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India, Lanka focus on economic synergy

Contours of oil and gas pipeline project need to be finalised as soon as possible

India, Lanka focus on economic synergy

Skilful: President Wickremesinghe (right) has been steering his country away from an economic disaster. PTI



G Parthasarathy

Chancellor, Jammu Central University & former High Commissioner to Pakistan

The one-day visit to New Delhi by Sri Lanka’s President Ranil Wickremesinghe may have been short on grandeur, but it marked a sea change in India’s relations with Sri Lanka — both countries have moved purposefully forward in giving a strong economic push to their bilateral relationship. This has naturally led to a better recognition and understanding on both sides of the merits of resolving their differences through dialogue rather than strident rhetoric.

Land connectivity between India and the ports of Colombo and Trincomalee is on the anvil.

In the 1980s, the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) had dealt strongly with the LTTE, which was determined to undermine Sri Lanka’s unity. This opened the door for giving Sri Lanka the opportunity to find ways to resolve the vexed differences between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil community living in the country’s North and Northeast. The LTTE met its predictable end when it was overrun by the Sri Lankan army.

The major change that the presence and actions of the IPKF in Sri Lanka in the 1980s achieved was that it left Sri Lankans convinced that India was committed to their unity and territorial integrity despite the ethnic conflict which led to a flow of Tamil refugees to Tamil Nadu. India now looks forward to Sri Lanka fulfilling its assurances on giving its Tamils in the country’s Northeast a due say in the country’s democratic institutions. As Prime Minister Modi noted: “We hope that Sri Lanka will fulfil the aspirations of the Tamils. We expect that Sri Lanka will take forward the process of rebuilding for equality, justice and peace. We expect that Sri Lanka will fulfil its commitment to implement the 13th Amendment (to its Constitution) and hold provincial council elections.” Tamils have lived for centuries on the island; some of them (known as ‘Indian’ Tamils) went to Sri Lanka during the British rule, primarily to work on tea plantations. The Modi government is giving special attention to the thus far neglected ‘Indian’ Tamils, with assistance focused on areas such as housing.

While the Sri Lankan Tamils have for long been the focal point of India-Sri Lanka relations, the past decade has substantially changed the situation. This has arisen primarily from the approach of the Rajapaksa family. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was seeking political gains domestically by giving China control in constructing the Hambantota Port at a cost of $1.3 billion. The port, which is located in the constituency of the Rajapaksa family, has turned out to be an economic disaster. It is now controlled by China because Sri Lanka ran out of funds to manage it. Such actions have led Sri Lanka to disaster, and eventually forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who succeeded his elder brother Mahinda as President, to flee the country in the face of growing public resentment. The port is being used by China for berthing its naval ships and submarines. This is an issue that needs India’s continuous attention. Mercifully for Sri Lanka, it is such maladministration that led to the assumption of office by veteran political leader Wickremesinghe, who has been skilfully steering the country away from an economic disaster.

It was just when President Wickremesinghe was looking desperately for foreign assistance that India stepped in with an offer of $4 billion to enable Colombo to deal with its economic crisis. Prime Minister Modi and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, who has served as a diplomat in Colombo when Sri Lanka was facing similar problems, together with Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, played a key role in quickly finalising this move. This was followed by India strongly taking up the issue of Sri Lanka’s needs with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. China had, meanwhile, merely announced that it would provide some debt relief to Sri Lanka. More importantly, Wickremesinghe has kept the western world happy (with some Indian support) and will find dealing with the IMF and other financial institutions much easier than what Pakistan has experienced as it seeks support and assistance from the US, the IMF and the World Bank. More importantly, imaginatively planned oil and gas pipelines linking India and Sri Lanka could serve as a reliable source of energy for the latter. This is a project whose contours need to be finalised as soon as possible. Likewise, the proposal for rupee payments for bilateral trade, travel and investment could serve as an important model in South Asia.

The South Block and India’s High Commissioner in Colombo Gopal Bagalay appear to have coordinated very carefully in identifying Sri Lanka’s needs and dealing with them. The areas where the two countries could cooperate to restore normalcy and economic recovery appear to have been closely studied. Most importantly, the passionate desire of most Sri Lankans to undertake a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya has been kept in mind. Processes for travel and accommodation of Sri Lankan pilgrims need to be improved. Moreover, cooperation in off-shore exploration for oil and gas in areas close to our shores is now under consideration. Land connectivity between India and ports such as Colombo and Trincomalee is on the anvil. These are proposals that appear to have been discussed. The governments of Tamil Nadu and Kerala need to be involved in discussions.

Very few Indians know of the ‘Ramayana Trail’ in Sri Lanka, which could, if publicised imaginatively, become a destination of religious tourism for Indians. Moreover, the Buddhist shrines in Sri Lanka provide interesting information about the spread of Buddhism in that country from the days of Emperor Ashoka. 

#Ranil Wickremesinghe #Sri Lanka


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