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71st Anniversary of India’s Independence Interview with High Commissioner of India to Sri Lanka H.E. Taranjit Singh Sandhu

71st Anniversary of India’s Independence

Interview with High Commissioner of India to Sri Lanka

H.E. Taranjit Singh Sandhu

For us, Sri Lanka is special..”

Q 1. Today is the 71st Anniversary of India’s independence. What are your thoughts on this special day?

On the occasion of the 71st Anniversary of India’s Independence, I extend my warm greetings and good wishes to my fellow Indian citizens and to the friendly people and the Government of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.

From a young independent nation with little economic resources to the fastest growing major economy in the world, India has transformed. The most significant achievement of India, according to me, is the success of democracy and pluralism.

This is no mean achievement. India, as you know, is perhaps the world’s most intricate and pluralistic society, home to 1.25 billion people. India is home to all major religions of the world. There are as many as 1,652 languages and dialects which are spoken in India. India has been able to preserve this rich mosaic of pluralism under democratic structures. We firmly believe in taking everyone along in our journey towards development.

While economic development is critical for us, I would also like to point out that we are not governed by self-interest alone. In the Entrance Hall of our Parliament, we have engraved the verse, “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” [“The whole world is one family”.] We want to move ahead with you, with everyone. Sabka sath, Sabka vikas captures this vision.  Together, we progress.

Q 2. How do you see the developments in India-Sri Lanka bilateral relations in recent times?

For us, Sri Lanka is special. And we are humbled to see that the feeling is mutual. I can narrate several examples which reflect the special nature of our ties.

Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka in March 2015 was the first by an Indian Prime Minister to Sri Lanka after a gap of 28 years. He visited Sri Lanka again in May 2017, as the Chief Guest at the International Vesak Day celebrations, which Sri Lanka hosted for the first time. Prime Minister Modi’s visits to Sri Lanka, twice in two years, is unprecedented for an Indian Prime Minister.

It is heartening to note that President, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister chose India as the destination for their first official travel abroad.

President Maithripala Sirisena attended the Founding Conference of the International Solar Alliance held in New Delhi in March 2018. As you know, the Founding Conference was co-chaired by Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi and President of France Emmanuel Macron. A $ 100 million Line of Credit was announced for undertaking solar projects in Sri Lanka.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s presence at the Global Conference on Cyber Space (GCCS 2017) held in Delhi in November 2017, which was hosted outside OECD for the first time, was special.

There have been many other firsts in recent past which we can be proud of: Sri Lanka was the first South Asian country that agreed to be part of the South Asia satellite. Sri Lanka recently joined the National Knowledge Network (NKN), being the first SAARC country to do so, through which the Sri Lankan Universities will now have digital access to around 1600 universities in India & beyond.

During the visit of our IT Minister to Sri Lanka in January this year, we launched a pilot program on E-Office, developed by our National Informatics Centre, wherein  an eGov documentation was digitally signed for the first time in Sri Lankan public sector.

I could go on and on…

Q 3. Many people in Sri Lanka feel that India’s development assistance to Sri Lanka is restricted to some parts of Sri Lanka. Is it true?

Our development partnership with Sri Lanka is based on Sri Lanka’s own priorities. The total development assistance stands at nearly US$ 3 billion out of which more than US$ 500 million is pure grants. Let me tell you, it is not just about numbers.

Our projects are unique. We believe in doing projects jointly with Sri Lanka, where Sri Lanka is a partner. Our projects are people–oriented. They have a direct impact on the lives of common people.

India has completed close to 70 people-oriented small development projects across all the Provinces of Sri Lanka. Around 20 projects are ongoing. It is not limited to one sector or area. From North to the South and West to East, it is spread all across the island. The development of a new village in Anuradhapura, construction of schools such as the tri - lingual school in Polonnaruwa, setting up of a Kandyan Dance Training School under Sri Dalida Maligawa, providing livelihood support for farming and fishing community in Hambantota, construction of a 1500-seat auditorium in Ruhuna University in Matara, construction of rainwater harvesting units in Jaffna, upgradation of sanitation facilities in Batticaloa are all examples. We are also setting up one model village each in all Districts of Sri Lanka.

The Indian Housing project in Sri Lanka is the largest grant assistance project of Government of India in any country abroad. 46,000 houses in the North and the East have been completed, around 14000 are being built in upcountry plantation areas. Another project that has been one of the most stellar examples of the India-Sri Lanka friendship and has contributed to saving of several thousands of human lives, is the Emergency Ambulance Service. The nationwide expansion of the Service was launched recently. India has been able to fulfill our promises in a timely manner.

