India and Sri Lanka bridge gaps

By P. K. Balachandran | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 18 2021
Columns India and Sri Lanka bridge gaps

By P. K. Balachandran

Thanks to the visits of the Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval last year and Foreign Minister S.Jaishankar this month, India and Sri Lanka have bridged gaps and cemented ties based on mutual understanding on key bilateral issues. 

Understanding has emerged maritime security, economic development, the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT), COVID-19 containment, tourism revival and even devolution of power to Provincial Councils.

ECT Resolved

The latest and the most striking area of understanding is the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) in Colombo port. The ECT is of the utmost importance to India both from the security and the economic point of view. Jaishankar said in Colombo on 7 January that India is interested in the development and security of Colombo Port because of its hub status for Indian transshipment and  the request for a presence there is reasonable. Therefore, what Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa told the port workers’ unions on Wednesday must be music to Indian ears.

Gotabaya assured the workers that he will not barter away Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and control over its national assets like ports, and he will not give the ECT on lease to anyone or put it up for sale. But having said that, he explained the agreement reached with India is not a sale or a lease. It is about running the terminal as a Joint Venture with the Indian firm and other stakeholders bringing in investment. 

The plan is to develop the ECT as an investment project with 51 per cent of the stakes with the Government of Sri Lanka and the remaining 49 per cent to be an investment for India’s Adani Group and others, the President said. Further, control of the ECT will rest with the SLPA, he confirmed. He pointed out the Ranil Wickremesinghe Government had agreed to sell the ECT to India and he has prevented this. 

Why India?

On the obvious question as to why India is involved, the President said India accounts for 66 per cent of Colombo port’s re-export operations. ECT’s development has been planned after reviewing all relevant factors, including regional geopolitical concerns (ie; India’s concerns), the sovereignty of Sri Lanka, and revenue earning and employment generation potential, President Gotabaya said. The ECT will be sustainably developed under the investment programme. 

Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar told the President that India wants Sri Lanka to view Indian involvement in the ECT as a Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in a Joint Venture with Japan and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). This suggestion was significant given the Lankan opposition to involving India in the construction and running of the ECT. In Sri Lanka, it is generally presumed the Indian State is taking a stake in the ECT, while in fact, the Indian partner in the Joint Venture with Sri Lanka and Japan is the private company, Adani.

The Lankan Government feels the principle of not allowing foreign entities into national assets cannot be applied uniformly across the board covering all foreign investments. As a top official put it: “If no foreign entity is allowed to use a national asset, Sri Lanka will not get any foreign investment!” The development-oriented Lankan President knows this more than anyone else.

Modi’s Mantra

A key factor in smoothing India-Sri Lanka relations in the economic sphere is an oft-repeated declaration by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that India will not impose anything on Sri Lanka and that it will undertake only those development projects which Sri Lanka wants and will execute those at the pace Sri Lanka is comfortable with.  

India is indeed anxious about the expanding Chinese footprint in Sri Lanka but expressions of its anxiety are no longer overt and obstructive.  When asked if India is worried over China’s presence, Jaishankar merely said: “We have our interests.” Apparently, all that India wants is a role in Sri Lanka’s economic development coupled with an awareness on the part of Sri Lanka that India’s security is dependent on its cooperation.  Sri Lankan leaders do understand that Sri Lanka is within India’s security perimeter and have repeatedly said that they will do nothing that jeopardizes India’s security. India has roped Sri Lanka into its Indian Ocean Maritime Domain Awareness system and the coordination of its work will be done by Sri Lanka. The Indian and Sri Lankan Navies hold joint exercises regularly. Above all, there is recognition in Sri Lanka that the Indian armed forces have been an effective and quick “first responder” every time there has been a natural disaster in Sri Lanka.

People-centric Projects

Though India has not undertaken any big infrastructural projects after the railway re-construction in the South and the North, there has been a plethora of grassroots-level projects which have been winning plaudits from the common man. India’s overall development assistance to Sri Lanka stands at around US$ 3.5 billion. Among these, US$ 560 million are grants. India has undertaken more than 70 people-oriented development projects in various fields including health, education, housing, skill development, infrastructure, vocational training among others, schools renovation and emergency ambulance services. About, 20 such projects are in progress.

Jaishankar and the Lankan President agreed on many areas in which Indian private sector investment could take place. Solar energy, pharmaceutical and tourism sectors are among them. India and Sri Lanka are going to cooperate in reviving tourism, on which Sri Lanka depends heavily and which is in ruins now because of the pandemic. Jaishankar proposed that a travel bubble be introduced between India and Sri Lanka to promote tourism on the pattern successfully tried out in the Maldives. As a result of the travel bubble between India and the Maldives, most of the 100,000 tourists who visited the Maldives from July to December 2020 were Indians, he said.

COVID-19 Containment

The COVID-19 pandemic is the latest crisis in which India proved that it will extend a helping hand even though the pandemic is wreaking havoc in India itself. Sri Lanka has agreed to take COVID-19 vaccines from India. They are expected to arrive in February-March. The Lalith Weeratunga Committee has recommended the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured in India by the Serum Institute of India, which costs only US$ 3 per dose. Under the COVAX facility, the vaccination will be free for 20 per cent of the population.

Devolution of Power 

However, devolution of power to the Sri Lankan provinces remains a ticklish bilateral issue. There is a demand from Sinhala nationalists to abrogate the 13th  Amendment (13A) which set up elected Provincial Councils. But even here, a tacit Indo-Lankan understanding can be discerned. Jaishankar raised the issue with President Gotabaya because the devolution package is embedded in the 1987 India-Lanka Accord and elections in Tamil Nadu are due in April in which Lankan Tamil rights will be an issue. He told the Lankan President that it would be in Sri Lanka’s own interest to promote reconciliation with the Tamil minority and ensure them “justice equality, peace and dignity within a united Sri Lanka”. He reminded him about Sri Lanka’s own commitment to the devolution of power to the provinces under the 13 A. The Lankan President replied that his Government is committed to safeguarding the rights of all communities. 

But taking into account Indian and Tamil sensitivities, the President quietly divested the anti-devolution Minister, Adm. Sarath Weerasekera, of the Provincial Councils portfolio. Although the Gotabaya Government is planning a new Constitution, elected Provincial Councils are expected to remain as they are deemed to be a political necessity by all political parties, barring a few. Jaishankar said he understands the Lankan Government has political issues to tackle on foreign policy issues, and added that these are best left to the Sri Lankans themselves to handle.

By P. K. Balachandran | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 18 2021

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