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Lankan issue: An economic solution to a political problem

By M R Venkatesh
March 25, 2013 15:10 IST
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Once we bring the Lankans into our economic embrace we will be in a position to dominate their internal politics. And only then can we offer true protection to Tamils in Sri Lanka, says M R Venkatesh.

The anger of the common man, especially the youth, in Tamil Nadu is palpable. Colleges are being shut down. Even school children are seen discussing the mess in Sri Lanka. Private conversations invariably veer to this colossal human tragedy. In more ways than one this rage is explainable. After all, what has happened in Sri Lanka is unacceptable, inhuman and absolutely deplorable.

Expectedly, the issue concerning Sri Lankan Tamils once again dominates the political discourse in the state. Once politicians, especially those from Tamil Nadu are involved; one can reasonably be assured that it will be nothing but an elaborate exercise in semantics. After all, when it comes to rhetoric and hogwash, probably politicians from my home state are second to none.

Remember, all this political posturing is not of recent origin. Most of us in Tamil Nadu have been witness to this filibuster for the past three decades. In the interregnum, not once, has one political party from Tamil Nadu come up with a practical solution to this imbroglio in the current geo-political context.

That explains why political parties were intent on inserting the G word [genocide] in the recent resolution passed by the United Nation Human Rights Commission, without realising its national and international ramifications. Importantly, those who insisted on such additions to the resolution were mysteriously silent when the actual genocide took place!

Or were they fasting after a sumptuous breakfast which ended well before lunch?

That is not all. Given the proximity of some politicians of the state with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, it would have been suicidal on their part to insist on an independent probe under the UN supervision. Likewise, charges that some intellectuals, NGOs, cinema producers and actors had links with the LTTE too could have come under intense scrutiny.

Possibly, given that development, many in Tamil Nadu would have ended with egg on their face. Mercifully we are saved of that ignominy.

UPA - Uttar Pradesh Alliance

Constructed with financial and technical assistance of Chinese, the Hambantota port is expected to give a fillip to the domestic economy there. The first phase of this project is also slated to provide bunkering, ship repair, ship building, and crew changes facilities. When completed, the port will be the biggest port constructed on land to date in the 21st century.

Readers may note that Hambantota is close to the Asian and European international shipping routes -- the Suez Canal and the Strait of Malacca. These routes through Hambantota are reportedly used by about 36,000 ships, including 4,500 oil tankers.

A leading maritime expert, Nuwan Peiris commented that this port is a conflict between “two Asian superpowers in Sri Lanka, namely China and India, in a bid to gain supremacy in the case of the former, and a proxy-battle to maintain its natural defence-perimeter in the case of latter.”

According to him, Chinese involvement in this port project has given this battle a renewed intensity and forms the “core for geopolitical change in the South Asian landscape.”

If regional parties in Tamil Nadu are completely oblivious to the geo-political implications arising from this development, national parties too do not seem to have developed any strategic response. Interestingly, the charge is that political considerations of regional parties should not dictate foreign policies.

But what about economic policies and reforms? Remember, several UPA allies have successfully forestalled economic reforms for over a decade now. How is stalling economic reforms different from fashioning India’s foreign policy?

Or is foreign policy superior to domestic economic policy?

Whatever be it, let us not forget that the UPA [after the withdrawal of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] is at best a coalition of regional parties from Uttar Pradesh. And given this development, the argument that regional parties should not meddle much less disturb “national foreign policy consensus” is simply unacceptable.

The Grand Plan  

Those who believe that UPA would interfere in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka and create an independent Ealam -- a separate nation for Sri Lankan Tamils -- are barking up the wrong tree. In fact those who promise Ealam are continuously doing a great disservice to the Sri Lankan Tamils. Fascinatingly, according to some analysts, a majority Tamils there do not want a separate Ealam.

People in Tamil Nadu fail to realise that a government that reneged on its promise to bifurcate Andhra Pradesh a few years ago cannot be trusted to do something as dramatic as Indira Gandhi did to East Pakistan that lead to the creation of Bangladesh.

But if a political solution is impossible that does not mean India should not think of alternatives. How about an economic solution that includes trade, tourism and telecommunications?

For instance, separated by the Palk Straits, the distance between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka is not more than a few kilometers. Yet phone calls between Sri Lanka and India are subjected to international call charges. Obviously this can be converted into local tariffs. Simultaneously, both sides can waive visa requirement for nationals travelling between the two countries.   

All these are possible initiatives at the central government level.

The state government in turn should offer benefits on local levies in Tamil Nadu for investment made in Tamil speaking areas of Sri Lanka by Indian business houses. Such investment would offer job opportunities to the beleaguered Tamils. Crucially, an investment by Tatas, Ambanis or for that matter any Indian business house will offer physical protection unmatched by even our army.

That takes me to Hambantota. The Chinese presence is reality that cannot be wished away. Ideally political parties from Tamil Nadu should have suggested, organised and executed this project. But when are our political parties known for such strategic thinking?

Simply put we remained inactive as Sri Lankans planned to develop a port in Hambantota. Then as Chinese move to fill the vacuum caused by our inaction, we lamented. Now using the Chinese presence, we want to remain indolent. Amusingly all this is passed off as foreign policy!

Yet all is not lost. The Hambantota port is built to Chinese scales. That implies that the capacity of the port is gargantuan. Obviously, the port is craving for huge exports to be economical and operationally efficient. The Sri Lankan economy is eminently incapable of supporting this port to its full capacity.

That brings India, especially Tamil Nadu with her close proximity to Sri Lanka, into the picture. Political parties, especially those in Tamil Nadu, must learn strategically to reposition India. For starters we must understand the futility of pursuing the Sethu Samudram project that seeks to carve a sea route by a silly idea of dredging the high seas. This as we all know is a non-starter.

At the same time we must develop the Tuticorin port to be a feeder port to Hambantota, which as already pointed out is developing into a giant international trans-shipment facility. That would make the Sri Lankan dependent on India to run this facility. From a vantage point, India could regain the toe-hold that it lost to the Chinese during the development of this port.

Put bluntly, it would be Sri Lankan port built by Chinese [with their money, labour and technology] for our use! Can something be any better? An Indian commercial interest in this port would be an indirect incentive to the Sinhalese majority to behave with the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka.

But is this arrangement enough? Obviously the answer is no. India must now leverage this idea. A dedicated freight corridor from Bangalore [which can be extended up north to Nagpur and beyond] to Tuticorin passing through Salem [which must be developed into a freight hub], Trichy and Madurai is the next obvious step.

This must be followed by linking the unused Salem airport to an air strip in Hambantota to airlift perishables. If the Chinese have built a port we must respond with an airport and link it to Salem. Don’t we?

Why Salem? After all Salem is one of the most backward districts of Tamil Nadu. Yet it is centrally and hence ideally located for this project. Several export clusters fall within its proximity. This would at once give a fillip to the state’s economy. Rough calculations indicate that the incremental export potential is above $15 billion per year.

A dedicated freight corridor to Tuticorin is a viable alternative to the failed Sethu Samudram project. A central government that was ready to put billions on this unviable project must find resources for a freight corridor. Significantly, that would improve our infrastructure, put the Tamil Nadu economy into a higher growth trajectory and offer employment opportunities to locals.

This idea seamlessly coalesces with India’s needs with the facility already available at Sri Lanka. Once we bring the Lankans into our economic embrace we will be in a position to dominate their internal politics. And only then can we offer true protection to Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Till such time it will be nothing but useless rhetoric by our silly politicians.

M R Venkatesh is a Chennai-based chartered accountant. Comments can be sent to

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