Posted on October 10th, 2018


Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Taranjit Singh Sandhu delivered the 14th Annual Sujata Jayawardena Memorial Oration, 2018 at the invitation of the Alumni Association of the University of Colombo. He emphasized that India’s policy ‘Sabka Sath Sabka Vikas’ (Together we progress) which he said, incorporates also India’s other policy of ‘Neighbourhood First.’ Neighborhood is crucial not just because Sri Lanka and India share physical borders.  Neighborhood is significant because the two nations are joined by blood. India & Sri Lanka are not just near to each other.  They are close to each other. India attaches great importance to progressing together with Sri Lanka. Singh assured that India will be there for Sri Lanka whenever Sri Lanka needs India. Sandhu also spoke of a Buddhist link.

Sri Lanka however was not thrilled to hear all this. Sri Lanka has a long memory. Sri Lanka has not forgotten the parippu drop, the IPKF and the 13th amendment.  Analysts pounced on Sandhu’s speech. Buddhism in the sub-continent was systematically obliterated, they pointed out, therefore Buddhism cannot be the main link between India and Sri Lanka.

Rajeeva Jayaweera   observed that the halting of the Vadamarachchi operation due to Indian insistence prolonged the conflict by another 22 years. India’s food airdrop over Jaffna on June 4, 1987 amounted to a gross violation of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and airspace. It remains etched in the memories of those who lived through it. LTTE and other terrorists continued to operate from Tamil Nadu for decades freely, India did provide training facilities for Sri Lankan soldiers, but she never supplied offensive military equipment to Sri Lanka during the conflict, Jayaweera said.

Shamindra Ferdinando gave some interesting information. A few days before the signing of the accord, two Indian Air Force helicopters flew in to the Jaffna peninsula. They were on a top secret mission to airlift five LTTE terrorists, including its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, for a clandestine meet with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Years later, retired Indian Air Marshal Denzil Keelor revealed how he received instructions from Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) to airlift the LTTE delegation from the Jaffna peninsula to India. Keelor discussed how Indian Air Force had sent in two choppers with specific instructions provided by the RAW to pick up the LTTE delegation from the Suthumalai Amman kovil temple, Jaffna.

Having flown the LTTE delegation across the Palk Strait to Trichy and then transferred to a special flight standing by, the group was flown to New Delhi via Madras to meet Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi, on July 28, 1987. Prabhakaran was flown back to Jaffna on Aug. 2, 1987 amidst a round-the-clock troop airlift from Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka. Prabhakaran hadn’t been in Sri Lanka at the time India forced Sri Lanka to sign the Indo-Lanka accord.

During Kumaratunga’s presidency, India thwarted a bid to secure state-of-the-art Chinese radar to counter possible threat posed by ‘Air Tigers’, continued Shamindra. Sri Lanka acquired Chinese 3 D radar only after ‘Air Tigers’ mounted attacks at the height of Eelam War IV. India also opposed Sri Lanka setting up a China-managed Aircraft Overhaul Wing at the China Bay SLAF base, Trincomalee. Subsequently, the SLAF established the facility at the Katunayake air base where the Chinese were engaged in overhauling jets and trainer aircraft.

India’s national security advisor Ajit Doval   had demanded from Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to cancel the USD 1.4 bn Chinese flagship project – Colombo Port City.  It was a threat to the national security of India, he said.  India also demanded that Sri Lanka take over Colombo International Container Terminals Limited (CICT), a joint venture between China Merchants Port Holdings Company Limited (CMPH) and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), recalled Shamindra.

Rajeeva Jayaweera recalled the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 and its Annexures. A lesser-known letter dated July 29, 1987, from Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, addressed to President JR Jayewardene and accepted in toto by the Sri Lankan President spelled out conditions Sri Lanka was required to adhere on foreign policy and defense matters, entirely unrelated to the Tamil issue.

It stated that Sri Lanka must ensure that (a) employment of foreign military and intelligence personnel will not be prejudicial to Indo-Sri Lanka relations, (b)Trincomalee or any other port will not be made available for use by any other country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests and (c) restoration of Trincomalee oil tank farm will be undertaken by the two countries as a joint venture (d) Sri Lanka’s agreements with foreign broadcasting organizations to ensure they are not for military or intelligence purposes.

In 2007, India declined to provide radar with three-dimensional capabilities after the Indian supplied equipment with two-dimensional capabilities failed to detect LTTE aircraft involved in raiding the SLAF base in Katunayake. China and USA eventually filled the void despite Indian objections.

Despite India’s stated policy of not voting on country-specific issues, it voted in favor of the UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka in 2012 and 2013 continued Jayaweera. There is the continued poaching by Tamil Nadu fishermen in northern Sri Lankan waters. In the backdrop of such a checkered relationship, to state as Sandhu did, We have never believed in setting conditions for friendship” is a travesty. Self-interest has been India’s guiding light in its relations with Sri Lanka.

