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Speech by High Commissioner of India, H.E. Santosh Jha at the Sri Lanka-India Society

Speech at the Sri Lanka-India Society

Your Excellency, Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, President of Sri Lanka

Hon’ble Chief Justice of Sri Lanka Mr. Jayantha Jayasuriya

Hon’ble Ministers and Members of Parliament,

Mr. Kishore Reddy, President of Sri Lanka-India Society

Members of the Society

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen

Namaskar, Ayubowan, Vanakkam

I am really delighted today to take part in the annual dinner of the Sri Lanka-India Society to mark the 75th Republic Day of India and 76th Independence Day of Sri Lanka. My warm greetings to both Indians and Sri Lankan friends on the occasion. I must also congratulate the Sri lanka India Society, which is marking its 75th year. I thank the leadership of the society for the invitation extended to me for giving the honour of making the keynote address as we mark this momentous anniversary. This is my first event with the society in my new capacity. But I do recall with fondness the memories of my past involvement with the Society as High Commission's representative, during my earlier assignment in Sri Lanka, between 2007 and 2010. I am very well aware that thisis the oldest friendship society in Sri Lanka.

And that it has made significant contribution during the past 75 years to sustaining and strengthening the age-old bridge between our two peoples. To see many longstanding friends and collaborators; those who have been in the forefront for years working towards building stronger India-Sri Lanka relations, adds to the pleasure. So, thank you for this opportunity.

As the Patron of the Society, I also have the honour of welcoming His Excellency President Ranil Wickremesinghe and all the distinguished guests present here today. We will have the privilege of listening to His Excellency the President later this evening and benefit from his thoughts and guidance. For me, however, his mere presence is an encouragement for all of us and underlines the deep, abiding and special nature of the friendship between India and Sri Lanka. 


Friends,

I have been asked to speak on India-Sri Lanka relations. In doing so, I will focus on three aspects: its underlying principles, its different elements and its main directions. 

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi had so aptly remarked on his last visit to Sri Lanka, and I quote “Our relations, like our civilizations, are age-old and also wide-ranging”. To this I would add that we are in fact civilizational twins sharing the same antiquity. And also let me underline that among twins there are no big or small sisters or brothers.

Friends,

Our history, geography and our deep cultural connect dictate a different and unique nature for our relations. They make us indispensable, inseparable and irreplaceable as partners.Our actions in recent years have once again reaffirmed that we remain a natural, time-tested, trusted and reliable partner of Sri Lanka. Our approach towards Sri Lanka is solely guided by our neighbourhood first policy and our SAGAR strategy. Our relations are not driven by narrow considerations or have a limited transactional nature. They have a deeper, abiding and enduring logic that stems from us being proximate neighbours. This creates an imperative that we cooperate not out of choice or opportunities alone but because cooperating is the most organic and natural thing to do – the only option.

In other words, for both our countries, there cannot be any relationship that can have higher stakes, and therefore a deeper commitment. As our External Affairs Minister Dr. Jaishankar stated in March 2023, and I quote, “Blood is thicker than water”. This is what makes our relations uniquely fraternal, special, and unlike any other we have with other countries.

India’s growing national capabilities is turning it into a better, more effective and meaningful partner for Sri Lanka in its quest for development. Our relations, as a result, are growing and diversifying into new and wider range of areas: first is infrastructure and connectivity; second, deeper economic engagement and energy security; third, upgrading trade and investment ties; fourth, cultural and educational cooperation; and finally, the fifth, tourism and people-to-people contacts.

Among these, connectivity undoubtedly is the central pillar of our emerging partnership. When I speak of connectivity, I mean all its dimensions – air, maritime, trade, digital, energy or people-to-people connectivity. Daily flights between Jaffna and Chennai and launch of ferry services between India and Northern Sri Lanka are some of the latest steps in this direction. We will continue to add to the existing multiple nodes of air and maritime connectivity. However, the most ambitious recent venture and also the most impactful in terms of potential, has to be the India-Sri Lanka Land Connectivity Corridor. We are now taking the first steps to translate this game-changing initiative into real action on the ground. Once built, this connectivity corridor will transform our relations, epitomise our unbreakable partnership, and possibly uplift vast populations that it will connect, into a new era of growth and prosperity.

Similarly, we are also working towards setting up greater energy connectivity. Here, our efforts are aimed at fostering energy security for Sri Lanka, and to bring down the cost of energy, as a key economic enabler for development. I must also add that connecting Sri Lanka to emerging regional and global grids, with India as a major transit point can help bring investments to actualise Sri Lanka’s vast clean energy potential. It willalso generate additional revenue, and make it a major energy exporter. Our current efforts include the power grid interconnection, the multi-product pipeline and a virtual LNG pipeline connecting India and Sri Lanka. Joint exploration of oil blocks and joint development of offshore wind potential along our maritime boundaries are other possible areas of cooperation, which we must also explore. There are also investments in renewable power projects including the NTPC solar power project at Sampur. The broad rationale is that the renewable energy boom that we are witnessing in India must also extend to Sri Lanka. I am glad to report that we have progressed each one of our energy projects in recent months.

A major direction of our joint work has been strengthening our development cooperation through concessional lines of credit and grant assistance. Bringing the best practices from India and replicating our successful experiments with inclusive development and good governance is an important objective. Here, as elsewhere too, we are driven solely by Sri Lanka’s asks and preferences. Our intent for a wider outreach is reflected in the fact that we have now implemented projects in all 25 districts in Sri Lanka.

