The Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe was on a two-day official visit last week, his first since he became the President in July last year. The visit took place in the wake of celebration of 75th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two countries with the crux being to strengthen relations in multiple sectors. For Sri Lanka, it was reaching out to friends and allies in the quest of economic recovery after the financial collapse last year. For India, Sri Lanka is an important partner in her ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and a push for the Vision SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region). However, the elephant in the room is the question of the Sri Lankan Tamils – their rehabilitation and autonomy etc.
Let us note that Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean has attracted attention from other countries, of late, from India’s regional rival China. Beijing had somehow gained an upper hand against New Delhi in Sri Lanka by extending free-flowing loans and infrastructure investment. But the dramatic economic collapse last year, gave New Delhi chance to claw its way back into the Island country especially as China delayed its support for debt restructuring.
India had extended emergency financial support to the tune of $4 billion mainly in terms of fuel and essential items. Furthermore, New Delhi helped Colombo secure a $3 billion rescue package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which Sri Lanka had acknowledged. India is also a part of an official creditor’s committee along with Japan and other Paris Club members. This committee is currently negotiating debt relief solutions for Sri Lanka.
Paris Club is an informal group of creditor nations set up in 1956 to find sustainable debt relief solutions for countries that are unable to repay their bilateral loans. The Club provides financial assurances to the IMF and Sri Lanka needed such assurance from it to receive bail-out packages. The members are: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. Incidentally, all 22 Paris Club members are members of 38-countries constituted Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Perhaps the important outcome of the visit was the adoption of the Vision Document with the intent of boosting economic partnership. The title of the document, “Promoting Connectivity, Catalysing Prosperity: Enhancing Economic Prosperity” nicely captures it. The Document is based on five pillars comprising connectivity in five sectors: maritime, air, energy and power, people-to-people. The idea is to accelerate through these connectivities, mutual cooperation in tourism, electricity, business, higher education and skill development.
Maritime connectivity aims at consolidating local logistics and shipping with the joint development of ports at Colombo, Trincomalee and Kankesanthurai. The Document also refers to resumption of passenger ferry services between Nagapattinam in India and Kankesanthurai in Sri Lanka and between Rameswaram (India) and Talaimannar (Sri Lanka). The air connectivity talks of expansion of flights between Chennai and Colombo in addition to exploring connectivity between Chennai and Trincomalee, Batticaloa and other possible destinations in Sri Lanka.
The energy and power connectivity led to: signing of a MoU on renewable energy for Sri Lanka covering 75 per cent of power from renewables by 2030; establishment of a high-capacity integrated power grid to enable electricity trading within BBIN initiative. The BBIN – Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal – is a sub-regional structure created as South Asian Growth Quadrangle for unhindered movements of people and cargo. This sector also included acceleration of Sampur Solar Power Project and LNG Infrastructure to explore green hydrogen; ongoing cooperation in Trincomalee Tank Farms for the development of industry, energy and economic activity; joint construction of a petroleum pipeline from India; and collaborating hydrocarbon exploration in offshore basins. The proposed distribution pipeline by Indian Oil Corporation would connect Nagapattinam in India to Colombo, the strategic city of Trincomalee on Sri Lanka’s East Coast where India is helping restore World War-II era oil tanks.
People-to-people connectivity will encompass promotion of awareness and popularisation of India’s Buddhist circuit, and Ramayana trail as well as ancient places of Buddhist, Hindu and other religious worship in Sri Lanka towards enhancing tourism. Colombo is looking for drawing more tourists from India, its top catchment country, to boost its foreign reserves after the country declared bankruptcy last year. Prior to his departure to India, Wickremesinghe addressed the Colombo-based Indian CEO Forum and assured that the Indian currency would soon be accepted within the country. This would enhance trade and tourism.
The fifth pillar is an agreement on acceptance of UPI payment system in Sri Lanka, signed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Wickremesinghe. India’s UPI service has already been adopted by Singapore, UAE, Nepal, Bhutan and France.
The pending political solution to Sri Lanka’s Tamils figured in the high-level meetings. Modi raised the issue with the Sri Lankan President. He said, “We hope that the Government of Sri Lanka will fulfil the aspirations of the Tamils.” Modi also conveyed to the visiting President the need to ensure a life of respect and dignity for the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. In response, Wickremesinghe presented a proposal for reconciliation and power sharing. He added that he had urged the Sri Lankan Parliament to reach a consensus and resolve the long-running conflict. His delegation included two Sri Lankan Tamil ministers.
Wickremesinghe had recently met the Tamil political leadership and offered to implement the 13th Amendment, which followed the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. This amendment provides for transfer of powers to North and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka without the police powers. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) seemed to have rejected the proposal. Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) which is providing support to Wickremesinghe has suggested that the President does not have the electoral mandate to implement the 13th Amendment.
At any rate, the fact that Tamil question was not mentioned in the joint statement gives two loud messages. One, Sri Lanka would not like to encourage other countries including India to mix-up ethnic issues with trade and commerce. Second, India is perhaps making course-correction after New Delhi’s alleged support to Madhesis. New Delhi may not like to bring in a particular segment of population in its bilateral negotiations on trade, security and economy etc. Be that as it may, any vision document that excludes the long-pending Tamil question will be considered incomplete. Both Sri Lanka and India should take this persisting dilemma on board. —INFA