India is fast making regional grouping SAARC irrelevant due to a bilateral issue with Pakistan. The 19th SAARC summit due be held in Pakistan in 2016 was cancelled due to an Indian boycott. However, India insisted, Sri Lanka could not raise the issue of the violation of its airspace in 1987 on grounds that SAARC was a forum for multilateral and not bilateral matters between member states. Pakistan alone, chiefly due to its nuclear capability, can stand its ground in its relations with India, concluded Jayaweera.

The geographical proximity, much acclaimed as an advantage is in fact, a great disadvantage for neighboring countries such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. India has lost it preeminent position as protector of Nepal .In Nepal there is hostility to India.  Nepal has suffered for decades due to Indian interventions in its internal affairs, the most recent being the constitutional crisis and the five-months long economic blockade that followed. It precipitated the fall of Prime Minister KP Oli’s government in 2016, said Jayaweera. Bhutan is prevented from having its own foreign and defense policy.

Sri Lanka   was not impressed with this ‘born again’ India either.  Despite generously offering many things in return, Modi represents a country jam packed with 1.3 billion people occupying a land area a tenth the size of Africa (pop -1.2 billion), said   critics. Though it boasts of having a GDP of $4.9 trillion it sadly also has a per capita income about half that of Sri Lanka (US$11,480). Its life expectancy is 55 places below Sri Lanka, 70th at 74.9 on the global index and infant mortality 5 times more than Sri Lanka.  India also has 400 million people who notoriously do not have any sanitation at all, the critic continued. Over 28 million jobseekers applied for 90,000 job vacancies at Indian Railways during its latest recruitment drive, highlighting the country’s employment crisis. Certainly, India had blasted 107 satellites into space last year, the highest by any country, but Sri Lanka does not care.

Sri Lanka is very suspicious of India. Sri Lanka had to remain vigilant about the Indian Seed Congress 2018 which is being held in Colombo, as Indian companies were responsible for the theft of one of Sri Lanka’s most valuable resources, the gene stocks of its plants, said  Samantha Gunasekara, former Deputy Director of Customs – Biodiversity, Cultural and National Heritage Protection Division, said addressing a press briefing organized by groups opposing the Congress.

“This is the first time that the Indian Seed Congress is held outside India and that after the event.  Participants are to conduct a four-day sightseeing tour across the country. However, since the participants are representatives of seed companies with a specific agenda, the government must remain vigilant. During the last six to seven years Indian companies have stolen many of our genetic resources by taking out Sri Lankan plants. It is easy for them because successive Sri Lankan governments have done nothing to protect our bio resources, said Gunasekera.

Gunasekara said he had attended some meetings between Indian and Sri Lankan officials regarding the transfer of plant material. “Our demands are always vague. For example we would ask for drought resistant high yield plants. On the other hand they would ask for a plant that is found on a specific farm. That means they are constantly keeping an eye on our plants. So, all these people attending the Seed Congress have an idea of where our plants are.

Environmentalists are opposing the holding of the Indian Seed Congress 2018 in Colombo. Stating that the event is being held without the collaboration of the Ministry of Agriculture and it can be used to bring in Indian seed varieties to the country. The National Seed Association of India had not sought government approval either. “The Indians have been trying to enter our seed market for decades and because of continuous pressure applied by environmentalists, farmers and civil society organizations, they were not able to enter Sri Lanka officially.

Chinthaka Rajapakse, of the Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR), addressing the event, said that the Indian seeds were of dubious quality and often contained large amounts of impurities including seeds of invasive species.  However, even now some smuggle in seeds from India and distribute them among farmers and that practice has led to disastrous consequences.

Indian seeds were of dubious quality and often they contained large amounts of impurities including seeds of invasive species, said Chamikara. “When farmers use Indian potato and onion seeds, a large number of weeds also crop up. Sometimes these weeds are invasive species that are extremely difficult to control. For example Parthenium and Persicaria wallichii (Himalayan Knotweed), which is now a menace came with Indian seeds. We must be very careful and oppose any moves by the Indian seed industry to enter Sri Lanka.

After Yahapalana came to power, India started   to provide generous aid. Much of the Indian aid is to the north and east, the land of Eelam.  In a list of completed project issued by the Government of India, as at august 2018. there were 26 projects  for Northern province, Eastern province 10, Central Province 11,  Western province 4,  Southern Province 4, North Central province 2, Uva 2, Sabaragamuwa 1, North western province 1 and  All Island 2.

