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India and Sri Lanka: Needs impetus and relook

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Sri lanka.jpgThe recent India’s efforts to secure Presidential pardon for five Indian fishermen sentenced to death in Sri Lanka, and the positive response from the Sri Lankan government is enough to indicate that both the countries are enjoying excellent bilateral relations. India had voiced concern over the death sentence passed on October 30, 2014 by the Colombo High Court on five fishermen - Emerson, P. Augustus, R. Wilson, K. Prasath and J. Langlet - on charges of smuggling heroin. They were arrested in 2011. India and Sri Lanka have in place a “legal architecture” to deal with such cases and cited an earlier instance in which the death sentences of two Indian nationals were commuted to life imprisonment by the then Sri Lankan president.

Nonetheless, India was more perturbed about China’s “warming relations” with Sri Lanka than the docking of the nuclear submarine. Amphibious landing ship, the Changbaishan and a frigate, Yuncheng, of the 18th escort fleet of Chinese navy sailed to the Colombo harbour in mid-August before leaving for a voyage in the Somali waters. The news of a second Chinese submarine docking in Sri Lanka comes days after the visit of Vietnam PM Nguyen Tan Dung to India and in complete disregard of India’s message to Lankan defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It is to be noted that since 2010, 230 warships have called at Colombo port from various countries on goodwill visits and for refuelling and crew refreshment. A 1987 accord between India and Sri Lanka provides that respective territories - including Trincomalee - will not be used for activities prejudicial to each other's unity, integrity and security.

Positive aspects

  1. India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are working together in the spirit of regional cooperation in order to ensure regional security. Galle Dialogue 2014 International maritime conference will be held in the port city of Galle on 1st and 2nd December, 2014.
  2. Further bolstering the existing bilateral military ties, a three-week long Indo-Lanka joint military exercise, called ‘Exercise-Mithra Shakthi’, involving 42 Indian Army Special Force personnel and 300 Sri Lankan counterparts has been at Hambantota. The joint military exercise took place despite notwithstanding India’s “serious concerns” over China’s submarines and warships being docked at Colombo port.
  3. The proposal to revive the Sethusamudram Shipping Channel Project has huge potential as it would save hours of sailing for many ships sailing for trade purposes and also increase the trade relations between India and Sri Lanka.
  4. Sri Lanka has assured India that its soil would not be used for terror attacks against its neighbour even as Colombo stepped up deportation of Pakistani nationals amid reports that they were involved in subversive acts directed at India. Sri Lanka has started deporting dozens of Pakistani nationals who have been staying in the country for long periods pending the processing of their applications.

Distressing trends

  1. The Sri Lankan navy has arrested 14 Indian fishermen for allegedly poaching in Sri Lankan waters. The fishermen belonged to Rameswaram and Jagadapattinam in Pudukottai district. The arrest comes days after five Indian fishermen on death row in Sri Lanka were released by the Sri Lankan government. These incidents need to be curbed.
  2. Sri Lanka’s government expressed “serious concern” and “hurt” over India’s decision not to extend visa-on-arrival scheme to Sri Lankans. India currently offers visa-on-arrival to tourists from 11 countries like Finland, the Philippines, Singapore and Japan. The only exceptions to the new rule will be nationals from Pakistan, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Somalia.
  3. Indo-Sri Lankan relations have not been the warmest of late with the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh skipping the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting hosted by Sri Lanka in November, 2013. India has been strongly concerned over delayed political rights and power devolution promised to Sri Lanka’s minority Tamil population after the end of a three-decade-long civil war in 2009.
  4. Sri Lanka also appears to have ceded considerable geostrategic space to Pakistan to balance India’s regional strategic and security supremacy .The recent revelation of ISI’s strong presence in Colombo to mastermind and facilitate terror activities in India’s southern states. India understands that Sri Lanka could become India’s Achilles’ Heel - a weak spot where its two nuclear-armed rivals are threatening India’s national security interests and vital strategic assets in the southern peninsula.

Potential and proposals

  1. India will assist Sri Lanka in the establishment of Engineering and Automobile components SEZ which would be located near Trincomalee and will promote exports to the production chains in India. The proposed Engineering and Automobile components hub will also have a Skill Training Institute. India and Sri Lanka will work together towards the establishment of a Pharmaceutical manufacturing hub in Sri Lanka capitalising on the vast strides made by Indian Pharmaceutical industry in meeting the quality drug requirements worldwide at affordable prices.
  2. Recognising that India is Sri Lanka’s leading trade partner and that bilateral trade between the two countries has now reached USD 5 billion, it was agreed that the potential which remains to expand bilateral trade further to the tune of USD 10 billion would be exploited in the next three years.
  3. The signing of Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) will make the current economic engagement more comprehensive by bringing more investment and services into Sri Lanka. Under the proposed CEPA deal, India has offered additional concessions on garment quota of 8 million pieces that was granted. Besides, the 3 million pieces granted at zero duty earlier under the FTA, India has now agreed to allow another 3 million pieces more at zero duty and additional 2 million at 75 per cent margin of preference. India has already removed port entry restrictions and conditions of sourcing fabrics from it.
  4. In order to further tap and work out the beneficial aspects of the CEPA Sri Lanka and India should re-examine the feasibility and viability of constructing the rail-road links over Adam’s Bridge in the Palk Straits.  With a direct link to the developing of the Port of Trincomalee as a major entrepôt, Indian exports would find a convenient window to the Indian Ocean Rim countries to the East and the Pacific. As the world’s largest natural harbour, Trinco has huge potentialities as a port, a free trade zone and an exotic tourist destination. It is to be noted that if the CEPA is finally inked, India would reduce its negative lists by another 114 items while Sri Lanka would be reducing only 32 items. This is despite the fact that under the Indo-Sri Lanka FTA Sri Lanka was allowed to have a larger negative list (1,180 tariff lines) than India (429 tariff lines).
  5. Both sides must implement the CEPA because it provides for redressal through non-governmental means by providing for a dispute resolution mechanism; and also envisages economic cooperation in a wide range of areas selected by Sri Lanka alone. At this juncture, India needs a much diversified and multi-faceted approach towards Sri Lanka. The diplomacy must be dissociated from domestic politics. India should try to correct the growing trade imbalances with Sri Lanka. India should establish a much wider strategic relations with Sri Lanka.