Prime Minister’s Gati Shakti Masterplan aims to rapidly accelerate India’s pace of development. We, as citizens, need to think of innovative ways of boosting India’s infrastructure capabilities and contribute to the Gati Shakti initiative.
Constructing a railway tunnel under the seabed between India and Sri Lanka has the potential of creating new capacities for Indian business and the overall Indian economy. It will also help build a BIMSTEC economic community on the lines of the European Union or ASEAN; in fact, it may become bigger and more powerful than the two combined.
Instead of dredging on the Palk Strait (which may be an emotional and religious issue for many people) there is another option. This other option can reap huge economic and strategic benefits equal to or even more than that obtained by any other infrastructure project.
A rail tunnel can be drilled under the seabed (land under the sea) from India to Sri Lanka connecting Dhanushkodi on Indian side to Talaimannar on the Sri Lankan side.
The benefits of this project are manifold. First-compared to building a tunnel, the cost of dredging in the Palk Strait has heavy environmental repercussions. There will be increased turbidity of the sea due to the dredging operations. Increased pollution of that area due to increased movement of ships in that region will take place. This will harm the rich and fragile ecosystem of the Palk Strait.
But if an underground tunnel under the seabed is drilled from India to Sri Lanka right under the Adams Bridge (Rama’s bridge) we can forego the need to dredge the Palk Strait. Environmental cost almost becomes nil.
Second- the economic implication of connecting India and Sri Lanka by land is immense. People from both India and Sri Lanka will be positively benefitted. The movement of people, goods, services and money through this Tunnel will facilitate economic development of the entire BIMSTEC region as a whole.
This can be the beginning, in the formation of a BIMSTEC free trade zone. Hence, by connecting the two countries the first step in this direction can be taken.
Third- the strategic implications of this Tunnel for both India and Sri Lanka will be enormous. Sri Lanka can obtain a very large market for its products (like Tea and Textile) and Services (like Tourism and Port services) in India (and hence the rest of BIMSTEC region) at a lower cost. This way, India can also bring the Sri Lankan people into the BIMSTEC Mainstream. In the present economic circumstances for Sri Lanka, this will be a necessary step to move back on the growth curve.
Additionally, Indian and Sri Lankan economic initiatives with stakeholders like business houses, workers, and service providers will receive a great fillip if the Tunnel is built. Indian markets can expand as Sri Lanka has vast economic potential due to its geographic location and deep sea ports.
The deep-sea ports of Sri Lanka can cater to Indian markets by an extension (Indian Ports are very well connected). The Deep-sea ports of Sri Lanka will become an asset for India. Sri Lanka has 5 natural deep sea ports which can accommodate very large ships. And deep sea ports mean serious business. For perspective, it takes Rs 5,000 to 10,000 crores to develop a fully capable deep sea port. If 5 deep sea ports of Sri Lanka can get connected to the Indian Economy, it will be as if India will have saved ₹50,000 crores ($6.25 billion) in developing deep sea ports of its own.
This tunnel initially consisting of Railway lines can later be expanded to incorporate roadways, pipelines, electricity and telecommunications lines etc. thus; the peninsular sub-continent and BIMSTEC region will become connected in a true sense.
If a tunnel is built, it will only be the second instance where an International undersea bed Tunnel will be constructed. We all know how The Channel Tunnel benefitted the cause of the European Union. It gave a boost to the economies of the U.K. and France.
A similar thing awaits India and Sri Lanka. As far as the cost-effectiveness of this future project is concerned, calculations show that it may cost around 5 billion dollars. This is just a fraction of the amount needed to, say, ensure food security every year. Moreover, this investment will be spread out over a period of 7-10 years (the time that will be needed to finish constructing the Tunnel).
India can also extend a line of credit to Sri Lanka to encourage Sri Lankan participation in the project. If need be, the spectrum of stakeholders may be broadened by allowing BIMSTEC (or even ASEAN) to invest in the project.
The Rail Gauge of Sri Lanka is the same as that of India, (i.e. Broad gauge). This provides great scope for interoperability of trains between the two countries. Thus, the Tunnel is operationally feasible. There will be many spin-offs from the project. For starters, it will generate direct permanent employment for thousands of youngsters on both the sides of the Palk Strait. (A study shows that one billion dollars in construction investment generates around 25,000-30,000 direct jobs). Moreover, the indirect employment benefits will run into millions of jobs created.
Additionally, India can make enormous strides in construction and manufacturing. It can also develop intellectual property in related areas. This will be invaluable in making India a knowledge based economy. India and India alone in this region can undertake a project of this magnitude and complexity. India has enough skilled labor and technical expertise to undertake this project in a cost effective manner.
India has sent (and actually landed) a probe on the Moon and rocketed a spacecraft successfully to Mars. Drilling under the seabed here on earth is well within our reach. It is true that further detailed studies, Geological, Hydrological, and various Assessments etc. have to be done to take this project ahead.
Whatever the challenges this project may throw up, India can well stand up to it and deliver. It is in India’s own interest that all its BIMSTEC neighbors prosper and develop. It is ‘Indian Providence’ to build not only a strong BIMSTEC community, but also take up the leadership role on the international stage. Moreover, when this happens, the day will not be far off when BIMSTEC becomes a free trade zone with more influence than any regional grouping.
(The writer is Deputy Secretary, Department of Personnel & Training at the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions. This idea was first envisaged by the writer in 2013. Views expressed are personal.)