Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jan 30, 2023
The recent visit by EAM Jaishankar to Sri Lanka saw discussions on financial aid, infrastructure and connectivity, and ethnic issues
India does ‘what is right’ in Sri Lanka relations In Colombo recently, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar handed over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s letter to President Ranil Wickremesinghe to visit New Delhi and declared that India has decided to ‘not to wait on others but to do what we believe is right’ in India’s Sri Lanka relations. Possibly referring to China, Sri Lanka’s single largest bilateral creditor, inordinately delaying a decision on Colombo’s call for restructuring the uncleared debt so that the crisis-ridden nation could obtain the US$ 2.9-billion bail-out promised by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). China too has since written to the IMF in this regard. According to Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, the IMF initiative would facilitate US$ 5 billion in aid from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB), and together with US$ 3 billion that they hoped to raise through disinvestment, Sri Lanka could be on the road to economic recovery, with US$ 10 billion in the kitty. Addressing the ’Voice of the South’ online summit organised as a part of India’s G20 chairmanship this year, he also said that India was ‘best-placed talk about their common concerns to the developed world’.

The bilateral discussions involved President Wickremesinghe, Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardene, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry and a host of their Cabinet colleagues heading specific economic ministries.

Jaishankar was in Colombo on a two-day visit after a day in common neighbour Maldives, where too bilateral discussions were centred on development projects. In Colombo, his talks focused on what more India could do as a responsible, larger (and large-hearted) neighbour to help mitigate the nation’s economic woes, all of which were products of their wrong priorities, policies, and programmes over the past 75 years since Independence. The bilateral discussions involved President Wickremesinghe, Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardene, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry and a host of their Cabinet colleagues heading specific economic ministries. Wickremesinghe also briefed Jaishankar on another one of India’s long-standing bilateral concerns, this one political, flowing from the island nation’s ethnic crisis. India believes that for Sri Lanka to hit the road to economic recovery at full throttle, it has to put the past behind it, particularly in terms of power devolution for the minority Tamil community, which was also the cause of years of protests, followed by decades of youth militancy, in turn graduating into a deadly cocktail of LTTE terrorism and conventional war. If New Delhi is not concerned about the possible revival of the majority left-leaning Sinhala youth militancy of the early seventies and late eighties (JVP Insurgency I & II, 1971 and 1989), there were no outstanding political issues or policy options that Colombo had to address at present.

Full implementation

On the ethnic front, Jaishankar quoted President Wickremesinghe as briefing him about the government’s initiatives for the ‘full implementation’ of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, which in turn was the product of the bilateral Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. While power devolution on the promised lines remained to be implemented, successive governments had taken away even some of what had been put in the statute book. Their argument that the denial of Police and Land powers for the provinces, and also the creation of ‘national schools’ and ‘national hospitals’ in the long interregnum, thus diluting whatever provincial powers remained, had no place in the post-war years of visible peace and promised reconciliation.

President Wickremesinghe met with ageing and ailing Tamil leader R Sampanthan, who is also the only surviving signatory to the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, hours after Jaishankar flew out, to take forward the failed talks that they were holding in the days before the latter’s visit.

In his follow-up talks with multi-faceted and at times mutually antagonistic Tamil political parties, all of them at the same time—a rare event, and not only for foreign dignitaries, including those from India—the EAM Jaishankar told them to first accept whatever was offered and then build on the same, implying that their demand for a ‘federal solution’ needed to the taken up in steps and stages. President Wickremesinghe met with ageing and ailing Tamil leader R Sampanthan, who is also the only surviving signatory to the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, hours after Jaishankar flew out, to take forward the failed talks that they were holding in the days before the latter’s visit. For his part, EAM Jaishankar met former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in which the latter’s son and fellow-parliamentarian, Namal Rajapaksa, too was present, considering that the Wickremesinghe government’s survival, stability and success rests on the near-complete support of their Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party. Skipping the unfinished four-day talks with the Tamil polity, the President recalled the second and possibly the final session of all the parties represented in Parliament, to roll out his ethnic action plan, to try and obtain a national consensus lest some stakeholders could create problems for the package, both inside and outside Parliament, and also to ensure that a future government should not renege on the present national commitment. Clearly, Wickremesinghe is eager to meet his self-appointed deadline of 4 February Independence Day, for him to announce an ethnic package to the nation as if to seek its approval. For the world, especially the US-led West, watching the 75th Independence Day celebrations through the eyes and ears of their diplomatic corps stationed in Colombo, and even from a distance, the messaging would reorient their approach to the IMF bail-out package on the one hand, and to the UNHRC process on ‘war crimes’ probe and ‘accountability issues’. An honourable political package, addressing the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil community—whatever may the latter’s initial reaction be—may have the potential of dividing the ‘unified’ West on ‘accountability’ matters, where some of those nations understand how impossible it would be to address these issues without shaking the roots of democracy in Sri Lanka.