India has committed Line of Credit of around US$ 1.3 billion for development of railway sector in Sri Lanka. The restoration of arterial railway lines, connecting the North and the South after decades of conflict, was undertaken under Indian concessional financing. The tsunami-affected Southern Railway line was also upgraded under Indian Line of Credit. India has also supplied rolling stock to Sri Lanka and contributed to capacity building of Sri Lankan railway personnel. We are also providing around US$ 45 million to upgrade Kankensanthurai Harbor in the North.

Indian companies are engaged in projects relating to distribution of drinking water, and waste water management in Sri Lanka. Projects worth nearly US$ 600 million through EXIM Bank financing are currently underway.

We are ready to assist Sri Lanka is whatever we can. We are not governed by sector or area. We go by what Sri Lanka wants from us.

Q  4. Has the FTA helped India more than Sri Lanka?

When India and Sri Lanka entered into a Free Trade Agreement in 2000, you have to remember, it was the first for both of us. We both were in a way pioneers, who realized the importance of economic integration. Bilateral trade has increased more than 8 times since then. There is a perception that FTA has helped India more than Sri Lanka, just because trade balance is in India’s favour. This perception is totally unfounded. Any trade economist would tell you this. Trade balance is not an indicator of whom the FTA has helped.

One has to look at the figures. If you look at the share of FTA items in Sri Lanka’s exports to India, it has increased from 16% in 2000 to more than 65% in recent years. This means majority of Sri Lanka’s exports to India are in fact through FTA.

On the other hand, share of FTA items in India’s exports to Sri Lanka increased from 9% in 2000 to just 13% in recent years. This means majority of India’s exports to Sri Lanka are outside the FTA.

On the whole, our focus should be how to take our trade and investment flows even higher. I do not see India-Sri Lanka relations through a transactional lens.

Q 5. It has been reported that Economic & Technological Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) with India will be concluded by the end of this year. There is a lot of concern in Sri Lanka regarding ETCA. What is your reaction?

I have said this many times in the past, we will move at a pace you are comfortable with. Let us be clear about it: the whole world is looking at the Indian market for obvious reasons.

Globally, we have seen countries moving away from trade based on tariff preferences to investment linked trade flows. We have seen the benefits of this in the bilateral context, and we must work together to increase this. If there are lessons to be learned from the past with regard to operationalization of FTA, we must definitely look at it. We are open about it. We would want to make the whole process smooth, quick and comfortable.

Having said that, the services sector is equally important in both countries – it contributes around 64% of GDP in India and 56% of GDP in Sri Lanka. Often, we do not realize when a service is being provided. For example, around 80% of the flights to / from India are provided by Sri Lankan airlines, rather than airlines from India. You know that Sri Lankan Airlines has become the largest foreign carrier to India, operating to around 14 cities in India.

Similarly, more than 70% of Colombo Port transshipment is India related – clearly a service to Indian exporters and importers. Evidently, Sri Lanka is strong in the services sector. As our economic engagement increases, we must find ways to cooperate more in the services sector also.

Let there be no doubt about it: We are not vying for Sri Lanka’s assets, resources, jobs or market. On the other hand, Sri Lanka has much to gain, being next to a global growth pole, India.

Q 6. In many of your speeches, you have spoken about the benefits for Sri Lanka arising out of India’s growth and being close geographically to India. How can Sri Lanka access the huge market in India?

The scale and speed of economic transformation in India offers opportunities for all. For Sri Lanka, the opportunities are accentuated, given the historical links and close geographical proximity.

We would encourage Sri Lankan companies to be part of the supply and value chains of large Indian companies. This would also interest Indian companies to source from Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan economy has excellent strengths, particularly in niche products. I am happy that many Sri Lankan businesses have understood this, and are doing well in a large and competitive market such as India. It may be difficult for a Sri Lankan company to establish a pan Indian presence at one go. Many Indian companies, who are focused on the vast domestic market, may not be aware of the opportunities in the Sri Lankan market.

We would encourage you all to reach out to the Indian business community. We at the High Commission stand ready to assist in the Sri Lankan companies in whatever we can.

Q 7. You have spoken extensively in your speeches about the need for skill development and youth exchange programmes between India and Sri Lanka. Are we making use of the full potential?

I strongly believe that our tomorrow is crafted in today’s classrooms. One of the main pillars of our bilateral relation has been education and skill development.

Government of India offers 750 scholarships annually to the Sri Lankan students, for Pre-university, Undergraduate, Postgraduate and Doctoral studies.

From last year, we have opened up our premier Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) to meritorious Sri Lankan students. The IIT Joint Entrance Examination was held in Colombo for the first time in May last year. Sri Lankan students have also now been allowed to take National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for admission to Medical and Dental streams in Indian medical colleges. We hope that Sri Lankan youth would make full use of these opportunities.

In addition, India has been providing fully-funded short-term training opportunities, under Indian Technical & Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme since 1964. This year, we have allotted around 400 slots under ITEC to Sri Lanka. Both Sri Lankan Government officials and industry members can make use of this programme.

In addition, we also conduct special training programmes which are customized for Sri Lanka, on request.

