Indian Foreign Minister S.Jaishankar, who was here from January 5 to 7 at the invitation of his Sri Lankan counterpart Dinesh Gunawardena, said that the visit contributed to a better understanding of the ground situation in Sri Lanka.
In an informal interaction with resident Indian journalists before his return to New Delhi on Thursday, Jaishankar said that through personal meetings with a wide range of Sri Lankan leaders he got a clear picture of the situation in Sri Lanka, something virtual meetings could not match.
The Indian Foreign Minister met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena formally, and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in an informal environment on January 6. He also met the Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA), the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC), S.Viyalendran, State Minister of Media and MP from the Eastern Province, and business leaders.
Asked if he met the Muslim parties, he said he was not aware of any request from them.
In his talks with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Jaishankar said 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 Sri Lanka about its own commitment to the devolution of power to the provinces under the 13th Amendment (13A) of the Sri Lankan constitution.
The 13A flows from the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, which gives India legitimacy to speak on the ethnic issue. India had told the TNA, on an earlier occasion, that while it would stand by the 13A, its implementation on the ground would be left to Sri Lankans. According to a member of the TNA delegation which met Jaishankar, the Minister suggested that Tamils should speak with one voice on this issue.
Asked if he suggested to the Tamil leaders that they should also seek to economically develop the Northern Province in addition to making political demands, Jaishankar said that it was not for him to give suggestions. It would be up to the local leaders to come up with ideas, he added.
The 13A was in focus because of indications that the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government was planning to repeal the Act as part of its centralization policy and also to leave no room for separatism. When Rear Adm. Sarath Weerasekara, a vocal advocate of the abolition of the 13A and devolution of power to the provinces, was made State Minister of Provincial Councils, it was concluded that he would preside over their liquidation. But perhaps fearing that this could draw India’s ire, President Gotabaya divested him of the portfolio and made him cabinet minister of National Security.
This indicated that the Sri Lankan government would not go so far as to abolish the provincial councils. But it might whittle down their powers to please the anti-devolution Sinhala-majoritarian nationalist lobby, which is its core electoral constituency.
In the meeting with the Eastern Province Tamil MP, S.Viyalendran, a demand was made for India’s help to develop the war-affected and backward province. Jaishankar’s response was positive.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly said that India will execute development projects in Sri Lanka based on Sri Lanka’s requirements and at Sri Lanka’s pace. This stance has smoothened India-Sri Lanka relations by removing the feeling that the Big Brother is breathing down little Sri Lanka’s neck.
Jaishankar told Indian journalists that while India is certainly interested in, and capable of, executing big projects, it is also interested in smaller grassroots-level projects because these create goodwill for India at the popular level. In this context, he referred to the ground level popularity that India enjoys in Afghanistan and Nepal thanks to its social welfare projects. The people of war-devastated Afghanistan and earthquake-hit Nepal were grateful for timely Indian aid, he pointed out.
“India has a solid record as a development partner of Sri Lanka in the social, community and human resources sectors. Whether it is in mass housing or ambulance services, heritage conservation or education, our partnerships have made a real difference to the lives of the people all over the island. Our Lines of Credit have re-built connectivity, facilitating the restoration of normalcy. We are cognizant of the domestic priorities of the Sri Lankan Government, including in agriculture and technology, education and skill development and urban development. In particular, we understand the importance President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Government of Sri Lanka attach to the establishment of vocational training centres. We will naturally be guided by these priorities in our future endeavours,” Jaishankar said.
On 10 November 2020, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to implement High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDP) under Indian grant assistance was signed between India and Sri Lanka in the presence of Prime Minister of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa. The extension of the ongoing MoU on HICDP for another five years had been announced during the Virtual Bilateral Summit between Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi and Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on 26 September 2020.
On the complaint in the neighborhood, that India tends to be slow in executing projects, Jaishankar said that it is not a fair criticism as India has executed many projects expeditiously such as the 50,000 houses project in the Northern Province and the Emergency Ambulance Service throughout the island.
The Foreign Minister added that India is keen to promote the welfare of all citizens of Sri Lanka, not just the Tamils.
The Foreign Minister further said that there is progress in the solar energy sector as the Sri Lankan President is very much interested in renewable energy. Asked if the Joint Venture model is suitable for cash-strapped Sri Lanka and if India’s suggestion for joint ventures is the cause of some projects not being implemented, Jaishankar said that this is an erroneous impression. It is the Sri Lankans who prefer joint ventures.
On private Indian investment, Jaishankar said that Indian business is strongly interested in investing in Sri Lanka. He had discussed some important opportunities in special zones for pharmaceutical manufacturing and tourism. India will ensure an early follow-up, he added.
Eastern Container Terminal
On the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) in Colombo port, Jaishankar said that India has a reasonable demand that it should have a presence in Colombo port which is a transshipment hub for Indian cargo. Besides Indian transshipment accounts for 70% of the port’s business. India has an interest in the development and security of the Colombo port, he added.
The Foreign Minister was cognizant of the political controversy that the possible Indian involvement in the development of the Eastern Container Terminal has aroused in Sri Lanka. But he said that such domestic political matters have to be left to Sri Lankan leaders to resolve.
Indian COVID Vaccines
Jaishankar said that the more important component of his interaction with President Gotabaya was how to manage the COVOD-19 pandemic and get the vaccine. Jaishankar said that Sri Lanka has agreed to take a COVID 19 vaccine from India. The modalities of getting the vaccine from India will be worked out by experts from both sides, he said.
The other important aspect of his talks with the Sri Lankan leaders was revival of tourism. Jaishankar said that he had 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 December2020 were Indians, he said. Indians are now wanting to travel and this could be exploited by Sri Lanka to revive COVID-hit tourism. The two countries will now work out the modalities.
On the issue of US$ 1 billion currency swap between India and Sri Lanka, Jaishankar said that teams from the two countries are discussing the technical aspects.
The Indian Foreign Minister described his three-day visit to Sri Lanka as useful in as much as he could directly get a sense of the situation in Sri Lanka through personal interaction, a sense which is difficult to get through virtual meetings.