Some of our activities in this area include rehabilitation and modernization of Sri Lanka’s Railways, construction of houses for the poor, solar electrification of religious places, hybrid renewable energy projects in the three islands off Jaffna, agriculture and fisheries and ports and airports development. We are also working to foster tourism and cultural linkages and helping strengthen health and education infrastructure in the country. We also offer more than 700 scholarships to Sri Lankan students for higher studies in India. Sri Lanka is also a major beneficiary of India’s ITEC programme under which we provide short-term training to Sri Lankan professionals, civil servants, and other domain specialists. 

An important milestone this year has been the launch of Universal Payments Interface or the UPI in Sri Lanka. We have also begun trade settlements in Indian national rupees. We must also explore further expanding the usage of Indian rupees for investments in Sri Lanka, which can bring obvious benefits. Our ongoing efforts to implement the Sri Lanka-Unique Digital Identity Number project is a stepping stone to bringing the kind of digital public infrastructure to Sri Lanka, which has led to the deep transformations, we have seen in India, in the last decade; whether it is in terms of improving governance, ensuring transparency, fostering innovation, or securing social safety nets for the poor and underprivileged.

Our trade and investment relations have always been in the forefront of our ties.

India is Sri Lanka’s largest trade partner, the largest foreign investor in recent years and biggest contributor to Sri Lanka’s vast tourism potential. India and Sri Lanka were the first in the region to sign a Free Trade Agreement. It came into force in 2000. Now, we are seeking to broaden the scope of the FTA through an Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement or ETCA and a separate Bilateral Investment Treaty. There is no doubt that FTA has served us well especially in enhancing Sri Lanka’s export potential. The data for bilateral trade over the past two decades bears this out clearly and those holding to a contrarian view need to rely on this data rather than false perceptions or ideological prejudice. Once concluded, the ETCA will further strengthen the existing framework by removing impediments to genuine trade, eliminating non-tariff barriers and enabling greatertrade facilitation. The main objective remains advancing Sri Lanka’s access to vast Indian markets not just in merchandise goods but also in services and to promote further Indian investments. India is a rapidly growing engine for global growth and Sri Lanka must become more ready to take advantage of this as the preferred partner and a close neighbour. In other words, India’s progress is Sri Lanka’s opportunity just as Sri Lanka’s prosperity is in India’s interest.

Our desire to support Sri Lanka’s economic recovery and its renewed quest for development is reflected also in our efforts to encourage the Indian private sector to invest in Sri Lanka. The West Container Terminal at Colombo Port, the ITC Hotel, which will be open to business next month, the dairy venture, and renewable energy projects in the North are some recent examples. We have already invested in petroleum retail, tourism & hotel development, manufacturing, real estate, telecommunications, banking and financial services. We are promoting investments through intensive engagements and business events not just in India and Sri Lanka but also in third countries such as the recent one in Davos. Our own experience in India indicates that our success in promoting investments will depend in a large measure on Sri Lanka continuing to work towards creating a friendly, welcoming and conducive ecosystem for investments. 

An area that is often not touched upon is our growing security and defence cooperation. Supply of equipment, training of armed and police forces and augmentation of security and military capacities remains an important area of our cooperation. This year alone we have committed project and equipment assistance in excess of one billion Sri Lanka rupees. We have bilateral exercises such as the SLINEX between our Navies and MITRA SHAKTI between our armies. India and Sri Lanka also conduct trilateral coast guard exercises, DOSTI, along with Maldives. We are also planning Air Force exercises, which will be held soon. Port calls and PASSEX are ongoing activities as it should be between neighbours. Our role as the first responder in Sri Lanka’s times of need were visible during floods in 2017, during COVID in 2021 and when it faced food, fuel and medical contingencies in 2022. The principle that, like our economic well-being, our security and stability are also closely interlinked, is a valuable lesson that we need to remain cognizant of at all times. 

The most special aspect of our relations has to be our people-to-people connect. The natural warmth and affection among our peoples are palpable. I have felt them personally wherever I have travelled in Sri Lanka. I am sure many in the audience would also attest to this. Cricket or cuisine, yoga or ayurveda, dance or music, our passion for them is a shared one just as our history, languages, culture and faiths are. Whether it is Ramayana trail or Buddhism trail it speaks of our age-old connect that is only getting deeper in modern times. This is best reflected in growing tourism numbers with India contributing 21% of the tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka in 2023.

Friends,

It is hard to miss that overall, our relations today are better than ever before in our history. It is underpinned by unprecedented mutual trust and goodwill. The positive direction that our relations have acquired in the past year following the adoption of the vision document by our leaders at their summit meeting in July 2023 gives us the confidence that even better days are ahead. This new confidence is further buttressed by India’s strong economic performance in recent years and strong signs of economic recovery, growth and reform that we see manifesting in Sri Lanka.

There are also other important reasons for this confidence. Our respective urge to transform our nations into a developed one by mid-century; our new-found determination to finally deliver and translate our potential into performance; our faith in democratic polity and good governance; and most important, the aspirations of our large youthful populations, which gives us the much-needed drive and energy, to forge ahead. Indeed, we seem poised to be on the right side of history, expecting to finally achieve our ambition and aspirations of scaling greater heights together.

I have taken a lot of your time. I would like to now conclude by thanking you for your kind patience and listening. I must also thank the Sri Lanka-India Society for providing me the honour to address all of you especially in its landmark 75th year. I can assure you that we will continue to work closely with all of you to further widen, deepen and strengthen our age-old ties.

Thank you once again!