Sea service: On the ferry service between Kankesanthurai and Nagapattinam

The ferry between Tamil Nadu and Northern Sri Lanka holds immense potential 

Updated - October 19, 2023 09:03 am IST

Published - October 19, 2023 12:10 am IST

The commencement of a passenger ferry service between Kankesanthurai in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province and Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu last week marks the fulfilment of a long-standing demand across the Palk Strait for the revival of a sea link. Sri Lanka’s civil war, which lasted nearly 25 years, had disrupted the movement of people and goods on traditional maritime routes — Talaimannar to Rameswaram and Colombo to Thoothukudi. Twelve years ago, a ferry service between Colombo and Thoothukudi did not last long due to a lack of patronage. There was also the popular Boat Mail connecting Chennai and Talaimannar via Rameswaram and Dhanushkodi through a rail link and a ferry, which nonagenarians recall. The cyclone in December 1964, which devastated Dhanushkodi, and the civil war ended the multiple transport links, forcing peoples in both countries to rely only on air services, which cover Madurai and Tiruchi too these days. Ten months ago, the Chennai-Jaffna air service resumed and according to an estimate, 10,000 tourists from India visited Sri Lanka over six months. The inauguration of a private cruise service in Chennai four months ago facilitated visits by 6,000 passengers to the island-nation. As pointed out during the launch of the Nagapattinam-Kankesanthurai service, the development would not only strengthen cultural, economic, and civilisational ties but also improve cooperation in disaster management and maritime security. It may, at some stage, also enable seamless voluntary repatriation of thousands of refugees from Sri Lanka, living in Tamil Nadu.

Normal operations of the service — it ran for a few days this month — are to resume in January in view of the northeast monsoon. By then, it is hoped that the authorities, especially in India, would take steps in the interest of the sustainability of the ferry service. With a fare of around ₹7,670 a person for a journey, the difference between this rate and air fares is not competitive enough for anyone to opt for the ferry. Increasing the baggage allowance of 50 kg would help. The provision of amenities at Nagapattinam port such as a dormitory and improving rail connectivity at Nagapattinam require attention, as passengers from Sri Lanka are sure to want to visit Chennai. On the part of Sri Lanka, economists, policymakers and activists should consider promoting economic ties including exports from the Northern Province, given the inherent asymmetrical bilateral relationship. Ultimately, sustained policy attention is critical to making this service a success. After all, Nagapattinam is predominantly agrarian and one of the economically backward spots of Tamil Nadu. So, it is up to the governments of the two countries to ensure that the Nagapattinam-Kankesanthurai ferry service does not meet the fate of the Thoothukudi-Colombo service.

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