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High Commissioner's Message on the occasion of 68th Independence Day of India

1. On the occasion of the 68th Independence Day of India, I extend my greetings and best wishes to my fellow citizens of India and to the friendly people and the Government of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. 

2. This Independence Day is particularly poignant, as it follows the remarkable general elections of May 2014 in which the 814 million-strong Indian electorate gave a resounding and decisive mandate to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). For the first time in nearly 30 years, a single political party now enjoys a majority in the Lok Sabha (lower house of the Indian Parliament). A record 66.4% turnout has reaffirmed the vibrancy, strength and resilience of our democracy. This regular exercise of franchise by the citizens of India, transcending the boundaries of caste, creed, region and religion to determine their own future as a nation, is unparalleled across the globe in its scope and complexity, and is a fitting tribute to the sacrifices made by the founding fathers of the nation. It is truly an occasion to celebrate! 

3. Shri Narendra Modi, who galvanized the nation with his promise of a better tomorrow, has been sworn in as the 15th Prime Minister of India. His government has enunciated the development vision of "Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas" (together with everyone, development for everyone), and is working towards the promise of "Minimum Government, Maximum Governance’" through greater citizen participation in governance. The election of a new government has rekindled the hopes and aspirations of people across our vast land. 

4. The new Government has already demonstrated its desire to strengthen relations with foreign countries, particularly with our South Asian neighbours. In a gesture unique in the history of independent India, leaders of all South Asian countries were invited to the swearing-in ceremony of the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers on May 26, 2014. We are grateful to His Excellency President Mahinda Rajapaksa for graciously accepting the invitation at short notice. India remains committed to work towards building a peaceful, stable and economically inter-linked South Asian region, which is essential for the collective development and prosperity of the more than one and a half billion people who call this region their home. Greater regional integration and inter-connection are imperative in this regard. India will continue to work for the revitalization of SAARC as an effective instrument for regional cooperation and as a united voice on global issues. 

5. Sri Lanka has always occupied a special place in India's worldview. Centuries-old bilateral cultural, civilizational, and linguistic links have now blossomed to encompass all areas of contemporary relevance. The overwhelming number of congratulatory messages that the new Indian Government received from Sri Lanka reflects not only the close linkages between our two countries, but also a shared vision that the security and prosperity of our two countries are inter-linked. It is of great satisfaction that high-level level bilateral interaction with the new Indian Government has already commenced with the successful visit in July to India by the External Affairs Minister of Sri Lanka, Hon’ble Prof. G. L. Peiris. India remains committed to partnering Sri Lanka in all its endeavours, including in meeting its aspirations of peace, harmony, growth and development. It is our hope that the opportunity provided by the end to armed conflict in Sri Lanka, and subsequent positive developments such as the holding of elections to the Northern Provincial Council, can be utilized to ensure reconciliation and lasting peace and prosperity. 

6. The election of a new government in India with a clear mandate has also provided an excellent opportunity for further deepening our bilateral trade and investment linkages. The new government is committed to closer economic cooperation and consolidation of the SAARC region. The India Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (ISLFTA), which aims to exploit the synergies and complementarities that exist between the two countries, remains the cornerstone of our economic and commercial ties. The benefits that have accrued from this 14 year-old Agreement are well documented.  Bilateral trade reached nearly US$ 5 billion in 2011, though it has subsequently fallen to around US$ 4 billion in 2013. I would like to highlight that among all the major trade partners of Sri Lanka, India has the most balanced trade with Sri Lanka. India is the largest source of imports for Sri Lanka, but is also the third largest export destination, after USA and UK. India has also attracted investment from Sri Lankan firms like Brandix and MAS Holdings, among others, who have chosen to set up companies in India for manufacture and export of apparel. In recent months, the two countries have continued discussions to take the economic and commercial engagement to the next level. 

7. People-to-people and cultural links constitute one of the cardinal pillars of our relationship. These ties will be further strengthened through India's focus on the 5 Ts - Tradition, Talent, Tourism, Trade and Technology, enunciated by Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi. Geographical proximity, historical linkages and more recently, the advent of peace, has resulted in a sharp increase in tourism-related exchanges between India and Sri Lanka, and India is today the largest source of tourists to Sri Lanka. We have focussed on increasing connectivity between India and Sri Lanka, and both countries now enjoy close connectivity by air with 113 weekly flights from Colombo to eight destinations in India.  We are working for resumption of ferry services between Colombo and Tuticorin and between Talaimannar and Rameshwaram. The rehabilitation and extension of the railway network in Sri Lanka, and the resumption of ferry services, will boost people-to-people contacts. In order to strengthen our cultural linkages, both governments decided to jointly commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda in 2013 and that of Anagarika Dharmapala in 2014. I am happy to announce that Government of India would be issuing a commemorative postal stamp in India on Anagarika Dharmapala to mark the occasion. 

