Six years after ferry service between Tuticorin and Colombo was suspended, the Tamil Nadu government is making fresh efforts to re-establish sea links with Sri Lanka to repatriate Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in camps in the state.
The state government recently wrote to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to facilitate voluntary repatriation of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees and to take steps to resume the ferry service between both countries, say sources.
A meeting was initially scheduled to be held between officials of the MEA, the Directorate General of Shipping and bureaucrats from Tamil Nadu in February but this was cancelled because of political turmoil in the state.
“But now a letter and a report have been submitted to the Centre to aid structured resettlement of refugees who want to return,“ said a senior official.
He, however, said that the state would have to discuss with the Centre before plotting the route. Should it be the circuitous commercial route connecting Tuticorin to Colombo or the shorter line linking Rameswaram to Talaimannar in Sri Lanka’s north, where most refugees hail from.
Officials say that although the number of refugees who returned to Sri Lanka had doubled in 2016, many remained in camps here, reluctant to leave behind their belongings accumulated over years of stay.
“A large number want to take the ferry along with their belongings as they are unsure what awaits them back home,“ said P. Umanath, Commissioner of Rehabilitation and Welfare of Non Resident Tamils.
Nearly three decades of unrest forced more than two lakh ethnic Tamils to flee across the Palk Strait to Tamil Nadu. Eight years after the war ended and a new government in 2015 broke the culture of surveillance, refugees in Tamil Nadu are keen to get back.
As of June, 62,629 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees were in 107 camps in 24 districts and 36,794 Sri Lankan Tamils were staying outside.
The British began a first ferry service between Dhanushkodi, southeastern tip of Pamban island, and Talaimannar in 1914.
Suresh Amirapu, whose father Amirapu Ramarao was Marine Superintendent there in the 1950s, said the route was patronized by both Indian and Lankan traders and tourists.
“A train called `Boat Mail’ used to bring passengers to Dhanushkodi from where they were ferried to Talaimannar four times a week,“ said Suresh, who now runs a shipping company in Mumbai.
After a cyclone wrecked Dhanushkodi port in 1964, the service shifted to Rameswaram.
The ferry service between Rameswaram and Talaimannar continued till 1983, after which it was suspended in the wake of the war between the LTTE and the Lankan government.
However, illegal ferries continued to operate for refugees fleeing the war. LTTE cadres also used the ferries to smuggle essential commodities from Tamil Nadu.
In 2011, India allowed a private luxury vessel, with a capacity to carry 1,044 passengers and 300 tons of cargo, to operate between Tuticorin and Colombo a journey of 10 to 12 hours. However, it was stopped as it could not attract passengers despite the fare being at least 4,000 cheaper compared to the airfare.
“Around 12,000 people were ferried in five months but it wasn’t economically viable. The vessel was big but patronage was less,“ said an officer who was part of the initiative.
“If the government plans to start a ferry service, it should invest in the project or it will be just a repeat of 2011,“ he said.
“And, above all, they need to see if the ferry service is still relevant when airfares are much cheaper.”
Government sources say the ferry won’t be a one-off service and expenses for refufees will be borne by the government, UNHCR and International Organization for Migration.
“We are hoping it will set a trend. Once the first batch leaves, more are likely to follow,” said an official, adding that the timing wasn’t right in 2011.
“It was too close to the end of the war. People were still suspicious.“
The Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR) has submitted a list of 3,815 refugees waiting for the ferry service to start to head home.
“At least 90% hail from the northern province and want to head back there,“ said OfERR founder S C Chandrahasan. (Times of India)