There is a huge housing progrmme in the north and east, consisting of 42,000 houses in the North, 14,000 upcountry and 4,000 in the Eastern Province. India has granted Sri Lanka a credit line of US$ 45.27 million for financing the rehabilitation of the Kankesanturai Port.   India is helping Agriculture and Engineering facultires of the University of Jaffna, Thondaman Vocational Training Centre, and Saraswathy Central College, Pussellawa. India has also gifted 16,000 books to Jaffna public library.

The most spectacular all island” project given by India is ‘Suwa Sawiya’ a free, Emergency Ambulance Service. In 2016, India suddenly gifted a high class free emergency ambulance service with state of the art medical equipment and trained staff,  to Sri Lanka at the cost of Rs 7.5 million. This grant included purchase of 88 ambulances, operational expenditure of the service for one year and setting up of an emergency response centre.

The free ambulance service started   in Hambantota, Galle, Matara, Kalutara, Gampaha and Colombo districts,” then it expanded to Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Vavuniya and Mullaitivu districts in the Northern Province. Narendra Modi .Prime Minister of India joined Ranil Wickremesinghe , Prime Minister of Sri Lanka through a live video conferencing from New Delhi for the launch in Jaffna.

In 2018 the service was extended to Uva Province starting with Hali-Ela, Badulla, Bandarawela, and Moneragala. 26 fully furnished ambulances along with foreign-trained staff  would be stationed at 26 selected police stations in the province. Special ambulances that are compatible with the high mountain ranges have been requested.

The emergency ambulance service can be obtained by simply dialing toll free no ‘1990’ on any network in Sri Lanka. 143 ambulances equipped with the most modern medical equipment and manned by trained staff have been deployed by August 2018.A total of 91,547 patients have been serviced up to August 20. Thirty-two emergency child births took place in the ambulances. On an average, it takes only about 13 minutes to reach the people in need.

Yahapalana    passed the 1990 Suwaseriya Foundation Act” and allocated money for the continuation of the project.” The Act was passed unanimously in Parliament .The Board of the Foundation will consist of three ex-officio members and four other members appointed by the President. The three ex-officio members include the Treasury Secretary, the Health Secretary and the IGP or their representatives. Four members appointed by the President should possess academic or professional qualifications and have experience in the fields of medical science, pharmaceuticals, medical technology, finance, management, administration, or law. The Foundation can receive grants, gifts or donations, and it will have its own fund. It can enter into contracts or agreements as necessary for the discharge of its functions. Members, officers and employees of the Foundation are deemed to be public servants.

This ambulance service is viewed with suspicion by Sri Lanka health professionals.  This is not a political project. It is aimed at providing a humanitarian service to people in distress, who cannot afford to hire ambulances, protested Yahapalana. It has created a large number of employment opportunities for Sri Lankan youth. I am disappointed when people look at this service with politically-tinted glasses. See how difficult it is when someone faces an emergency situation. You have to run around the village calling for help. Even when you find a vehicle, you don’t know the proper way to lift the patient. You might even make the patient worse from the way you are handling him or her. We don’t know first aid. People should learn to look beyond the politics and understand the services provide to the people of the country,” said    a Yahapalana Minister.

This is the largest Indian grant project in Sri Lanka after the Indian Housing Project, said India. India has granted a total of US$ 22 million for the whole project.   We do not have such an ambulance service even in India, said the Indian   High Commissioner.  A total of 300 ambulances will be in use when the service is extended island wide. The main objective was to enable the entire population of 21 million to summon an ambulance within minutes in an emergency, so that lives could be saved,

Indian High Commissioner Taranjit Singh Sandhu after the Exchange of Letters relating to expansion of the Emergency Ambulance Service island-wide in Sri Lanka    spoke of the future of our two great nations”. He said, It is most satisfying to note that we are able to assist our dear Sri Lankan brothers and sisters in this endeavor. The “Let me say it loud and clear, India has only one agenda in Sri Lanka, that is to cooperate and collaborate with Sri Lanka on issues of mutual interest. For us, bilateral cooperation is all about sharing and caring”.

Yahapalana has gone well beyond ‘sharing and   caring’. it is evident that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe intends to permit India to establish a strategic ring which encircles the island of Sri Lanka, embedded on the soil of the island itself, said Dayan Jayatilleke. Which island can retain its Independence with such a ring around it, on its very territory, he asked.

India is to be given footholds in KKS, Trincomalee, Mannar, Colombo port (Eastern terminal) and Mattala. The Palk Strait Bridge will connect Mannar with Trincomalee by a highway  once Indian army gets into the north the Sri Lanka SL army will find it impossible to penetrate it, or carry out guerrilla warfare against it in the north. India will be able to neutralise our military in one single strike.  It will cut off the Tamils areas from the Sinhala army, concluded Jayatilleke.

