Colombo, October 5 (newsin.asia): India-Sri Lanka relations, which appeared to be stuck in the doldrums while China’s influence over the island nation seemed to be surging, are now on the upswing. Plans are afoot for concrete and meaningful cooperation in a wide range of areas of mutual interest.
The re-activation taking place now owes much to the deft diplomacy displayed by the visiting Indian Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, with the able support of the High Commissioners of the two countries, namely, Gopal Baglay in Colombo and Milinda Moragoda in New Delhi. Shringla was in Sri Lanka from October 2 to 5.
Then there is the helpful role of the top Lankan leadership. Publicly acknowledging this, Shringla said that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is an “ardent friend of India and a steady source of support for the deepening of the India-Sri Lanka engagement.” He said President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s “steadfast commitment to the India-Sri Lanka bilateral relationship is well known.” Namal Rajapaksa, the son of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is believed to be in line for the Presidency of Sri Lanka, will be visiting India soon.
The articulate, persuasive and yet empathetic Shringla breathed new life into the bilateral relationship by giving interlocutors in Colombo, Kandy, Trincomalee and Jaffna, actionable and achievable targets to meet Sri Lanka’s felt needs in the economic and developmental areas.
Going by the dictum that people-to-people interactions are the bedrock of international relations, Shringla’s stress in his talks in Sri Lanka was on promoting people-to-people interactions through a variety of projects, particularly connectivity projects.
He told a gathering in Colombo: “With the easing of the situation in Sri Lanka, it may be opportune for us to work on connectivity initiatives like the Jaffna to Chennai flight, ferry services between Karaikal and Kankesanthurai and Dhanushkodi and Talaimanar and the Buddhist corridor with the new international airport at Kushinagar. Today, we are dedicating 1235 houses in the third phase of the Indian Housing Project which is spread across the hill country. The other projects, namely, the Model Housing Village at Vavuniya District, school building at Vadamaraddchi in Jaffna and the Saraswathy Central College building in Pusselalwa, also reflect the people-centric benefits of our development cooperation. I would also like to highlight that these projects employ local companies and invariably use Sri Lankan material and labor in their execution.”
“I hope in the coming months, the two sides will be able to complete some of the remaining projects like the Dambulla Cold Storage plant, trilingual school at Polonnaruwa and the School of Kandyan Dancing at Pallekale whose progress had been impeded by the restrictions imposed by COVID 19 and the attendant administrative challenges.”
“The Government of India will also support the development of facilities for tourists and pilgrims at sites associated with the Ramayana circuit in Sri Lanka,” he added.
While in Jaffna, Shringla said that India will help maintain the state-of-the-art, India-funded, Cultural Center for five years as the Jaffna Municipality is not well endowed.
Both countries showed an interest in cooperating in the energy sector. Shringla’s offer of help in the LNG and renewable energy sectors and also oil exploration in the seas off North Sri Lanka struck a chord in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and also the Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila. India’s proposal to turn the Trincomalee oil tanks into an “energy hub” through a joint venture involving the Lanka Indian Oil Corporation and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation was welcomed. This will be backed by a government-to-government agreement.
Shringla made it clear that no other party would be involved in this Indo-Lankan joint venture. He was hopeful that money would be found for the new scheme. He was satisfied with the performance of the LIOC which is running the tanks and noted that it is producing a new lubricant which has been yielding profits.
On its part, Sri Lanka appears to have put behind its long-standing reservations about the 2003 decision to hand over all the 99 giant tanks in Trincomalee to India. Its nationalistic Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila is now keen on cooperation with India and will be visiting India soon. However, India has no illusions about restoring and using all the 99 tanks at once (refurbishment of the 77-year old tanks, would cost US$ 2 million per tank). It will restore them in stages.
Both India and Sri Lanka are keen on cooperating in the LNG and renewable energy sector. While Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is committed to switching over to clean energy, India has taken rapid strides as a producer of renewable energy and is in a position to invest in Sri Lanka. And India’s cooperation would come to Sri Lanka in a transparent manner and on the basis of mutual advantage which would put it in a class apart from another major development financier.
Speedy implementation of India-funded development projects is another area covered by the Indian Foreign Secretary. During his meeting with the President on Tuesday, Shringla underscored the importance India attaches to expeditiously taking forward mutually beneficial projects, including proposals to enhance air and sea connectivity between India and Sri Lanka.
Delays in the implementation of MoUs had worried even Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Foreign Minister S.Jaishankar had raised this issue when he met his Sri Lankan counterpart, G.L.Peiris, in New York on the sidelines of the 76 th.Session of the UN General Assembly. Jaishankar had said that speedy implementation of pending projects would help New Delhi take up Sri Lanka’s cause better. Concerns had been expressed in New Delhi on the non-utilization of even the US$ 15 million accorded to develop Buddhist links.
Be that as it may, the Indians acknowledge that the COVID-19 pandemic has hampered development work in Sri Lanka
The development of the Tamil-speaking North and East of Sri Lanka and the Indian Origin Tamils in Central Sri Lanka and also the political issues which agitate the Tamils, have been consistent concerns for India. During the visit to Jaffna, Shringla had met a wide cross section of people and interest groups and found that they were very interested in development projects including connectivity with India through the Palaly airport and the Kankesanthurai seaport.
On the long-standing issue of political autonomy for the Tamils, which appeared to be the main preoccupation of the Tamil political parties, Shringla espoused India’s policy of devolution as per the 13 th. Amendment within a united and sovereign Sri Lanka. He told the Tamils that India would try and be an intermediary between the Tamils and the powers-that-be in Colombo and encourage them to talk to each other to find a mutually acceptable solution.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had assured Shringla that he would formalize the dialogue with the Tamil parties, address the issue of small Tamil parties, and also hold provincial elections.
On the issue of Indian fishermen poaching in North Sri Lankan waters, India would continue to appeal to the Lankan authorities to take a humanitarian approach to the intruding fishermen. At the same time, India would help the affected Lankan fishermen develop their occupation.
Shringla never mentioned China in any of his statements, but New Delhi conveyed to Colombo that while it has no objection to any country investing in Sri Lanka, projects may have security implications for India, which India would have to take up with Colombo. Recently, India intervened to stop a Chinese energy project in the islands off Jaffna which were not far from Indian shores.
Generally speaking, New Delhi has made it known to Colombo that while India cannot match China in financial terms, it can offer worthwhile alternatives which are cheaper and better for Sri Lanka in the long run. There is now an appreciation in Colombo that there is a need to explore alternative development models and it is noteworthy that Lankan Foreign Minister G.L.Peries has been touting the virtues of non-alignment of late.
On Defense cooperation, the bilateral understanding is that India will continue to provide training and help capacity-building, especially in the Lankan navy. It is understood that cooperation between India and Sri Lanka for maintaining freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean would continue and that Sri Lanka would set up a coordination center in Colombo for this purpose as planned.
Interestingly, Shringla’s visit almost coincided with the signing of the agreement between the Adani group of India, the Lankan company John Keells, and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority to build and run the West Terminal in Colombo port. The deal is seen in New Delhi as good as it gives a majority stake in a terminal in Colombo port which gets 70% of its business from Indian transhipment.