Forg­ing Bi­lat­eral Re­la­tions

Sri Lanka and In­dia, two strong South Asian neigh­bors with a mu­tual his­tory, are adamant to strengthen bi­lat­eral ties for more than one rea­son.

Southasia - - SRI LANKA INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS - By Asma Sid­diqui

In May 2013, In­dian High Com­mis­sioner, Ashok K. Kan­tha and Sri Lankan Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Min­is­ter, Basil Ra­japaksa launched an In­dian-funded hous­ing pro­ject in Sri Lanka’s pre­dom­i­nantly Tamil Eastern Prov­ince. The ini­tia­tive calls for the con­struc­tion of 4,000 hous­ing units.

Prime Min­is­ter Dr. Man­mo­han Singh first an­nounced the hous­ing pro­ject dur­ing Sri Lankan Pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japaksa’s state visit to In­dia in June 2010. The an­nounce­ment of this pro­ject is part of In­dia’s over­all com­mit­ment to build 50,000 houses in Sri Lanka at a cost of ap­prox­i­mately US$270 mil­lion; the largest in­vest­ment by the Govern­ment of In­dia abroad. 12,000 homes have al­ready been built, with an ad­di­tional 10,000 to be com­pleted by the end of the year.

In ear­lier times when com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween coun­tries was min­i­mal, the only sig­nif­i­cant for­eign im­pact in Sri Lanka was that of In­dia. Of course the great­est gift to Sri Lanka from In­dia was Bud­dhism, which con­se­quently be­came the foun­tain­head of Sin­halese lit­er­a­ture.

The pro­found cul­tural in­flu­ence of In­dia on Sri Lanka has been un­der­pinned by po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic links. The Sri Lankan In­de­pen­dence move­ment drew in­spi­ra­tion to a cer­tain ex­tent from the In­dian In­de­pen­dence move­ment. It was mainly as a con­se­quence of In­dia’s freedom strug­gle that the less mil­i­tant Sri Lanka won its in­de­pen­dence. In the sphere of economics, In­dia is cur­rently Sri Lanka’s big­gest trad­ing part­ner and ma­jor in­vestor. In ad­di­tion to nor­mal trade, a Free Trade Agree­ment ex­ists be­tween the two coun­tries. The in­ter­ac­tion be­tween In­dia and Sri Lanka in ev­ery sphere – cul­tural, eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal – is now more in­tense than ever be­fore, while at the same time both coun­tries are more open to in­flu­ences from other coun­tries as well.

But th­ese com­mon­al­i­ties have not man­aged to evap­o­rate the dif­fer­ences. From 1983 to 2009, Sri Lanka was torn apart by a bloody civil war, which saw the govern­ment fight the Tamil Tigers rebel group. The con­flict broke out af­ter Tamil na­tion­al­ists de­cided to cre­ate an in­de­pen­dent state

in the north­east of the is­land, even­tu­ally turn­ing into an eth­nic clash that left tens of thou­sands of peo­ple dead and more than 200,000 in­ter­nally dis­placed. Since the civil war ended in 2009, there is se­vere loathing for In­dia. The Sin­halese are an­gry with In­dia for fund­ing and train­ing the Tamil Tigers in their in­fancy while the Tamils are an­gry that In­dia did not in­ter­vene to stop the mas­sacre.

In­dia’s of­fer­ing of ex­per­tise on con­sti­tu­tional, le­gal and fed­eral in­sti­tu­tional gov­er­nance to Sri Lanka is not viewed with much im­por­tance. The Tamil Nadu fac­tor in the Govern­ment of In­dia’s de­ci­sion-mak­ing process has al­ready served to con­strain Sri Lanka’s move­ment. It is only in the ar­eas of se­cu­rity and cul­tural ex­changes as well as in the eco­nomic do­main in­volv­ing the en­hance­ment of en­tre­pre­neur­ial and man­u­fac­tur­ing skills, where the merg­ing of In­dian and Sri Lankan in­ter­ests can be pos­si­ble and bi­lat­eral re­la­tions be made strong.

In­dia must strive to bring about a sus­tain­able trade bal­ance that is not ad­verse to Sri Lanka. Ac­cord­ing to the Min­istry of Fi­nance and Plan­ning’s Ex- ter­nal Re­sources Depart­ment’s 2012 ‘Global Part­ner­ship To­wards De­vel­op­ment’ re­port, In­dia was the sec­ond largest de­vel­op­ment aid giver to Sri Lanka, pro­vid­ing over $700 mil­lion to the is­land na­tion. Even as the anti-Sri Lanka mood in Tamil Nadu in­ten­si­fies, the Cen­ter has in­creased its an­nual grant to the Sri Lankan govern­ment in the Union Bud­get. The al­lo­ca­tion has gone up to Rs 500 crore for 20132014 from Rs 290 crore last year.

The In­dian Bud­get has al­lo­cated Rs 5,550 crore as aid for for­eign gov­ern­ments and or­ga­ni­za­tions. The grants for Sri Lanka are meant to as­sist Tamils but par­ties in Tamil Nadu have ac­cused the govern­ment there of di­vert­ing the In­dian aid for other pur­poses. In May 2013, in a bid to en­hance ac­cess to the for­mer war-torn north, the Sri Lankan govern­ment opened the first phase of a $650 mil­lion north­ern rail­way pro­ject af­ter 30 years of sus­pen­sion. While inau­gu­rat­ing the ser­vice, Min­is­ter for Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment, Basil Ra­japaksa, was of the opin­ion that In­dia had sup­ported Sri Lanka at ev­ery stage of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and re­con­struc­tion of north Sri Lanka.

Rail­way ser­vices to the north were sus­pended in 1983 af­ter the Lib­er­a­tion Tamil Tigers of Ee­lam (LTTE) blew up key rail­way bridges con­nect­ing the north­ern penin­sula to the main­land. This cre­ated civil un­rest in the coun­try. Since the war ended in 2009, the Sri Lankan govern­ment has set in mo­tion plans to re­con­nect the north via rail and in­vited as­sis­tance from for­eign coun­tries. In 2010, the In­dian govern­ment agreed to fund the pro­ject. The pro­ject is be­ing ex­e­cuted by the In­dian Rail­way Min­istry’s IRCON In­ter­na­tional Limited to restore the 252 km-rail­way line that would con­nect dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try.

With th­ese on­go­ing projects aided by In­dia there is an in­creased chance of restor­ing the com­mon bond that the two coun­tries shared with each other. In­dia needs to in­vest fur­ther while Sri Lanka should gen­uinely co­op­er­ate. Only with close co­or­di­na­tion can the two coun­tries solve their mu­tual prob­lems and cre­ate a bet­ter fu­ture and good re­la­tions in times to come.

Sri Lanka’s Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Min­is­ter Basil Ra­japaksa (stand­ing sec­ond from left) and In­dian High Com­mis­sioner, Ashok K. Kan­tha (stand­ing third from left) wit­ness

the sign­ing cer­e­mony that launched an In­dian-funded hous­ing pro­ject in Sri Lanka.

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