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Strengthening the age-old friendship

Strengthening the age-old friendship

Following the election of the present Unity government, the relations between Sri Lanka and India witnessed a gradual increase. With the recent visit of the Indian Premier Narendra Modi, the bilateral ties were further strengthened. Indian High Commissioner Y. K. Sinha observes it as the renewal of neighbourhood links.

Q: After a prolonged period of diplomatic turbulence, bilateral relations between Sri Lanka and India seem to have soared to great heights under the present unity government. Your comments?

A: This year has been a momentous one for Sri Lanka. While India-Sri Lanka relations have traditionally been close and friendly, the new Government in Sri Lanka has sought to further strengthen bilateral ties.

Today, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is pursuing a policy of 'Neighbourhood First'. There is recognition that neighbours have a first claim on India and Sri Lanka is among our closest and dearest neighbours. Sri Lanka, too, has seen significant developments, including landmark presidential and parliamentary elections, the formation of a government of national unity, efforts at constitutional reforms, and a renewal of hope for the future.

Domestic development in our countries has led to a revitalization of India - Sri Lanka relations. Four high level bilateral visits within 90 days of the formation of a new government in Sri Lanka heralded a new chapter in our relations. President Maithripala Sirisena visited India in February, which was his first overseas visit after assuming office. Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a historic visit to Sri Lanka in March, the first standalone bilateral visit to Sri Lanka by an Indian Prime Minister since 1987. There was also an exchange of visits between Foreign Ministers of the two countries in the first three months of this year, underlining the friendship and cooperation between our two countries.

In September 2015, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe visited New Delhi, his first official visit abroad after the January elections. These visits have imparted a new dynamism to our bilateral relations.

Sri Lanka has voted twice this year for change, reforms, reconciliation and progress, a testimony to Sri Lanka's democratic traditions and a watershed in its march towards a peaceful, inclusive and prosperous future.

As a close neighbour and friend, we wish Sri Lanka every success. We rejoice in its progress and assure its people of India's unstinted support.

Q: In a welcome move, Sri Lankan nationals were to receive on arrival visa status to India. It was announced during Premier Narendra Modi's recent visit to Sri Lanka. But the facility is yet to come into effect. Any reason for the delay?

A: I think there is some confusion here on what the Prime Minister actually announced. The e-Tourist Visa requires that an application be made online prior to the visit and the actual visa is stamped on arrival at a designated Indian airport, after due clearance.

In pursuance of the announcement made on March 14, 2015, by the Prime Minister, the e-Tourist Visa scheme was extended to Sri Lankan nationals within a month, to coincide with the Sinhala and Tamil New Year on April 14, 2015. This is in addition to the existing visa procedure. The e-Tourist Visa can be utilized by Sri Lankans visiting India for recreation, sightseeing, a casual visit to meet friends or relatives, short duration medical treatment or a casual business visit.

Moreover, Government of India, in a gesture of goodwill, sharply reduced the visa fee for e-Tourist Visa recently. The new e-Tourist visa fee for Sri Lankan nationals is only US$ 25 (plus bank charges of 2.5%), instead of US$ 60 (plus US$2 bank fee) charged earlier.

We hope that more Sri Lankans will make use of the opportunity to visit India with the e-Tourist Visa.

Q: There are proposals to build a 23-km bridge linking Danushkody and Thalaimannar. How far have you proceeded on this project? (According to our understanding, bi-lateral discussions on the bridge were to begin last October)

A: While India feels that connectivity among SAARC countries is important for regional integration and economic progress, specific proposals need to be fleshed out and discussed in detail.

Currently, India and Sri Lanka are working towards resumption of ferry services between Colombo and Tuticorin and between Talaimannar and Rameshwaram, which will make travel easier. There is also a proposal to operate a cruise/ferry service between Colombo and Kochi in Kerala. India and Sri Lanka already enjoy close connectivity by air with nearly 150 flights a week from Colombo to multiple destinations in India.

While a direct link across the Palk Bay would greatly assist in enhancing connectivity, we are prepared to move at a pace that Sri Lanka is comfortable with. In fact, in January 2013 at the 8th Session of the India-Sri Lanka Joint Commission held in New Delhi, both sides agreed to explore the feasibility of establishing physical connectivity across the Palk Straits.

Q: When can we expect the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) to come into effect?

A: India has always attached the greatest importance to upgrading bilateral economic and commercial relations with Sri Lanka. India is interested in expanding the existing India Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement to cover areas like investments and services, which will be mutually beneficial. In this regard, discussions on a CEPA reached an advanced stage in 2008, but the document could not be signed due to opposition from vested interests in Sri Lanka.

I believe that both our countries have an important stake in each other's growth. Sri Lanka should take advantage of close proximity to the fastest growing major economy in the world.

