off.

Meera Srinivasan is The Hindu’s Colombo correspondent

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2020 6:31:39 PM |

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