With the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Passenger Transport by India and Sri Lanka on 7 January 2011, there is hope for a revival of the passenger ferry service between the two countries. The ferry service was suspended in 1983 in the wake of violent ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. As per the recent MoU, two routes have been identified for the ferry - Colombo to Tuticorin and Thalaimanner to Rameshwaram. The service on the first route (Colombo to Tuticorin), which is historically significant, is expected to commence soon. The ferry on this route was launched in 1906 by VO Chidambaram Pillai (called Kappalotia Thamizan), a staunch nationalist and freedom fighter, who challenged British monopoly on ferry services. The service continued uninterrupted even after his death in 1936.
The ferry service will undoubtedly enhance tourism, pilgrimage, trade and other exchanges between the two neighbours. The ferry will immensely benefit especially those who from India wish to make their Sri Lanka visit most cost effective. Although it will take over eight hours for the ship to traverse the distance of about 150 nautical miles between Tuticorin and Colombo, it will save travel expenses by at least one-third of the existing air travel cost. But, for those who wish to travel to the northern part of Sri Lanka, the Rameshwaram-Thalaimannar route will be most economical both in terms of cost and time. Ergo, this was the route used, although illegally, by most of the Tamil refugees who fled from Sri Lanka during various phases of ethnic conflict since the 1980s.
The passenger ferry will be a boon to pilgrims from both countries. Buddhist sites like Gaya, Saranath, Shravasti, Nalanda and Kushinagar are popular among Sri Lankan Buddhists, who would prefer a cheaper mode of transport for their pilgrimage. A feeder train service from Tuticorin or Rameshwaram connecting these sites would make the pilgrimage more convenient and popular. Similarly, Indians who wish to visit the ‘Ramayana Trail’ - a trail of 52 sites related to the epic, Ramayana - can do so conveniently by taking the ferry rather than the air route. Sri Lanka has emerged as the most popular tourist destination for the middle class Indian. Indians top the list of tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka in recent years. Last year, Sri Lanka overtook Maldives to become the second largest tourist host in South Asia, next only to India. An affordable ferry service would bolster this figure to a new high. Sri Lanka is likely to benefit more than India due to the planned service.
Since the ship service will allow a comparatively larger baggage allowance, it is expected to enhance trade between the two countries, although in a small way. The allowance can be increased from the proposed 100 kgs per passenger if there is a genuine demand and need for it. Serious monitoring of patterns of movement of baggage by passengers will help. The ferry will also help to transport Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, who are currently in India, as and when they wish to go back. The Colombo Dockyard is also expected to gain due to orders to build vessels to ferry passengers, as the service will be mostly run by private operators.
Although there are plans to have seven boat services (four from India and three from Sri Lanka) on the Colombo-Tuticorin route per day, the exact frequency will be considered in due course depending on the demand among travellers. Requisite infrastructural arrangements like immigration-counters, customs offices and other security paraphernalia in the ports identified, however, are yet to come up so as to make the ferry service smooth and without much start-up delays. Both countries can also consider ferry services on other maritime routes - for instance, Colombo to Kochi - to enhance people-to-people contact and revive historical and traditional links between the two countries.