Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay spoke to Daily Mirror in an exclusive interview outlining the direction of bilateral ties and the status of bilateral projects. He also touched upon contentious issues. Excerpts:
Q After the new government was formed in Sri Lanka, there had been top-level engagements between the leaders of the two sides. What tangible steps have been taken ever since by the two countries to realise what was agreed upon?
Since November 2019, both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa have undertaken state visits to India, which were their first state visits after assuming office. The leaders of both countries have been in constant touch throughout this challenging year, including over the phone. In September 2020, Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Rajapaksa held a Virtual Bilateral Summit. External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena have exchanged bilateral visits overcoming the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and NSA Shri Ajit Doval visited Colombo in the context of a plurilateral mechanism last month.
These multiple high-level interactions reflect the warmth and shared commitment on both sides to further strengthen the India-Sri Lanka relationship. They have provided guidance and momentum to our close ties with Sri Lanka during the globally challenging times.
India and Sri Lanka have cooperated closely to combat the challenges posed by COVID-19. They are the largest contributors to a regional fund set up to combat COVID-19 as a result of discussions among SAARC leaders, at the initiative of PM Modi in March this year. India has provided several consignments of medical assistance to Sri Lanka, even at a time when the world was facing a shortage of essential medical supplies. I arrived in Sri Lanka during the auspicious Vesak week by a special flight carrying 12.5 tonnes of such assistance.
Last month, the two countries renewed the MoU to implement the High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDP) under India’s grant assistance for the next five years. This was signed in the gracious presence of PM Mahinda Rajapaksa. Projects covering all provinces in Sri Lanka have been implemented and are being undertaken under the MoU, first signed in 2012.
PM Modi has also announced a US$ 15 million grant for the promotion of our shared Buddhist ties. Modalities of its implementation are being worked out in consultation with the Government of Sri Lanka.
India’s leadership has reiterated on several occasions our commitment to assist Sri Lanka in combating the health, economic and other adverse impacts of COVID-19. India stands ready to partner Sri Lanka for long-term economic growth and development. In this regard, we would be happy to focus on the priorities including water, sanitation, education, agriculture and IT, identified in the vision of the President, ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’. We will work together for the ‘V-shaped’ recovery. This was also the underlying message in the keynote address of Indian Finance Minister Ms Nirmala Sitharaman at the recent Sri Lanka Economic Summit on December 1.
Q There are so many projects outlined in MoUs signed between the two countries in the last five years. But none of the projects took off the ground. In your view, what is the reason for the failure to take forward bilateral projects?
I would beg to differ, based on facts. Let’s see some examples. Over the past five years, the 1990 island-wide Suwaseriya ambulance service has been successfully set up and has received great reviews from people across the country as well as abroad.
Some other big projects include the construction of a 150-bed hospital in Dickoya, near Hatton in the Central Province, which PM Modi dedicated to the people of Sri Lanka on his visit in May 2017.
The Jaffna Cultural Centre has been completed and PM Mahinda Rajapaksa has invited PM Modi for its inauguration. The construction of almost all of the 4,000 houses in the plantation areas under the third phase of the Indian Housing Project has been completed.
The modernisation of Sri Lankan Railways has continued under Lines of Credit extended by India. A new US$ 100 million line of credit for solar energy has been approved recently and we are in intensive discussions with the Government of Sri Lanka for its early implementation.
India agreed to a US$ 400 million currency swap in July this year to support Sri Lanka’s external financial sector. At the same time, it is also correct that a few development and other projects have taken more time than expected to finalise or implement. This could be due to a number of factors, including to an extent the difficulties following the Easter Sunday attacks and the COVID-19 pandemic in some cases.
We continue to remain engaged with the Government of Sri Lanka for their implementation and also on investment projects in sectors like connectivity and infrastructure, which we hope will materialise soon.
Q The development of the East Container Terminal (ECT) is mooted once again as a project to be undertaken through an equity sharing arrangement. How serious is India about this project?
