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High Commissioner's Message on the occasion of 70th Independence Day of India

On the occasion of the 70th Independence Day of India, I extend my greetings and best wishes to my fellow citizens and to the friendly people and the Government of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.

Anchored in the bedrock of shared civilizational links that span over two millennia, relations between India and Sri Lanka have significantly expanded and progressively evolved to cover all areas of mutual and contemporary relevance. Last year has been particularly transformative and has witnessed many dynamic developments in our strong, friendly and time-tested relations. Four high level bilateral visits within 90 days of the formation of a new government in Sri Lanka last year heralded a new beginning. The momentum generated by these visits has continued this year. Our Foreign Secretary visited in January 2016. Our External Affairs Minister, Smt. SushmaSwaraj, visited Sri Lanka for the Joint Commission Meeting in February 2016, held after a gap of three years. In May 2016, H.E. MaithripalaSirisena, President of Sri Lanka, visited New Delhi, Ujjain and Sanchi. On June 18, 2016, President Sirisena, and Prime Minister Modi through video conferencing from New Delhi, jointly inaugurated the newly renovated Duraiappah Stadium in Jaffna, and celebrated the International Day of Yoga 2016. Both leaders also dedicated the Stadium, renovated by India, to the people of Sri Lanka. The highlight of the event was performance of 'Surya Namaskar’, as part of International Day of Yoga celebrations, by almost 11000 school children.

Economic ties are at the core of India’s renewed engagement with the world. Under Prime Minister Shri NarendraModi, there has been an intense focus on investments and growth, which is already paying dividends. With Foreign Direct Investment of US$ 40 billion from April 2015 March 2016, India has emerged as a magnet for global investments, and this trend is accelerating. Make in India, Digital India, Smart Cities, Skill India, Housing for All and Start Up India are some of Government’s top priority initiatives. They collectively envision India as an efficient economy focused on industry, innovation and entrepreneurship; the promotion of investor confidence; job creation; the development of infrastructure; and achieving total digital connectivity.

With a strong demographic dividend, a growing entrepreneurial ecosystem and a large domestic market, the time is right for India’s economy to soar. If the economic liberalization of 1991 was a watershed moment for India, 25 years later India again stands on the threshold of another historic moment. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund both project a robust 7.5% growth for the country in 2016 and 2017. Latest estimates are that India's economic growth may cross the 8 percent-mark during the current fiscal year ending March 2017.

As the Indian nation moves forward, we invite our neighbours to be part of a collective growth story. I would like to underscore that the India-Sri Lanka relationship is special to us. We hope that Sri Lankan businesses will take advantage of their proximity to India. I am happy that bilateral trade has remained buoyant, with two way trade at US$ 4.6 billion during 2015, of which Indian exports were around US$ 4 billion and Sri Lankan exports were around US$ 645 million. India is also among the top investors in Sri Lanka with cumulative investments of over US$ 1 billion since 2003. From the Sri Lankan side, many companies have made large investments in India and are doing extremely well.

The corner stone of our trade relations has been the India - Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (ISLFTA), which has now been in force for more than 15 years. Contrary to the misinformation currently prevailing, total bilateral trade has increased more than 8 times under this agreement. This is a big achievement. Sri Lankan exports have used the FTA to enter Indian markets and nearly 60% of Sri Lankan exports take advantage of the FTA concessions. On the other hand, around 90% of Indian exports to Sri Lanka do not use the FTA concessions. Thus, it is obvious who has benefitted more from the FTA.

In consonance with the vision of Prime Minister RanilWickremesinghe, India looks forward to taking its economic engagement with Sri Lanka to the next level by elevating our FTA to include areas such as investment, services and technology cooperation. During his visit to India in September 2015, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe proposed concluding an Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA). We have welcomed this offer. The first round of negotiations was held just last week, where both sides discussed at length the broad contours of the agreement.

I am aware that some in Sri Lanka have raised concerns about signing an ETCA with India, and I do reiterate that it is upto Sri Lankans themselves to decide on the contours of any agreement that they sign with a foreign country. However, the motivated and mischievous campaign of disinformation against this agreement needs to be countered by genuine debate and discussion among stakeholders in Sri Lanka.

Let me move on to another important facet of our close friendship, that of development partnership. India has committed over US$ 2.6 billion in development assistance to Sri Lanka, with over US$ 435 million in outright grants. Indian projects cover areas like housing, de-mining, agriculture, education, health, livelihood support, fisheries, industry, handicrafts, culture, sports and connectivity. Our flagship housing project, which aims to construct 50,000 houses, is proceeding well with over 45,000 houses constructed till date. The third phase, to construct 4,000 houses in the Central and Uva Provinces through an innovative community-driven approach, was launched in the last week of April 2016. Last month, Prime Minister RanilWickremesinghe flagged off the Emergency Ambulance Service, funded by Government of India, for the Southern and Western provinces of Sri Lanka, under a grant of US$ 7.55 million. This service is being provided to patients free of charge.

Our cultures have been interwoven in a unique tapestry since time immemorial. On a personal note, I would like to mention that I was deeply honoured and humbled to be invited by the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited for the Annual MihintaleAlokaPooja on PosonPoya Day on June 19. PosonPoya is a glorious day in Sri Lanka’s history. It is also a seminal event in the annals of India-Sri Lanka relations, as it is on this auspicious day that ArahatMahinda arrived in Sri Lanka from India with the universal and sublime message of Dhamma.

The High Commission of India was happy to host in June 2016, an Incredible India roadshow, which highlighted the multiple and lesser known Buddhist sites in India. During the Joint Working Group on Tourism, held the same day, both Governments agreed on collaborative measures for the joint development of Ramayana Trail and the Buddhist Circuit, and for jointly marketing these destinations in third countries.

I am also happy to announce that the Government of India will be hosting an International Buddhist Conference in October 2016 at the holy sites of Sarnath and Bodh Gaya, which will highlight the deep and abiding cultural and spiritual ties that bind people in both countries.

People-to-people contacts remain an important pillar of our relationship. Tourist exchanges are just one manifestation of this. Taking cognizance of this, issuance of Indian visas to Sri Lankan nationals was simplified in 2015. Special measures are being taken to increase connectivity between the two nations. There are now 154 flights a week between Colombo and eight destinations in India, and India continues to be the largest source for tourists visiting Sri Lanka, accounting for almost one-fifth of all tourist arrivals. Discussions are also underway for upgrading the Palaly airport under an Indian Line of Credit, so that it can function as an international airport serving the region.

Of all the threats that are global in nature and should concern us all, terrorism is clearly the most serious. It is one that impacts lives of innocent people across the world. The heinous attacks in Turkey, Bangladesh and France in the last few months are stark reminders that we must show our solidarity and increase our cooperation on this issue. For years India has been facing the scourge of terrorism, being exported from across its border. The threat has only grown dramatically in the recent past. It is our firm conviction that no belief, justification, political cause or argument can be used to justify acts of terrorism. The perpetrators of terrorist attacks, as well as the States that support and sponsor or provide safe havens to terrorists or terrorist groups, must be held accountable. I am happy that the Government of Sri Lanka fully shares this perspective.

India and Sri Lanka are closest neighbours in every sense, with interlinked destinies. Let me reiterate that India has an abiding interest in the security of Sri Lanka, and we value our close defence and security cooperation. India will continue to remain engaged with Sri Lanka and offer our support in a spirit of partnership and cooperation. I have no doubt that our bilateral partnership will continue to scale even greater heights.

Long Live India-Sri Lanka friendship!