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71st Republic Day of India - Interview with High Commissioner of India to Sri Lanka, H.E. Taranjit Singh Sandhu

Interview with the High Commissioner

Republic Day Supplement

Q1. On the 71st Republic Day of India, what message would you like to convey to the people of India and Sri Lanka?

I extend my warm greetings to the people of Sri Lanka on the occasion of the 71stRepublic Day of India andon the Independence Day celebrations of Sri Lanka, which is due in a few days from now.Iwould also like to convey my congratulations to the people of Sri Lanka on the smooth conduction of Presidential elections. This truly symbolises the strength and maturity of democracy in Sri Lanka.

India is Sri Lanka's closest maritime neighbour and a trusted friend. Our historical, ethnic, linguistic, cultural and civilizational contacts lay down the strong foundation of our close relations.India prioritizes its relationship with Sri Lanka,in line with our ‘Neighborhood First’ policy and SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) doctrine.

Q2. How would you define the developments in India-Sri Lanka relationship in recent times?

The strength and dynamism of our bilateral relationship can be gauged from the fact that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa chose India for his first foreign visit within two weeks of assuming office. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also visited Sri Lanka on his first international tour during his second term in office. This was his third visit to Sri Lanka in the last five years.

Prime Minister Modi was the first leader to visit Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the dastardly Easter Sunday Attack. His visit reaffirmed India’s faith in the stability of Sri Lanka and also signalled to the international tourists that Sri Lanka is a safe destination. As a result Indian tourists returned to Sri Lanka quickly and India has become the largest source market for tourism in Sri Lanka.

2019 was a momentous year for India- Sri Lanka relationship. Together we completed the pioneering 1990 Suwaseriya Ambulance Service, which is now available in all 9 provinces of Sri Lanka. Commercial flight operations resumed between Jaffna and Chennai with Alliance Air, a subsidiary of Air India starting operations. I believe a Sri Lankan company would soon be operating on the same route.

India and Sri Lanka entered into an agreement to upgrade the railway track from Maho to Omanthai, which would make travel much more faster, safer and comfortable, India would also be setting up a cold storage warehouse in Dambulla, which would help Sri Lankan farmers in reducing their losses. India also delivered world-class trains to Sri Lankan Railways under concessional financing.

Q3 Seems like Railways is a priority sector for cooperation between India and Sri Lanka, is that the case?

India has so far committed concessional financing of around USD 1.3 billion for development of railway sector in Sri Lanka. The restoration of arterial railway lines, connecting the North and the South and the tsunami-affected Southern Railway line,was undertaken under Indian concessional financing.

India has supplied 6 trains, 8 locomotives and 50 wagons to Sri Lanka recently. India will also assist in expanding the Railway Workshop in Ratmalana and upgrading the signalling systems from Maho to Anuradhapura.

However, this is not the only priority area for cooperation. Indian Housing project is the largest grant project of India in any country. We have committed over 63,000 houses in Sri Lanka out of which 47,000 houses have already been constructed and handed over. Last year the Indian Housing Project expanded to Galle, Matara, Kegalle and Ratnapura districts. We are also setting up one model village in all districts of Sri Lanka.

In Education sector, the largest University auditorium in Sri Lanka was built for Ruhuna University by India. We are building and renovating many school buildings including a tri-lingual school in Polonnaruwa. We provide over 750 scholarshipsfor Sri Lankan students to study in India and in Sri Lanka, and over 400 training slots under Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) to the youth working in various fields. Entrance to prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology, which are the breeding ground for global CEOs are now held in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan students can also apply for admission to medical colleges in India.

In addition to the 1990 Suwaseriya Ambulance in the health sector we have built the 150 bed Hatton Dickoya hospital. These are but a few recent examples. We have completed over 70 community development projects across all provinces in Sri Lanka, while 20 others are still on going.

These projects are in varied fields covering education, health, transportation, agriculture, fisheries, handicrafts and culture and are spread across Sri Lanka from East to West and North to South. They are based on Sri Lanka’s own requirements and priorities.

Q4.You have mentioned how the Governments are driving the bilateral relationship, are private partners equally involved?

If someone asks me, what is at the heart of India-Sri Lanka relationship, I would say, it is the people in both countries. Every year thousands of pilgrims travel from Sri Lanka to India and from India to Sri Lanka. Artists, musicians, writers, teachers, students meet, collaborate, contribute to this special relationship out of their own interest and volitions.

Many Indian companies like Mahindra, Dabur, Pidilite are setting up their manufacturing plants in Sri Lanka, bringing in investments, creating employment opportunities. India is not only one of the largest trade partners but also one of the biggest investors in Sri Lanka. Similarly, Sri Lankan companies like Brandix and Damro are immensely successful in India.

As I said, India is the largest source of tourism for Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan Airlines is the largest foreign carrier operating in India due to the open sky policy between the two countries.

India and Sri Lanka relationship is special. The Great Emperor Ashoka sent his own children Princess Sanghmitta and Prince Mahinda with Lord Buddha's message to Sri Lanka. Since then it’s the people of our two great nations who continue to strengthen this relationship daily.

Q5. Lastly, what are the areas where you feel the India-Sri Lanka relationship should focus on?

India and Sri Lanka are both ancient civilizations but also nations of young people. The aim for both of our countries should be to fulfill the developmental aspirations of the youth – to provide them with a prosperous, secure future.

Innovation, technology and enterprise have to be our focus sector. India has emerged as the third largest hub of start-up companies in the world. 27 Indian startups have reached the unicorn status –with valuations over US$1 billion.

During the recent visit of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to India, we have committed further assistance of 400 million US Dollars for development of Sri Lanka and 50 million US Dollars for security and counter terrorism in Sri Lanka.

While we are partners in growth, we also face common threats and challenges. We have to fight those who spread hate, who spread false ideologies, who turn innocent minds into weapons. As multicultural democracies, we have to constructively fight the threats that radicalization, and Jihadi terrorism pose to our societies.