We have also started exchange programmes between schools and colleges in both countries. For example, students from Lawrence School, Sanawar, which was established as early as 1847, visited Royal College (Est. 1835), Colombo few months ago. Now, a group of students from Royal College, Colombo will be going to Lawrence School, Sanawar. There is also a tie-up between Sri Ram College of Commerce of Delhi and Kelaniya University. We are keen to have more such programmes.

Q 8. Despite warm bilateral ties between India and Sri Lanka, fishermen issue between our countries is yet to be satisfactorily resolved. Has Government of India taken any measures to resolve this issue?

I strongly believe that no challenge is so huge that it cannot be surmounted. Government of India and the State Government of Tamil Nadu have adopted a multipronged approach to resolve the issue to our mutual satisfaction.

Various measures have been taken for diversion of trawl fishing from Palk Bay into deep sea fishing. Registration of bottom trawlers in the entire Palk Bay area has been banned since March 2017.

 Construction of new fishing harbours at Mookaiyur (in Gulf of Mannar) and Poompuhar (on Bay of Bengal coast), at a cost of US$ 40 million are underway – this will divert Indian fishermen away from Palk Bay into the Arabian Sea or Bay of Bengal. Construction of Poompuhar is almost complete, while Mookaiyur is expected to be complete next year. Development of a new fish landing centre at Kunthukal (in the Gulf of Mannar) is also ongoing.

Government of India and State Government of Tamil Nadu have allocated more than US$ 56 million for dismantling of bottom trawlers and replacing them with new deep sea liners. Under this scheme, fishermen will be given subsidy for purchasing new deep sea liners to replace bottom trawlers. It will also cover training of fishermen for undertaking deep sea fishing at various institutions.

Another Scheme that is under implementation is for Seamless Communication for fishermen to ensure their safety in the sea. Over 17000 handsets are being distributed amongst fishermen.

A special satellite based tracking system for fishing vessels, called Vessel Monitoring System (VMS), has been developed using ISRO’s GSAT-6 satellite so that they do not cross the International Maritime Boundary unawres. It is now being tested for installation.

Government of India is also promoting various alternate livelihood activities such as seaweed farming (in lieu of fishing) etc.

As Lord Buddha has said, “the easiest way to escape from a problem is to solve it.

Q 9. Talking about Buddha, can you share some details of your efforts to strengthen Buddhist links between India and Sri Lanka?

Buddhism is a force that unites us. I strongly believe that Buddhism has the power to unify the whole world.

Prime Minister Modi has called Buddha as India’s crown jewel. He has great respect for Lord Buddha. His visit to Sri Lanka in May 2017, as the Chief Guest at the UN International Vesak Day celebrations is a testimony to his deep regards for Buddha and his teachings. During the visit, he also offered prayers at the holy Dalada Maligawa and took the blessings from the Mahanayakas. During his visit to Sri Lanka in 2015 also, he had offered prayers at the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree in Anuradhapura. He had also visited the Mahabodhi Society in Colombo.

If you remember, last year Mr. Sudarsan Pattnaik, an International Sand artist created the world’s largest sand Buddha statue in Sri Lanka. India also donated thousands of handcrafted candles produced at the world’s oldest operating refinery in Digboi (Assam) on the occasion of Vesak.

For this year’s Vesak Day, the exposition of the Sacred Sarnath Relics was organised in Colombo. Recently we organised a unique visit of 160 members of the Sri Lanka Armed Forces and their families to Bodh Gaya by a special Indian Air Force flight. I could see the sense of happiness in their eyes after the visit.

Buddhist circuit in India is popular amongst Sri Lankans, like the popularity of Ramayana Trail in Sri Lanka with Indians. After Prime Minister Modi’s announcement, Air India has started direct flights on Colombo – Varanasi sector. Last year, nearly 4 lakh Indian tourists visited Sri Lanka and nearly 3 lakh Sri Lankans visited India. In fact, we have issued around 50,000 visas free of charge to Sri Lankan pilgrims visiting India. People to people relationship has been the strongest pillar in our relationship with Sri Lanka.          

We can institutionalize more linkages especially between youth of India and Sri Lanka. I visited SIBA (Sri Lanka International Buddhist Academy) in Kandy for their convocation ceremony last year. During the interaction with students I could see the urge for a better and brighter future. The path shown by Lord Buddha will surely help us achieve that.

I am of the belief that in the higher realms of understanding, science and spirituality converge, rather than diverge.

Q 10. Lastly, there is a lot of coverage in the media about India trying to balance the influence of China in Sri Lanka. Any comments?

Our relations with Sri Lanka stand on its own footing. They are not dependent on our relations with any third country. 

71st Anniversary of India’s Independence (Sinhala Translation)flashimage

71st Anniversary of India’s Independence (Tamil Translation)flashimage

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