As you know a trilateral Memorandum of Cooperation was concluded in 2019 among India, Japan and Sri Lanka regarding the development and operation of the ECT.
Experts, including in Sri Lanka, have pointed out that having India as a partner in the project would benefit the Colombo Port and Sri Lanka since over 60% of Colombo Port’s trans-shipment business is with India. India’s participation in the ECT will also ensure continuity to the strong shipping ties between India and Sri Lanka when deep ports come up on Indian coasts, which are not far away.
The trilateral ECT project will also attract foreign investment to Sri Lanka, as per Sri Lanka’s priority of ‘investments not loans’. That will create jobs for the people of Sri Lanka, address capacity saturation at the Colombo Port and cement Sri Lanka’s attractiveness as a shipping hub.
So the investment by India and Japan in the ECT in Sri Lanka is a win-win-win opportunity. Therefore, India would be happy to see an early implementation of this project.
Q Do you see any geopolitical significance in that project for India?
I understand that one of the objectives of the Government of Sri Lanka is to strengthen Sri Lanka’s position as a connectivity hub and develop it as an energy hub. I believe the full benefit of Sri Lanka’s advantageous geographical position in the proximity of busy global shipping lines can be derived in conjunction with the huge market, expanding economy and technological advancement of next-door neighbour India.
Q Have you received any green light from the Sri Lankan Government to move ahead with the project?
The three countries are in touch through diplomatic channels.
Q In the extension of development cooperation, India is perceived to have concentrated much on the needs of those in the North and the East and Upcountry Tamils. Why is this?
Again, this perception does not gel with reality. India’s development projects in Sri Lanka, worth over US$ 3.5 billion in grants and others on very concessional credit, covers all provinces of the country, namely the Northern, North-Central, North-Western, Western, Southern, Central, Uva, Sabragamuva and Eastern Provinces.
I mentioned earlier some examples of this geographical spread, including the 1990 ambulance service.
To give a few more examples, the Ruhuna University Auditorium—which I am told is currently the largest auditorium in any University in Sri Lanka, the Craft village in Hambantota has been completed. Other projects like the Ven. Sobitha Thera Village in Anuradhapura, the Tri-lingual School in Polonnaruwa, the Kandy Dance School are at different stages of implementation.
It is important to note that India’s developmental assistance projects in Sri Lanka are based entirely on the priorities of the Government and the people of Sri Lanka. After the armed conflict in Sri Lanka came to an end, it was required that India focused its development assistance in Sri Lanka on housing, reconstruction and development in those areas. However, since then this assistance has expanded to cover various other sectors including livelihood development, agriculture, vocational training, health, education, sports and culture in all provinces of Sri Lanka. It is also to be noted that contractors for India-assisted projects in Sri Lanka are Sri Lankans. So the projects not only benefit the community but also create jobs and contribute to the overall economy of Sri Lanka.
I would also like to stress an important general point here. India regards itself not as a ‘donor’, but as a development partner for fellow developing countries. Billions of dollars worth of development projects by India across the world are completely demand-driven and taken up as per requirements of recipient countries. India has no agenda on them. There is also the fact that the full budget for a project is devoted only to that project and any administrative overheads or salaries, etc. of Indians are not paid out of the project resources, but met by separate Indian funds.
Q Recently, Indian announced a US$ 15 million grant assistance for Sri Lanka to develop Buddhist heritage. We have seen India increasingly researching its Buddhist heritage and legacy. What is the reason for such a huge emphasis on Buddhist culture in pursuing bilateral relations?
India and Sri Lanka are civilizational twins. And Buddhism forms one of the strongest bonds in their deep spiritual, religious, cultural and people-to-people ties.
Buddhism also holds a special place in the heart of Indians, as it was in India that The Buddha attained enlightenment and it is from India that the message of The Buddha spread to the world. The Buddhist spiritual and cultural heritage is omnipresent in India. The wheel that you see on the Indian flag is a depiction of the ‘Dharma Chakra’.