During his visit to India in September 2015, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe proposed concluding a bilateral Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement by next year. The stress laid by the Prime Minister in boosting cooperation in technology is indeed welcome as it reflects the importance Sri Lanka attaches to collaboration with India in this important field. We are working together to fulfill the mandate given by our Prime Ministers and conclude this agreement at an early date. Narrow parochial considerations should not be allowed to derail the process. We must keep the larger picture in mind so that it is a win-win situation for both countries.

Q: Sri Lanka is now a peaceful country, there have been many proposals from different quarters with regard to the future of the Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu. What is the stance of the Indian Government?

A: Sri Lanka's growth trajectory has been impressive in the post conflict period. It stands poised to reap the peace dividend, as it proceeds on the path to reconciliation and a political solution. This will be a major incentive for refugees to return. Government of India would be happy to facilitate the return of Sri Lankan refugees. I believe many of them are already returning. However, it is the personal choice of the refugees, and it has to be a voluntary decision. A conducive environment that offers rehabilitation and livelihood opportunities will definitely provide a fillip for the refugees to return. We are already assisting through our development cooperation partnership with Sri Lanka - worth US$ 2.6 billion, of which the flagship housing project involving construction of 50,000 houses, mainly in the North and East, is nearing completion. The US$ 270 million project is fully funded by the Indian Government as a grant.

Q: The devolution of power is one of the key priorities of the unity government. Are you happy with the way this process is taking shape?

A: We are happy that the Government of Sri Lanka has taken a number of steps recently to ensure that all Sri Lankans can live in peace as equal citizens in the country. While more needs to be done, the Government has taken up the challenge and the international community needs to be supportive of its efforts. As a close neighbour with civilizational links, we hope that the Government and people of Sri Lanka will succeed in this regard.

India is confident that with sagacity and political will, Sri Lanka will achieve genuine reconciliation and development, so that all Sri Lankans, including the minority communities, can live a life of equality, justice, peace and dignity in a united Sri Lanka.

Q: The government is drafting a new constitution. Is this a welcome move? Will India be playing any role in this process putting forward their concerns?

A: Let me say that India and Sri Lanka have a huge stake in each other's success, and in stability and development in our region.

This is a relationship that touches the hearts of ordinary Indians and Sri Lankans. It is also of great strategic importance to our two countries. With President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe at the helm, we can look to the future with optimism.

Q: Why is there a delay in constructing the Indian Sampur Coal Power project? Sri Lankan Engineers have warned of a looming power crisis if the planned projects fail to get off the ground on schedule.

A: India is fully aware of the importance of the Sampur Coal Power Project to Sri Lanka. The high priority accorded to this project was underlined when our Prime Minister, during his visit to Sri Lanka in March 2015, stated that he looked forward to early commencement of work on the ground as this important project would meet Sri Lanka's energy needs.

The environment clearance for the project has been pending since February 2015. We hope that this would be accorded at an early date so that work on the ground can commence. You will appreciate that there is no delay on our part. On the contrary, we have been taking up at every opportunity and at regular intervals, the need to complete this project quickly so that Sri Lanka does not face an energy crunch in the near future.

Q: There are concerns that the brutal terror group LTTE, which is responsible for assassinating national leaders in both India and Sri Lanka could re-group in Tamil Nadu. Is that a valid concern?

A: India and Sri Lanka cooperate closely in combating terrorism. India has suffered a great deal due to terrorism, particularly, cross border terrorism. We will continue to work closely with Sri Lanka to ensure that the scourge of terrorism that afflicted Sri Lanka, remains a thing of the past.

Q: The Government has re-assured India that it will no longer prioritize relations with any single country. Do you see this neutral foreign policy as a positive move?

A: India's relationship with Sri Lanka is sui generis. It is not a zero sum game. All major communities in Sri Lanka trace their origins to India, depending on how far back you go in time. Sri Lanka's religions, language, culture and philosophy derive from the larger Indian cultural tapestry.

It is a relationship that is not merely a friendship but a symbiotic twinning, an organic affinity that is predicated on shared religions, cultural practices, family linkages, linguistic commonalities, economic interlinkages, political understanding between two democracies, and much more. It has expanded to cover all areas of contemporary relevance. I do not think any other country can boast of such close affinities with Sri Lanka.

I am sure our partnership will progress in the spirit of being the closest of neighbours whose destinies are interlinked. Our engagement is poised to scale even greater heights.

Q: Why haven't Sri Lanka and India been able to settle cross border fisheries issues for so long, through many governments, is it due to lack of commitment?

A: The fishermen's issue must be viewed as a humanitarian issue that affects the livelihoods of people in both countries and hence has to be tackled with sensitivity, perseverance and understanding. This issue has been discussed at the highest levels, including during the visit of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to India in September this year. While Indian fishermen are being encouraged to take to deep sea fishing, fishermen's associations on both sides should continue their efforts to arrive at amicable solutions.