8. I am also happy to note that to celebrate this Independence Day in Colombo, a special concert is being organized featuring by the well known Indian singer, Shanatanu Mukerjee, alias Shaan, on Sunday, August 17. 

9. India is in the process of implementing a project for building a state-of-the-art Cultural Centre in Jaffna. Once completed, the Centre will create opportunities for networking and cooperation amongst artists and connoisseurs of art from all communities in Sri Lanka. 

10. Recognising the immense potential that exists in the two countries to tap knowledge as a key driver of economic and social advancement, both countries have identified the education sector as a core component of our bilateral engagement. In recent years, India has been attracting a growing number of Sri Lankan students for tertiary education, as it offers a much more affordable alternative to other countries without compromising on quality. Currently, India offers about 290 scholarships to Sri Lankan students for higher studies in India and about 500 scholarships for studies in Sri Lanka. We welcome the youth of Sri Lanka to take full advantage of these scholarships. 

11. India is privileged to be a partner in Sri Lanka's development efforts. India’s developmental cooperation projects are entirely based on the priorities set by the Government and the people of Sri Lanka. Although the nature of Indian assistance has continued to evolve since 2009, the focus remains mainly on capacity building, human resource development and infrastructure support. Being part of the developing world and inspired by the experience of South-South cooperation, India has focused on a consultative and responsive model of cooperation by sharing its expertise and resources. The portfolio of development projects now encompasses virtually all major sectors of the economy, including housing, infrastructure, education, health, agriculture, fisheries, industry, handicrafts, culture and sports, amounting to around US$ 1.3 billion. 

12. A lion’s share of the development cooperation resources has been directed to the Housing Project involving construction of 50,000 houses with a commitment of over US$ 270 million, thereby making it the flagship project of Indian grant assistance to this country, and, perhaps, the largest such project undertaken by India anywhere in the world. Till date, over 34,000 beneficiaries have been selected and first installment funds have been transferred to commence work. Around 14,000 houses have been completed in all respects till date, while about 20,000 houses are under various stages of completion. The Housing Project is expected to be completed by December 2015. 

13. Restoration of transportation links is the lifeline of economic revival in any region affected by conflict. Recognizing the salience of such links, India provided a line of credit of US$ 800 million to improve the Railway Infrastructure in the Northern Province. India’s project to restore the Southern Railway Line, damaged in the Tsunami of 2004, was completed in April 2012, ahead of schedule. The Northern Railway Line Project, which would restore rail connectivity between Omanthai and Kankesanthurai, and also between Medawachchiya and Talaimannar, is also expected to be completed in 2014. With Government of Sri Lanka’s plans to extend the southern line to Hambantota and even Kataragama, a time may soon come when our Sri Lankan brothers and sisters will be able to travel by rail / ferry from Kataragama to Bodh Gaya or any other part of India. 

14. The promotion of employment opportunities and restoring livelihood of the people has been an important priority of India's development assistance strategy for Sri Lanka. An example of this was laying of the foundation stone for the Handicrafts Village at Hambantota in October 2013, and this project is on the verge of completion. A similar Handicrafts Village will be set up in Jaffna in the coming months.  

15. Following the end of the military conflict in Sri Lanka, India has emphasized the importance of national reconciliation through a negotiated political settlement, acceptable to all the communities in the island, including the Tamils. India has urged all stakeholders to engage constructively, in a spirit of partnership and mutual accommodation, building on the positive statements of intent and the symbolic gestures made following the constitution of the Northern Provincial Council. This will ensure that the needs of the people of the Northern Province are addressed with a sense of urgency and purpose. Only a cooperative approach will pave the way for genuine reconciliation amongst the communities involved. India is ready to offer its support in a spirit of partnership and cooperation. India's emphasis, in this context, has been to encourage the Government to take decisive steps towards a focused and purposeful dialogue aimed at a meaningful devolution of powers. This would greatly facilitate national reconciliation by building trust and confidence on all sides. 

16. I look forward to further strengthening of the close relations between India and Sri Lanka in the year ahead.