The arrival of Arahath Mahinda Thera and Arahath Sanghamitta Theri with the ‘Jaya Shri Maha Bodhi’ Tree from India to Sri Lanka is well known. There are many other facets of our vast, shared heritage that are unknown and understated. Both countries have strong traditions of Buddhist and Pali studies, and exchanges in this and related spheres will enrich us both. It is, therefore, our effort to promote and preserve them. The assistance of US$ 15 million will be significant for expanding cooperation with Sri Lanka for this objective.
As an example, I recently learned about Sri Lanka’s efforts to preserve the Ancient Ariyakara Viharaya in the Rajagala Archaeological Reserve. Now, this site has the only inscription in Sri Lanka which identifies the presence of Arahath Mahinda in the country. India would be happy to collaborate with Sri Lanka in its preservation and development, and also for inscribing this site as a UNESCO World Heritage.
I had visited Kandy and paid my respects at the Sri Dalada Maligawa, on my first visit out of Colombo. Since then in my interactions with the Mahanayake and Anunayake Theras, I have learnt from them that there are many things we can do together.
I would also like to mention here that separately PM Modi has taken the initiative this year to make Kushinagar in India, the place of Lord Buddha’s Mahaparinibbana, an international airport. It has been decided that the first international flight to Kushinagar will be from Sri Lanka. We are working with the Government of Sri Lanka to facilitate this and other such exchanges, including special visits to Buddhist pilgrimage centres in India organised by the Government of India over the last few years for the personnel and families from Sri Lanka’s armed forces.
Q Is it really worrying for India to see Sri Lanka furthering its ties with China even for economic relations?
Mutually enriching ties between India and Sri Lanka are rooted in millennia-old commonalities. They are like a large and sacred banyan tree, affording the people of both countries a shared and cherished civilizational space.
I spoke earlier about commonalities of faiths, beliefs, customs, cultures and languages. In the contemporary age, films, music, sports, technology and cooperation for prosperity and peace have brought us even closer, making people of both the countries more aware of their commonalities and getting them together to cherish, treasure and strengthen these ties.
There is also strong convergence between the strategic, security and development interests as well as aspirations of both India and Sri Lanka. Growing bilateral cooperation in the domain of security is in the mutual interest of both India and Sri Lanka, as is evident from the unfortunate Easter Sunday terrorist attacks and related challenges in our region and beyond. I am happy to note the recent articulation by Sri Lanka of the ‘India-first’ policy, particularly in the realm of security.
In the economic domain too, India was Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner, and the largest source of tourists, apart from being among the top investors. India would not like to view its relations with Sri Lanka through the prism of Sri Lanka’s relationship with any other country. India is confident in its long-standing, deep-rooted and multifaceted civilizational ties with Sri Lanka. We are equally confident of Sri Lanka’s wisdom to make the choices that are right for its people in the economic or any other sphere, serve to fulfil the people’s aspirations and preserve and promote the value system and millennia-old unparalleled traditions of the people of Sri Lanka.
Q Sri Lanka seeks foreign investments for the Port City. Will you encourage Indian companies to invest here?
Business and industry in India usually make such decisions based on their assessment of the economic situation, policy stability, as well as their judgment of the attractiveness of a particular project and aspects that promote investor friendliness. The Government only facilitates.
Q The fisheries issue has become an irritant to bilateral ties. There have been top-level engagements between the two countries for years on end. But no solution is in sight. Actually, what is the practical difficulty in discouraging South Indian fishermen from entering Sri Lankan waters?
India and Sri Lanka are actively working towards resolving the issue of inadvertent crossings across the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL). Both sides have also worked out the procedures to be followed in case of fishermen from either country straying or crossing the IMBL.
As you are aware, the number of these cases has drastically gone down in the last year as India is now weaning away fishermen from smaller boats to deep-sea fishing in the Bay of Bengal. Essentially this is an issue which has socio-economic and livelihood dimensions of the fishermen living in coastal areas in India and Sri Lanka. It has to be dealt with a humanitarian approach. We will continue to work out methods by which fishermen in both countries can pursue the fishing activity in a safe, secure and sustainable manner. In this context, we are working to organise an on-line meeting of the established bilateral mechanism.
