Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Feb 05, 2021
While bilateral political issues seem to have been kept under control through the post-war decade in Sri Lanka; at another level, it is a livelihood issue — as is repeatedly pointed out by the Tamil Nadu fishermen and also the state government.
Colombo Port dilemma: Why India-Sri Lanka ties seem to be at sea

Even in the best of times, invisible strains have haunted bilateral relations between India and its closest ocean neighbour, Sri Lanka. Today, they are all at sea, all at once, and all over again, thanks to two specific issues, namely the continuing ‘ECT row’ and what has by now become the traditional ‘fishermen’s dispute.’

The ‘China factor,’ the ‘Sri Lankan ethnic issue,’ and the attendant ‘UNHRC resolution’ too have negatively impacted bilateral relations, but they have different connotations. The fishermen’s issue and economic ties, in contrast, are more direct and have become as complicated. By extension, the current dispute over an Indian firm participating in the ‘East Container Terminal’ (ECT) of the Colombo Port should be seen as a part of the unresolved trade issues, in which successive governments in Sri Lanka have baulked at upgrading the two-decade old Free Trade Agreement (FTA) into a differently-titled CEPA (Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement) or ETCA (Economic and Technology Co-operation Agreement), after successive governments in Colombo had negotiated the drafts to a point of no return.

The ‘China factor,’ the ‘Sri Lankan ethnic issue,’ and the attendant ‘UNHRC resolution’ too have negatively impacted bilateral relations, but they have different connotations.

Goods to and from India account for around 70 percent of the transhipment business at Colombo Port. New Delhi became concerned when strategic rival, China, was chosen to modernise and manage the mainstay CICT (Colombo International Container Terminal) some years back. Respecting Indian concerns, the predecessor government in Colombo entered into a trilateral Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC) with India and Japan, to develop the ECT, which had equal ocean draught/depth for berthing huge ocean liners at the wharfs. However, that government fell before the MoC could lead to a full-fledged agreement.

Trouble started for the ECT when the current Rajapaksa regime took over after the November 2019 presidential polls. Ahead of the parliamentary elections in August 2020, the traditionally strong, left-leaning labour unions in the government-administered Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) protested against the ECT. The previous regime had ignored such protests while signing the MoC. The then government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had also ignored the violent trade union protests against the debt-equity swap deal over the southern Hambantota Port, where the Chinese creditor got a 99-year-long lease, which has been continuing smoothly for a few years now.

The Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka People’s Party had accounted for a steady 40 percent vote share even when not in power; but for their cadres, they count more on smaller parties, to the left and to the right.

Apart from the continuing discomfort over the purported Chinese tilt of the Rajapaksas, the latter were/are also hamstrung by the presence of anti-India parties in their coalition, which have a mind of their own, something that Indians often ignore or overlook at their own peril. The Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) had accounted for a steady 40 percent vote share even when not in power; but for their cadres, they count more on these smaller parties, to the left and to the right.

Most minor parties in the Rajapaksa coalition are left-leaning. Of them, Wimal Weerawansa, industries minister and founder of the breakaway National Freedom Front (NFF), is in the habit of competing with the parent Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) on multiple issues. Through much transformation as the nation’s first major militant group, preceding the better-known LTTE, the ‘left-nationalist’ JVP still holds on to its ‘anti-India’ stance that was at the heart of founder, Rohana Wijeweera’s ‘five classes’ on party ideology. The ECT has been one such, where the NFF has to out-match the JVP on the issues of the latter’s choice.

Indians should be even more surprised at the reported support the anti-ECT camp within the government has gotten from the Ceylon Workers’ Congress of Upcountry Tamil Nadu estate labour.

Then, there is the ‘centre-right nationalist’ Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU), the breakaway group of the parent Jatiya Hela Urumaya (JHU), which is in the Opposition SJB’s company. The PHU is led by Minister Udaya Gammanpila, who has to cash on the traditional not-so-friendly JHU policy towards India, and also face off the ‘left nationalists,’ both within and outside the Government to retain its ever-dwindling voter base.

Indians should be even more surprised at the reported support the anti-ECT camp within the government has gotten from the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) of Upcountry Tamil Nadu estate labour, headed by Junior Minister, Senthil Thondaman. He had hurriedly stepped into the shoes of his father, Arumugan Thondaman, after the latter’s sudden death during the run-up to the parliamentary polls last year.

Reaffirmed commitment

In the midst of post-poll revival of the labour protests’ against ECT, both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, one-time predecessor and at present Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had reportedly affirmed the nation’s commitment to the MoC when India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, met them in early January. In early February, Prime Minister Mahinda announced the unilateral cancellation, that too, a day before the Cabinet was to meet, as if to endorse his announcement post facto. President Gotabaya has not commented on the matter since, and his views remain unknown.

