Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe arrived in New Delhi yesterday (September 14) on a three-day bilateral visit, his first international visit after taking over as Prime Minister last month. Mr. Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) together with its allies secured a near-majority in the parliamentary election last month. Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena engineered a division in the ranks of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), thus effectively isolating former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The result was the formation of a national government under the prime ministership of Mr. Wickremesinghe, with both UNP and SLFP as partners. With the two main parties coming together to form the government, the opposition space has been left to the third largest group in Parliament, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).The new dispensation is considered to be a strong votary of closer India-Sri Lanka relations. The President, the Prime Minister as well as the Leader of Opposition are all seen as friends by India. The last few years have seen a trust deficit between the two countries. Many in India suspected the Sri Lankan leadership of encouraging forces inimical to its interests in its vicinity. Unfortunately, the Rajapaksa government did precious little to alleviate India’s misgivings.
Challenges for the government
The new government in Sri Lanka has many challenges to face: the country’s economy is sagging; the United Nations Human Rights Council is going to take up a resolution on war crimes in Sri Lanka for discussion later this month — a very sensitive issue for both the Tamil and Sinhala population in the country. The government has to walk a tightrope on the issue.
It is in these circumstances that Mr. Wickremesinghe is visiting India. A Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) will be one of the important issues that India would like to clinch during this visit. However, there is considerable concern about, if not vocal opposition to, the agreement in the Sri Lankan business circles. India needs to correct the perception that CEPA will only benefit the Indian side and the non-tariff barriers in India will be an obstacle to Sri Lankan businessmen.
The other perception problem that India needs to address is that it doesn’t walk the talk on big-ticket projects. The Sampur coal-fired power plant is one such project which has lingered for more than a decade. The delay in its implementation has led to several new problems. Its revival is mired in land and environment-related controversies. Within the 500-acre power plant area, there are around 30 Tamil families who have been living for many years. They have to be rehabilitated elsewhere with proper compensation. In addition, more than a thousand Tamil families, who have been additionally settled just on the periphery, may also raise objections to the project coming up. Some of them have lands inside the power plant area. Environmentalists are also opposed to the power plant. They might go to court. While India may argue that it has technologies that address pollution concerns, these issues have the potential to get entangled in legal problems.
Another issue which is more than a decade old, on which India has not made much progress, is that of oil tank farms on the east coast. These British vintage storage farms give India enormous scope for oil trade in the whole of South East Asia. India should quickly operationalise these oil tank farms. It must not forget that the previous government in Colombo had offered them to the Americans. It should start negotiations for setting up a refinery in Trinco area to treat crude oil.
India’s strategic and economic priority should be to develop the east coast of Sri Lanka, especially the Trincomalee-Batticaloa belt. The Trinco belt has an enormous potential for trade, tourism, industry and commerce. It has vast stretches of virgin beaches. The Trinco port can be developed into a major port. A new airport can be developed in the area and can be connected directly with Tamil Nadu for the benefit of the Tamils in the north and east of Sri Lanka. Most importantly, by entering Trinco coast, India will be making a big presence in the trade routes of the Indian Ocean.
There are a couple of contentious issues on which India and Sri Lanka might have to be cautious. The Tamils of the north and east must be complimented for their overwhelming support to the TNA in the parliamentary elections that has helped the party secure 16 seats. TNA leader R. Sampanthan has become the Leader of the Opposition. TNA fought the elections on the principle of greater constitutional rights to Tamils for just and honourable place in the Sri Lanka constitutional mechanism. The radical elements have been rejected by the Tamil voters there. The Sri Lankan government should gratefully acknowledge this huge contribution of the TNA and move forward with specific steps to address the Tamil issue. Granting more constitutional powers to the provinces is the first important step.
The UNHRC resolution on war crimes is another important issue on which both the countries have to reach an understanding. Sri Lanka can gain from the expertise available in countries like the U.S., India, and so on, to facilitate a credible investigation by its agencies. It is important for justice to be seen by the Tamils and the international community to be delivered.
Dispute over fishing
Another contentious issue that defies any immediate answers is that of fishermen. The historic waters between India and Sri Lanka have become a battleground between the Tamil fishermen on both sides, leading to frequent clashes, incarcerations, and even deaths. A negotiated solution needs to be found on this issue. Pending the dispute over fishing, the adverse ecological impact of bottom trawling must also be addressed.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Colombo early this year raised the hopes in that country of a stable and reliable friendship. Lakshman Kadirgamar, former Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka and a great friend of India, had once described India-Sri Lanka relations as “irreversible excellence”. Centuries-old cultural and religious ties make the relationship irreversible. But the challenge is to make it ‘excellent’. It is too important a relationship to be left to the officials alone. Sri Lanka requires political handling.
(Ram Madhav is National General Secretary, Bharatiya Janata Party, and Director, India Foundation.)