|India – Sri Lanka Relations by High Commissioner Prasad Kariyawasam|
The 63rd Independence Day of Sri Lanka which is the National Day as well will be marked this year by our renewed journey towards consolidating peace and ushering prosperity. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, having provided leadership to the country in eradicating terrorism from Sri Lankan soil, has now galvanised our Nation into a broader nation building programme focusing on economic development, especially in the former conflict affected areas of the North and the East, while providing impetus to the national reconciliation process.
Inspired by the civilizational links since time immemorial, the relationship between India and Sri Lanka has reached a position of irreversible excellence. The two countries will, therefore continue to march in tandem with clear objectives of promoting prosperity, peace and security both within the region and beyond.
2011 holds a special significance for our two countries based on our historic relations. This is in the context of the 2600th anniversary this year, of the enlightenment of Gautama Buddha that gave rise to the establishment of Buddhism. The people of Sri Lanka received the compassionate gift of Buddhism from Emperor Ashoka 2300 years ago, an event which has led to a majority of Sri Lankans even today to be followers of Buddhism. Sri Lankans will therefore join hands this year with Buddhists all over the world to celebrate the 2600th anniversary of the Sambuddathva Jayanthi and the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka by Emperor Ashoka.
India and Sri Lanka share common values and traditions as well as a common commitment to democratic governance. Both countries have taken a similar trajectory in international relations, having emerged from the colonial yoke, India in August 1947 and Sri Lanka five months later in February 1948. Since then, the two independent nations of India and Sri Lanka have proceeded to renew and reinvigorate age old cultural, commercial and strategic links for the mutual benefit of the two nations and their peoples.
In recent years, this multifaceted relationship has reached new heights marked by close contacts at the highest level with important visits taking place between the two countries at regular intervals especially since the end of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka. President Mahinda Rajapaksa was in India twice last year, first in June 2010 as a visiting State Guest soon after his re-election for a second term in office, and later as the Guest of Honour at the concluding ceremony of the XIX Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. Several Cabinet Ministers as well as the Chiefs of the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force undertook official visits to Sri Lanka, manifesting close cooperation in security and defence matters. Visits of the Chief of the Sri Lanka Navy to India and the Indian Defence Secretary to Sri Lanka were significant in paving the way for deepening bilateral defence cooperation, in particular towards promoting maritime security.
India and Sri Lanka remain committed to eliminate terrorism from the region, in all its forms and manifestations. In this context, Sri Lanka’s success in eliminating terrorism from its soil has opened up space and provided greater impetus for the growth of bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka. India’s assistance in the resettling nearly 300,000 Tamil civilians who were liberated from the clutches of terrorism signals an instance of India’s recent support for the wellbeing of Sri Lanka and its people, especially those in the North and the East of the country. India is now engaged with Sri Lanka in the massive rebuilding effort in the North and the East of the country, providing expertise and concessionary financial assistance of over 1.2 billion dollars for the reconstruction of housing, railways, airport, harbour and sports stadium in the Northern Province. Among other major projects, Indian enterprises will undertake building a power station near the strategic harbour port of Trincomalee.
The Government and the people of Sri Lanka draw encouragement from the support and understanding extended by India towards rehabilitation, reconstruction and the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka, especially at this juncture when the Government has embarked upon a structured dialogue with key Tamil political parties to pursue home-grown solutions towards national reconciliation. The people of Sri Lanka look to the people of India to stand by them based on age old ties and common civilizational links.
Sri Lanka is India’s largest trade partner among SAARC countries. Trade between the two countries has grown rapidly after the entry into force of the India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement in March 2000, bilateral trade multiplying nearly five-fold by the year 2008. Investor presence of Indian Companies in Sri Lanka has increased in the recent past with prominent Indian names such as IOC, TATA, LIC, Bharti Airtel, Piramal Glass, L&T, Ashok Leyland and Taj Hotel. Several other leading business houses in India are now exploring investment links with Sri Lanka. Similarly, some Sri Lankan blue chip Companies have already invested in flagship projects in India.
Both countries are now among Asian nations that are on higher economic growth path. Sri Lanka has seen rapid growth especially since the end of the armed conflict. Sri Lanka’s strategic location provides unique opportunities for both Sri Lanka and India to work together for greater linkages with the extra regional centres of economic activity for common benefit and advantage. The economic opportunities available as well as Sri Lanka’s natural beauty and diversity of landscape, fauna and flora and cultural richness have resulted in the number of visitors travelling for business, rest and recreation to Sri Lanka especially from India increase exponentially. Having progressively liberalized its economy for last thirty years, Sri Lanka is now developing a user-friendly financial and fiscal regime for businesses and stakeholder-friendly atmosphere for trade and investment. Sri Lanka’s Ports, especially the Port of Colombo and the new Mahinda Rajapaksa Port in Hambantota (Magampura) are strategically located. Equipped with state of the art facilities, these Ports can provide economic advantage for businesses in the region, especially for those in India. The objective of Sri Lanka’s post-conflict development plan is to utilise Sri Lanka’s strategic geographic location effectively and develop Sri Lanka as a shipping, aviation, commercial, energy and knowledge hub serving as a link between East and West. This holds the potential for enhancing the efficiency and competitiveness of regional business, trade and manufacturing enterprises in their effort to reach out to the world.
In this context, enhanced connectivity between the people of the two countries and the two economies towards greater integration will be natural and mutually beneficial. In order to boost regional travel and commerce and to restore traditional links between the two countries, measures have now been taken to establish greater air and sea connectivity between India and Sri Lanka. Already, there are over 98 flights per week between Colombo and Indian cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Trichy and Trivandrum. In addition, several flights arrive in Gaya and Varanasi providing air connections to some of the Sri Lankan Buddhist pilgrims, numbering over 120,000 per year. The two countries have now agreed to commence a Ferry Service between Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu and Colombo as well as to resume the Ferry Service between Talaimannar in Sri Lanka and Rameshwaram in India to promote people-to-people contact and attendant business opportunities. India has set up Consulates in Jaffna, Kandy and Hambantota, three important regional cities in Sri Lanka. Similarly, Sri Lanka has representative Missions in Chennai and Mumbai and intends to expand such representation to other important Indian cities in due course.
The Government and the people of Sri Lanka are eager and stand ready to consolidate and further develop the age-old traditional links of friendship and cooperation with all States in India. It is Sri Lanka’s firm belief that India’s natural leadership in the region can, and should become a mutually beneficial asset for economic progress and stability in the region. Sri Lanka and India can work together to create an enabling environment both in India and Sri Lanka, for prosperity, peace and security in the region, especially in the maritime domain. While Sri Lanka remains steadfastly committed to a policy of Non- Alignment with friendship with all countries and enmity towards none, the people of Sri Lanka are mindful of their special relationship with the people of India that has been a key factor for the wellbeing of the nation since the time of Emperor Ashoka. In fact President Mahinda Rajapaksa reflected these sentiments very aptly when he recently stated “India is our close neighbour. I always say, India is my relation. Others are my friends”.