Proposed bridge across Palk Straits: Adverse impact on bio-diversity and ethnic identity
Posted on August 5th, 2015
Chandre Dharmawardana, Courtesy Island newspaper, 6th August 2015
In a previous comment I discussed the economic and sovereignty issues that may arise if the Indians revive a 2002 proposal for a land bridge over the Palk straits. Surprisingly, many Northern nationalists think that the opposition to the land bridge is a matter of ‘Sinhala chauvinism’. In fact, the entity most threatened by the bridge is the “Illankai-Thamil” culture. The distinctive flora and fauna of the island, evolved since the last glaciation are equally threatened. The robustness of eco- systems and communities is strengthened by their bio-diversity and complexity. Hence all tendencies to mono-cultures and bio-uniformity should be resisted.
Legend has it that the Island was connected to India by Rama’s bridge. Geological evidence and temperature records validate such beliefs and even date when the sea was low enough to link the mainland to the Island. However, the sea level rose with the end of the cold spells. This provided a sanctuary for biological and cultural evolution distinct from those in the mainland. An impressive bio-diversity is seen in the SriLankan ecosystem. Any ethno-botanical list of Lankan plants (e. g. the author’s dh-web.org/ place.names/bot2sinhala.html) indicate Lankan species by name-endings like Ceylanica, or Zeylanica (though not always endemic to Lanka). The richness of the rain forests of Sri Lanka is well-known. We only wake up if foreign entrepreneurs attempt to exploit the native plants. Holiday bungalows in nature reserves are more important to the elites, than preserving bio-diversity.
The early work of Philips (1935) on Lankan mammals has been handsomely updated by Asoka Yapa and Ratnavira in their monumental ‘The mammals of Sri Lanka’ (2013). The 50 km separation of India has given the Island 126 species of mammals, and no other island of comparable size is as diverse, with 1/5 of this diversity endemic to Lanka! Since local politicians cross easily from side to side we have over 15 species of bats. According to folklore, the bat has crossed between beasts and birds at will.
The bio-diversity of the Lankan mammals is not the only surprise. A stunning 2002 report in the journal Science, by Meegaskumbura et al was noted by the science writer Elizabeth Pennisi. She wrote: “While other herpetologists have been scrambling to understand why amphibians are declining worldwide, one research team has been cataloging more than 100 new species, all from one postage stamp of a rain forest in Sri Lanka. The discovery of this biodiversity hot spot … increases the number of known frog species on the island fivefold”!
Given a land bridge, the unique heritage of insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammal will decline against competing species, just as where international barriers have been opened up for free-markets, refugee movements or military campaigns. The un-quarantined arrival of the IKPF with its cooks, goats, dogs, soldiers and military vehicles brought invasive species that have become permanent pests in the North.
Ethnic and cultural diversity.
The Sinhala language is a unique evolution from the mid-Prakrit of ancient India. However, in spite of Geiger, Paranavithana and others, some (like Pandith W. F.Gunawardena) claimed a Dravidian origin for Sinhala. Modern linguists like James Gair had to convince the skeptics that Sinhala had evolved from its Prakrit beginnings within the protective shores of the island.
The Tamil Prakrit that arrived in the Island, probably via Tamil Buddhists, morphed with later invasive Tamil forms and developed its own “Illankai-Thamil” characteristics that Tamil scholars have tried to document. The late Prof. Kailasapathy was the President of the Jaffna campus in the mid seventies when I was the President of Vidyodya campus. He gave me an impressive amount of reading material well beyond easy assimilation. Professor Sivathamby was the head of the Tamil department at the Vidyodaya University at the time, and he claimed that even the Eastern Tamils, originating from a “Mukkuva” tradition, hadtheir own distinct characteristics that were locally “threatened”. My response was that the biggest threat to any Lankan Tamil culture was Bollywood. Today the social media and the internet add a new dimension. A road bridge will make them more potent as described below.
The ratio of Tamil speakers to Sinhala speakers in the Island is of the order of 1: 4 ( including Muslims and estate Tamils). The ratio of Lankan Tamils to South-Indian Tamils is of the order of 1:300. This strong quasi-monoculture of Tamil Nadu will be unleashed on the Northern peninsula, given a land bridge. Wealthy Indian businessmen will control the peninsular financial, religious, and media operations. The cinemas will be run by Bollywood bigwigs. The Lankan Tamils, controlled for over a century by the “Colombo-7 Tamils”, will be controlled by the tycoons of Chennai or Kochin. The LTTE learnt this at first hand and turned against India.
Tamil and Sinhala have co-existed for many centuries. Most Sinhalese or Tamils tracing their genealogies would find total intermixing and that only cultural differences distinguish them. Common “Tamil” names like “Balasingham”have Sinhala origins, while many “Sinhala” names are etymologically Tamil. The Sinhala origin of many “Tamil”place-names in Ceylon is treated in a 1965 Ph. D thesis by Karthigesu Indrapala (see also: dh-web.org/place.names/).
The Hinduism of Jaffna relates to the early monistic form of the “Saiva Siddhanatha” due to saint Thirumular. In contrast, Tamil-Nadu Saivism ispluralistic and follows Aghorasiva who rejected the “monism” of Thirumular. Given a land bridge, the more profitable northernKovils will pass into Indian hands. The Saivism offered will becomethe Saiva Siddhanatha of Aghorasiva.
To conclude, while Sinhala and Tamil cultures co-exist within Lanka, any free access to the tycoons of Tamil Nadu will erode the identity of Lankan-Tamil and Sinhalese Cultures. The latter, used to centuries of such interactions maysurvive the challenge of a land bridge, while Lankan Tamil culture will be stifled by the embrace of Tamil Nadu.