The Sri Lankan High Commissioner-designate to India, Milinda Moragoda, has communicated to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, that frequent, multifarious and systematized interactions with India from the top-most level to the bottom, are necessary to rid the India-Sri Lanka relationship of “distrust”, which has plagued it for decades.
Moragoda, who is to take up his assignment in New Delhi later this month, said in his concept paper entitled: “Integrated Country Strategy: For Sri Lanka Diplomatic Missions in India,” that lack of trust has made the relationship “transactional” (meaning a relationship based on bargaining, and therefore, lacking in warmth and a natural flow). Disturbingly, the transactional character has grown in recent times due to certain geo-political changes (presumably the growing China-factor in Sri Lanka).
However, this need not be so, says Moragoda. Given the millennia of multifarious and unbroken interactions between Sri Lanka and India, the relationship ought to be a “special one” marked by “inter-dependence, mutual respect and affection.”But such a makeover can only comewith increased, all round, frequent and structured interactions from the top-most level to the bottom, he submits.
Though there has been an improvement in the matter of top-level visits from India since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014 and declared his “Neighborhood First” policy, Sri Lankans have for long been bemoaning the lack of interest in the top Indian leadership in visiting Sri Lanka. To address this, Moragoda suggests annual visits by the Head of State/Head of Government. There should also be frequent visits by the Foreign Ministers. Line ministers too should make visits, if not physically, virtually. The India-Lanka Parliamentary Friendship Group should be re-activated with mutual visits encouraged.
Sri Lankan missions should engage Indian State governments which are of particular importance to Sri Lanka. Lankan Provincial Councils and local bodies should also be encouraged to interact with their equivalents in India while adhering to protocols. Chief Ministers of Indian States should be invited to visit Sri Lanka. People-to-people interaction should be encouraged by improving connectivity. Ferry services between Colombo and Tuticorin; Thalaimannar and Rameshwaram; and KKS and Karaikal should be launched/re-launched.
India-Lanka relations rest on a sound foundation of the shared legacy of Buddhism “India’s most precious gift to Sri Lanka.”And Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka by the son and daughter of the Buddhist King Dharmashoka. “Against this backdrop, any setbacks to our relationship, however intractable they may appear to be at any given point of time, can only be temporary,” Moragoda argues.
Sri Lankan Missions should facilitate Indian scholars’ study of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans should be able to study Pali and Buddhism in India. Sri Lanka should be able to provide Ordination for Indian Buddhist monks and allocate places for them in its Pirivenas.
With the help of Ambassador Dr.V. K. Valsan, the document has identified areas of cooperation in Hinduism too. The promotion of the Ramayana Trail, the Murugan Trail and the Siva Sakthi Trail will increase religious tourism between the Hindus of Sri Lanka and India. Sri Lanka has officially sent a sacred stone from the Sita temple here to the Rama Temple in Ayodhya. The document urges the government to provide opportunities for Indian Hindu religious leaders and scholars to interact with their counterparts in Sri Lanka. And Sri Lankan diplomatic missions should actively participate in major Hindu religious ceremonies in India. The Lankan government should also facilitate Catholic devotees and scholars to visit the Velankanni church in Tamil Nadu, the document said.
To attract Indian investments to Sri Lanka, Moragoda has set up an Inter-Agency Committee on Trade, Investment and Tourism. The Lankan missions in India should draw up a list of high net-worth investors, hold meetings with them and organize seminars and field trips to Sri Lanka.
The Board of Investment has set out targets for an Indian investment of US$ 300 million in 2021, and the Lankan Mission in India has set a goal of US$ 256 million. Indian investments could be in auto parts, electric and electronic goods, the hospitality industry, IT services, infrastructure, manufacturing, pharmaceutical, textiles and renewable energy. The documents have urged follow-up action in existing Indian projects.
Sri Lanka’s access to Indian markets is hampered by protectionism and also “challenging and changing regulatory mechanisms.” Lankan Missions should interact with Indian governments to secure easier access to Lankan products. On its part, Sri Lanka should increase items in its export basket. The Export Development Board has set atarget of US$ 621.9million for 2021 and the Lankan missions in India have proposed a target of US$ 674.17 million for 2022. The products Sri Lanka could sell in India are: pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, vegan and vegetarian food, processed meat and fish, confectionary and beverages, paper desiccated coconut and related products, tiles and kitchenware, electrical conductors,switch boards and panels, various kinds of tea, men’s trousers, shirt and skirts. Sri Lanka should seek help from India in the field of technology innovation, capacity building and product development. Lankan trade associations and trade associations should participate in Indian trade fairs and invite Indian businessmen to Sri Lanka.
There is immense potential in the Indian tourism sector. The Lankan Tourism Board has set a target of 63, 733 Indian arrivals in 2021 and 169, 955 in 2022. The areas which show potential are: MICE, weddings, film shooting, and the Ramayana, Murugan and Siva Sakthi Trails. Sri Lanka needs to be present in tourism fairs in India. Fully vaccinated Indian tourists should be encouraged to visit Sri Lanka.
The document also propagates the facilitation of grid connectivity between the two countries for Sri Lanka to get power from India in times of drought, and for Sri Lanka to sell power to India in case it has a surplus.
The document points out that Sri Lanka has not used the Indian Special Line of Credit of US$ 50 million for countering terrorism. Ways of using it should be explored, especially since more Lines of Credit in the defence sector are in the pipeline. The document points out the importance of having “political level strategic cooperation in the field of defence and security.” This could be built on the model of the war-time Indo-Lankan “Troika” of top functionaries from both Sri Lanka and India, which was very useful.
There should be India-Lanka and multilateral military exercises every year. Facilities in Sri Lanka should be created for training Indian military personnel. There should be closer and regular interaction between the police forces of the two countries with places in Indian paramilitary and police institutions for Sri Lankan personnel. The office of the Defence Advisor in the Sri Lanka High Commission ought to be strengthened.
The Sri Lankan governmentis working out a proposal on the touchy fishing issue in the Palk Strait. The Moragoda document advocates a “humane approach” to the “genuine problems faced by fishermen on both sides of the maritime boundary.”It also calls for joint research in fisheries and marine resources and cooperation to set up a mechanism for disaster management.
Stressing the need to bring back Sri Lankan displaced persons from Tamil Nadu (they have been denied Indian citizenship), the document suggests that Colombo announce a comprehensive package for their return, including customs duty waivers, settling-in expenses, housing, and economic rehabilitation.
Disclaimer: Addressing the core issue of “trust deficit” in Indo-Lanka relations - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view