Infrastructure and connectivity

On substantive economic and development issues going beyond India’s written pledge to the IMF on debt restructuring, which the latter has since acknowledged, Jaishankar discussed cooperative initiatives in infrastructure, connectivity, and energy with counterpart Ali Sabry and the latter’s cabinet colleagues, to take forward some of the in-principle decisions taken during President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s rule, without dwelling on the past. It possibly included what Jaishankar mentioned as the potential for Sri Lanka to make the eastern harbour-town of Trincomalee into an ‘energy hub’ and also commercially exploit the nation’s wind-energy capacity. This idea should be welcomed by industries, individuals and policymakers in Sri Lanka as energy shortage, owing to the forex crisis and the Ukraine War stalling fuel imports, was among the key causes for the nation-wide mass protests (‘Aragalaya’) and the ousting of President Gotabaya. In October 2021, during the visit of India’s then Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, both sides had committed to restoring and re-developing most, if not all of the 99 oil storage tanks, each of 12,000 kilo-litre capacity, of Second World War vintage, but minus the 15 that are already in the use of Lanka IOC, a joint operation of public sector oil firms in the two countries. Though no one is mentioning it, clearly, the restoration of the unused tanks would require massive sums, which India is willing to put in, so that they could jointly create a ‘strategic storage’, the kind which could have saved Sri Lanka during last year’s crisis. Needless to say, the nation’s energy security would then hinge on the larger sense of security that it feels, with India putting in the kind of money that would be required for the project.

India retrieved lost ground after taking a strategic view of things and overnight promising a US$ 100-million grant for the project.

During Shringla’s visit, the two sides also agreed for India’s NTPC to set up a solar energy project in Sri Lanka’s East, after previous false starts that involved a coal-fired thermal power station, replacing it with plans for an oil-fired project, with neither materialising in close to two decades, for various reasons. At the time, the two sides also decided on India setting up wind-mill projects in three islands, off the northern Jaffna peninsula, closest to the Indian coast, and originally awarded to China under an ADB-funded scheme. India retrieved lost ground after taking a strategic view of things and overnight promising a US$ 100-million grant for the project. These, along with the US$ 500-million green energy projects of India’s private sector Adani Group, in northern Mannar and Pooneryn, were delayed by the previous year’s events, and Jaishankar’s visit should herald the revival of these schemes, which could go a long way in securing energy security for the strategically-placed island-nation. All this is only one part of the Indian initiative for Sri Lanka to address the nation’s economic crisis in the short, medium, and long terms. The other aspect is investments, which has been lacking despite the past beliefs that with the advent of market economy in 1978, in what was markedly an alternating ‘socialist pattern’, foreign direct investment (FDI) in job and revenue-creating industries would flow in even without asking. That belief has been belied, and a hybrid economy has contributed to the disaster where the nation finds itself now in. Jaishankar made the point during his joint news conference with counterpart Sabry, where President Wickremesinghe was also present: “…we also know that Sri Lanka’s pathway is one of a strong economic recovery propelled by greater investments. Here too, I have a clear message that I will be sharing with the business community. India will encourage greater investments in the Sri Lankan economy, especially in the core areas like energy, tourism and infrastructure.” In doing so, he had a word of advice for the hosts: “We count on the Government of Sri Lanka to provide a more business-friendly environment to create a powerful pull factor. I am confident that the gravity of the situation is realized by policy-makers here”. In a way but without again mentioning it, Jaishankar was possibly referring to India’s own experience when the previous Sirisena-Ranil dispensation (2015-19) signed a trilateral MoU with India and Japan for the joint development of Colombo Port’s Eastern Container Terminal (ECT), only to be scuttled by the successor Gota regime, citing stage-managed labour and Sinhala religious protests against what was claimed to be ‘compromising the nation’s sovereignty and security’. That the Gota government, instead, offered the US$700-million Western Container Terminal (WCT) to India’s Adani Group for joint development, where they have a local private sector partner apart from the public sector Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), does not mitigate the hidden issues that were then glossed over. The same applies to the previous Mahinda era commitment to the joint development of Trincomalee with participation by India, Singapore and/or Japan, and also to create a ‘pharma hub’ in the eastern coastal town, in which the Government of India and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) had evinced a keen interest, in the post-war era. In fact, then Indian Minister Anand Sharma had led an industry delegation to Sri Lanka for the purpose, but nothing came of it, then or since. In hindsight, Sri Lankans would agree that had the hub been set up in the past decade or so, then, the nation would not have to suffer for medicines and medical equipment, first at the height of the global pandemic lockdowns, and more recently, at the peak of the unprecedented economic downturn, which was triggered by a forex crisis. Instead, the nation would have been better served in energy, pharma and other such departments, if and if only successive governments had not allowed domestic political perceptions to overrule sane investment-friendly policies of the predecessor(s). Clearly, EAM Jaishankar was making a comparison between what was required and what was offered—but in a language couched in diplomatese and genuine friendship and care, which is the driving force behind India’s provenly successful ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy.
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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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