Sri Lanka and India hone in on a gamut of bilateral issues during External Affairs Minister Jaishanker’s visit

SARASI WIJERATNE


.13A, a matter of concern  

The issue of Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm comes up for discussion.Indian tourist bubble another area which officials broached.

Indian external affairs minister S. Jaishankar’s three-day visit to Sri Lanka which concluded last Thursday could see the country making headway with her fight against Covid -19 and getting a lifeline to kickstart a tottering economy.

Several Indian companies, including the world-famous Serum Institute of Pune, are in the global race to manufacture a vaccine which is already going through human trials. The potential for India to supply the vaccine to Sri Lanka was discussed seriously between the visiting Indian External Affairs Minister and senior government officials.

While Sri Lanka has agreed to India supplying the vaccine on principle, the modalities are yet to be defined. The vaccine from India is likely to be the best fit for Sri Lanka in terms of suitability and affordability and if all goes well and with WHO approval the vaccine will be available in the country as early as March.  Last year, India gave Sri Lanka PCR testing kits and protective equipment to support Sri Lanka’s Covid response.

India is also keen for tourists from there to come to Sri Lanka and Mr Jaishankar is reported to have talked with Sri Lankan officials about an Indian tourist bubble.  Since July last year, the Maldive islands have had around one lakh of tourists, including Indian tourists, and a similar model is being mooted for Sri Lanka.   If strict guidelines are followed the move can be a successful one.

Although the response to Covid 19 appears to have been on the top of the agenda for the visiting EAM needless to say, theperennial issue of reconciliation did surface with Mr Jaishankar conveying India’s concerns about the GoSL’s attempts to abolish the provincial councils which came into being with the 13th Amendment to the constitution.  In the past weeks, government ministers have said the PCs should be done away with and that a new constitution should be drafted. The Indian minister who co-hosted a press conference with Sri Lanka’s foreign minister Dinesh Gunewardene midway through his visit reiterated India’s support for the reconciliation process with the country’s Tamil community and called for a devolution of powers to meet their expectations.

India was a joint architect of the 13th Amendment which gave birth to the PCs for a devolution of power to Sri Lanka’s provinces and any attempts by the Government of Sri Lanka to undermine it is likely to be taken by India as a slight.  India will also be under pressure from Sri Lanka’s Tamil political parties, especially the TNA which did not miss the opportunity to meet with the EAM, to ensure that the Tamils have significantly well thought out autonomy through devolution of power.

The vexed question of India’s role in the development of the East Colombo Terminal in the Colombo Port was something which preceded Mr Jaishankar’s visit and dogged the two countries for a considerable period.  Sri Lanka, India and Japan signed an MOU in 2019 to develop the Terminal with a 51 per cent stake in it for the Sri Lanka Ports Authority, 15 per cent for India and the rest to Japan. But the MOU has been inoperative due to opposition from the Unions in the Port and nationalist politicians who don’t want the country’s strategic natural resources falling into foreign hands.  With India and China jockeying for a bigger presence in Sri Lanka, one political commentator could not help but quip that China is behind the resistance. Nevertheless, it is strategically important for Sri Lanka to strike a balance between the two regional superpowers which had been the case in the past too.

India feels justified in asking for a role in the development of the ECT for a couple of reasons. The Colombo port is a transhipment hub for both large and small cargo ships destined for India because they don’t have ports which are deep enough to take these ships.  Furthermore, some of the terminals in the Colombo port already have external collaborators who hold a bigger share than the Sri Lanka Ports Authority.  The major shareholder in the South Asia Gateway terminal is John Keellsand, in the Colombo, International Container terminal the China Merchants Port Holdings Company Ltd has an 85 per cent share.

To find a way out of the impasse, the Government of Sri Lanka will appoint two committees to revisit the issue. India’s position on both reconciliation and the ECT is that these are political matters which the GoSL alone can resolve.

Mr Jaishankar also met with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister during the visit. Last year both brothers made a request to India for a one billion currency swap facility and a moratorium on debt repayment.  The former is likely to be looked at favourably by India albeit with the process having to be fine-tuned.  The latter may not be so, with the Covidpandemic hitting not just Sri Lanka’s economy but that of India and the world.

Before wrapping up his visit, Dr Jaishanker met with the leader of the opposition Sajith Premadasa, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, general secretary of the Ceylon Workers Congress Jeevan Thondaman, Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda and business leaders for a review of the bilateral cooperation between the two countries.

Mr Jaishanker’s visit was a first for both him and for Sri Lanka. For him, it was the first overseas visit in the new year.  For Sri Lanka, it was the first in the new year by a high-ranking state official.

If this portends the importance the two neighbours are going to give each other, especially with India’s pursuit of a neighbourhood first policy and Sri Lanka playing a balancing act between with India and China, will be the litmus test as the next 360 days unfurl.

Besides these, another matter of vital importance was the discussion on the Trincomalee oil tanks. It is currently an issue on the table with several Sri Lankan politicians lobbying for the take -over of these for the use of the government of Sri Lanka. The Trincomalee Oil Tank farm was leased out to India in 2003 for a period of 33 years and talks are underway to determine how it could be put to good use through a joint venture.

 

 

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