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Tamil Eelam – Tamil Nadu links draw closer as flight and ferries set to resume

A flight to Jaffna from Chennai landing at Palaly in 2019.

Flights from Jaffna’s Palaly airport to Chennai are set to be resumed next month said Sri Lanka’s prime minister, as reports of restarting a ferry service from the North-East to India also emerged, drawing together closer links between the two Tamil regions.

Palaly airport was redeveloped with Indian government support in 2019, when flights direct from Jaffna to Tamil Nadu’s capital began. India’s Alliance Air initially began conducting three flights a week between the two cities.

However, soon after the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as Sri Lanka’s president, flight services from Jaffna were halted.

Now Sri Lanka’s recently appointed prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has reportedly instructed flights to resume in a bid to attract Indian tourists to the island, which is in the midst of a crippling economic crisis.

"The northern Jaffna peninsula’s Palaly airport is to resume flights to India from next month," confirmed Sri Lanka’s Aviation Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva "Resuming the flights would improve tourism and help the country in the current dollar crisis."

The announcement comes amidst reports that a ferry service from Kankesanthurai in Jaffna to Karaikal in Puducherry would also resume. In July 2021, Sri Lankan Deputy High Commissioner in Chennai, Doraisamy Venkateshwaran, visited Karaikal to discuss the implementation of the ferry service, as dredging work at the Kankesanthurai (KKS) Harbour was completed by the Dredging Corporation of India. In 2018, India provided US $45.27 million for upgrading the harbour into a commercial port.

Douglas Devananda, a paramilitary leader and Sri Lanka’s Fisheries Minister told The Indian Express “the proposals have got cabinet approval”. “For the ferry, the minister concerned will study the proposal and put it up to the President,” he added. “It should begin by next month.”

Flights and ferries used to carry passengers between the two Tamil regions for decades, before the armed ethnic conflict escalated on the island. In a bid to isolate the Tamil North-East, successive Sri Lankan governments sought to sever links to Tamil Nadu, from banning literature from coming to the island to halting transport connections.

Large swathes of Tamil Eelam remain occupied by the Sri Lankan military, including Palaly airport. It used the region as an air force base for its fleets of jets that were extensively deployed in bombing raids throughout the armed conflict. Though the military will allow the reopening of the airport for commercial flights, the area remains under a High Security Zone occupied by the military.

Though the two regions are separated by just a few miles across the Palk Strait - just a 45 minute journey by air - current routes from Jaffna force travellers on an eight hour road or rail journey to Colombo first, before taking a longer flight to India.

In an editorial last week, The New Indian Express hailed the “better connectivity between India and Sri Lanka,” stating it “could help them realise the full potential of their partnership”.

“Connectivity between Sri Lanka and India seems set to improve, especially between the Tamil areas in the north and Tamil Nadu across the Palk Strait,” it said.

“Better connectivity and improved travel facilities could help remove the remaining layers of mistrust that has constrained the India-Sri Lanka partnership from realising its full potential.”

Read the full editorial here.

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