Q India continuously emphasizes on the implementation of the 13th Amendment. It is a politically sensitive topic in Sri Lanka. Therefore, such emphasis results in anti-Indian sentiments being whipped up in the country. Why does India keep talking about something politically sensitive in Sri Lanka?
As you are aware, India’s position on this matter is well-known. We believe that as a close neighbour and maritime partner, an indivisible, strong, secure, democratic and pluralistic Sri Lanka is in India’s interest besides being in Sri Lanka’s own interest as well. The underlying emphasis of India is on strengthening Sri Lanka. We are prepared to play our part in this such that all the people of this great country progress as per their legitimate aspirations. Sri Lanka can realise the aspirations of its entire people, including the Tamils, towards peace and prosperity. India has been helping this effort through development assistance in the North and East since the immediate aftermath of the war, extended thereafter to all provinces of Sri Lanka.
Q There are calls for scrapping the 13th Amendment. If Sri Lanka does it, how will India react?
It’s a hypothetical situation which I cannot comment upon.
Q What is India’s position on Indo-Pacific policy?
India stands for a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. It advocates upholding a rules-based international order, underpinned by the rule of law, transparency, freedom of navigation in the international seas, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty and the peaceful resolution of disputes.
It is our stated objective to advance the security and the economic interests of all countries having legitimate and vital interests in the region, in accordance with the doctrine of Security And Growth for All in the Region (S.A.G.A.R., which means sea or ocean) and the Indo-Pacific vision—both propounded by PM Modi.
A free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific is as important for Sri Lanka as it is for India. It is a matter of great happiness to hear similar views articulated in the senior echelons of the Government of Sri Lanka, including at plurilateral occasions.
The fourth meeting of the NSAs of India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives in Colombo on 28 November 2020 not only discussed security in our shared maritime space, including the Indo-Pacific, but also focused on topics including connectivity, infrastructure development, counter-terrorism, cyber and maritime security, and stability and prosperity. India is a peace-loving country and has never had any territorial ambitions against others.
Q Sri Lanka has said its foreign policy will be neutral and non-aligned. What is your view?
We have to remember that the Non-Aligned Movement emanated from the geopolitical realities after the Second World War in the last century. Today’s world, however, is not bipolar, but multi-polar. The concept of sovereignty also is not the same as a hundred years ago. The Nation-States voluntarily cooperate and enter into agreements in political, social, economic, security, climate and many other spheres.
Political and military neutrality and non-alignment overlay now, in particular for developing countries, with the imperative of secure national interests in a way which allows mutually beneficial partnerships with like-minded friends and partners. I would also like to believe that ‘neutrality’ does not negate the necessity for closer ties with the next-door neighbour India, including in spheres of security, economy and people-to-people relations.
Q What is the latest situation regarding cooperation in the containment of the pandemic?
When the first wave of the pandemic was hitting the world, supply-chains of essential medicines were affected all over. Despite our domestic challenges and constraints, India provided medical supplies and equipment to over 100 countries. Especially in the case of Sri Lanka, given our geographic proximity and close relationship, India has always been the first responder in cases of crisis. From the relief-assistance during floods in 2017 to the recent MT New Diamond fire, India remains committed to responding whenever Sri Lanka needs us.
As you know, Sri Lanka received over 26 tonnes of medical aid during the months of April-June from India. The next frontier is now vaccine development and distribution. Being one of the largest manufacturers of drugs and vaccines in the world, PM Modi has stated in his address to the UN in September this year that India’s vaccine capacity will be used to help all humanity.
In the end, I would like to wish through the Daily Mirror, all the readers of this esteemed newspaper, and indeed all the people of Sri Lanka, all the success, health and happiness in the forthcoming year 2021, which we all hope will be a joyous and bright year for the whole mankind.