The envoys of India and Japan in Colombo have since taken up the ECT issue at the highest levels in the Sri Lankan government. It is also unclear if the Indian corporate or the Japanese investor will be interested in developing the West Container Terminal (WCT), which is being offered in lieu of the ECT. Sri Lanka has reportedly offered 85 percent stake in WCT — as with China in the all-important CICT. This compares ‘favourably’ (?) with the ECT’s 49 percent, but no information is available about the ocean draught/depth and the like at the WCT, to make it equally attractive for international ocean liners — which alone decides business volumes, based also on the competitive pricing.

Sri Lanka has reportedly offered 85 percent stake in West Container Terminal — as with China in the all-important Colombo International Container Terminal.

Developing the non-existent WCT will involve more investments and longer time, put at 3-5 years, but with no guarantee that the Sri Lankan government would not reconsider the current offer at a later date — as has now happened to the ECT. It is likely that this one flip-flop by Colombo could adversely impact big-ticket overseas investments, which the nation badly needs in this time of unprecedented economic crisis.

Fishermen killing

While a ‘China hand’ is suspected behind the cancellation of the ECT deal, though it is unclear at what level and to what extent, if at all it is true, the same cannot be said about the fishing dispute. It involves only the fishermen in the two countries and also the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) — but from which the two governments, however, cannot distance themselves. Despite multiple changes of government and constant political pressure from the polity and populace in southern Tamil Nadu, the Government of India has stood by the bilateral IMBL (International Maritime Boundary Line) Accords of 1974 and 1976 that have been have been notified under UNCLOS (United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea).

It needs to be noted that back home in Tamil Nadu, agitating fishermen seeking safety at sea, have carefully kept politicians out of it all, particularly in an election year as the current one.

The 19 January incident, in which four Tamil Nadu fishermen lost their lives after their trawler and an SLN patrol vessel collided, uncontestably in Sri Lankan waters, is the first major incident after the 2008 Colombo commitment against such occurrences. It remains to be seen what the SLN inquiry into the matter comes out with. It needs to be noted that back home in Tamil Nadu, agitating fishermen seeking safety at sea, have carefully kept politicians out of it all, particularly in an election year as the current one.

While bilateral political issues seem to have been kept under control through the post-war decade in Sri Lanka; at another level, it is a livelihood issue — as is repeatedly pointed out by the Tamil Nadu fishermen and also the state government. This part of the package has been complicated by the Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen’s continual post-war opposition to illegal Indian trawlers in large numbers ‘poaching’ their catch, after three long decades of ethnic war had destroyed their own livelihood.

There is unlikely unanimity among Sri Lankan political parties against Indian fishermen, about legal measures to discourage Indian fishermen from crossing the IMBL. This includes the much-divided India-friendly Tamil polity. Incumbent Fisheries Minister, Douglas Devananda, a Tamil, is at the forefront of opposing the livelihood claims of the Indian fishermen, and the all-important TNA’s parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran was instrumental in the enactment of stiff laws to curb Indian fishermen from crossing the IMBL.

The solution to the problem thus lies still in the Indian Centre’s initiative of encouraging Tamil Nadu fishermen to take to deep-sea fishing, which is investment-intensive but can ensure higher and steadier incomes, if pursued seriously.

As the continuing practice of the recent years have shown, long periods of imprisonment, confiscation of arrested trawlers and high-cost gadgets, including illegal nets, have not discouraged Indian fishermen, as was expected by the Sri Lankan side. The solution to the problem thus lies still in the Indian Centre’s initiative of encouraging Tamil Nadu fishermen to take to deep-sea fishing, which is investment-intensive but can ensure higher and steadier incomes, if pursued seriously. The initial Indian fishermen’s reaction to the programme, involving high subsidy by the Centre and the Tamil Nadu government, has been lukewarm even after years, and a lot more depends on how and how far the official Indian stakeholders are able to dissuade the fishermen on this side of the Palk Strait from crossing the IMBL illegally. They need to simultaneously ensure more attractive credit-terms than already provided; the culture-conversion of fishermen, who are traditionally only used to an overnight stay in the seas; and marketing chains, which too were promised but haven’t been executed. Other solutions, like cooperative fishing and shared-catch, are all high-sounding and attractive, but are impractical and unsustainable at the ground-level.

In the midst of it all, sections of the Indian strategic community have been linking the two issues, especially the high-profile ECT deal, to India’s vote on Sri Lankan war-crimes probe in the UNHRC, that too ahead of the Tamil Nadu assembly elections in May, and also New Delhi’s ‘COVID diplomacy,’ including the recent vaccine-gift to neighbours, including Sri Lanka. Their counterparts in Colombo are not impressed. To them, unlike 2012, today, India counts only for one vote at the UNHRC. The COVID-19 vaccine, according to them, is a ‘well-packaged’ ‘foreign policy’ initiative, which also involves faraway countries like Brazil — nothing more, nothing less.

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