Yahapalana is    also  engaging in joint naval exercises with India. SLINEX was previously held once in two years has been converted to an annual event from 2018. The scope of the exercise has been significantly increased this year with three ships, two maritime patrol aircraft and one helicopter participating from the Indian side. In addition, Sri Lanka Air Force personnel would also join in the exercise for the first time.

A highlight would be the deployment from China Bay of Dornier aircraft manned by Indian Navy, Sri Lanka Navy and Sri Lanka Air Force personnel to conduct Maritime patrol exercises and to train personnel in conducting effective EEZ surveillance and rescue missions. The exercise would also involve sports fixtures and cultural events, which would provide an opportunity for personnel from both navies to learn from each other, re-enforce shared values and build individual bonds of friendship and camaraderie that they would carry back home.

India plans to continue investing in Sri Lanka. Petronet LNG Ltd is planning to set up liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Mauritius.  A MoU has been inked with the Sri Lankan Government, with Sri Lanka also issuing a Letter of Intent for the terminal to come up on its western coast, announced Yahapalana in May 2018.

The media reported in September 2018 that Cabinet approval has been granted to Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and Lanka Indian Oil Co (LIOC) to form a joint subsidiary company to develop the 85 tanks in the Upper oil tank farm.  LIOC gets 70 of these tanks, CPC get only 15. LIOC will also get the 18 tanks is currently uses in the lower section. LIOC will have use of these for a period to be decided by the Cabinet. Land ownership will be with the government of Sri Lanka and there will be a new lease agreement superseding the 2003 one.

The petroleum professionals are angry. They say that they can manage the oil tank farm without India. They only need Rs 10 million for the job. Why give it to India.  There is no need for a joint venture.  The earlier agreement was to let the CPC handle this. Also the  Ceylon Petroleum common workers union pointed out in a memo to the Minister that if the LIOC were given legal rights to the entire oil tank farm, India could gain complete control of fuel distribution within the country, in a very short period.

Samantha Kumarasinghe said that Lanka IOC had obtained about 25% of the petroleum distribution and 33 % of the Petroleum storage terminal Ltd, which consist of CPC pipeline network. Only USD 40 million has come in, though 70 million was promised. Selection of IOC was done by a cabinet paper of 2002 without any competitive bidding process. LIOC now owns 189 filling stations in the country and entire sales from 2002-2013 is approx USD 3.6 billion.

Samantha Kumarasinghe commented on India’s economic control in Sri Lanka. He   listed the oil tanks in Trincomalee, Sampur coal power project, Airtel telecom project, Ceylon Glass with its monopoly in Sri Lanka, also bus and lorry assembling plants. India was involved in construction projects, major land development projects, including major hotel projects in prime locations.  For example Perth paradise housing project 183 acres of prime land on Horana-Ingiriya main road to build 1500 houses. India is reconstructing the railway line from Talaimannar to Medawachchiya.

India wanted to have a beverage factory, importing fruit pulp and exporting juice, continued Samantha. They were using about 50 million liters of ground water per annum.  They were given 50 acres of land in Gampaha. Residents were not successful when they want to courts about it.  Dr Lalithasiri Gunaruwan said that ECTA was detrimental to Sri Lanka.

India and Sri Lanka jointly had a ‘Shilpa Kala’ exhibition in May 2017. this is a unique event, where we are focusing not only on Indian handicrafts but also providing a platform for Sri Lankan artisans. ‘Shilpa Kala’ is a joint partnership between Dastakaari Haat Samiti from New Delhi and Hands of Sri Lanka foundation in Colombo This is in line with the thinking of Indian leadership that all of us, particularly Sri Lanka and India, should grow together, said Indian High Commissioner.  We cannot prosper in isolation. India is very clear that she wants to be Sri Lanka’s trusted, all-weather friend, commented an analyst.

Sri Lanka is not so sure. There is a deep distrust of India and there is also open hostility to India.  Western powers had been working overtime since 2009, to undermine the Rajapaksa administration. India, too, felt that President Rajapaksa pursued China friendly policy. No less a person than Shivashankar Menon has alleged that the former President was the direct beneficiary of Chinese money, a very serious accusation, observed Shamindra.

India’s unilateral effort to insert itself in to Sri Lanka’s conflict in the eighties with disastrous consequences for itself and for Sri Lanka is still remembered, noted analysts.  In 1987, India‘s real objective was to secure control over Sri Lanka. Foreign airstrips and naval control could affect India. India could be attacked from Sri Lanka.

India made Sri Lanka agree that Trincomalee and other ports cannot be used for military use by any country. India was also worried at the time, about Israelis getting into Sri Lanka. They were fronting for US, and whether USA was using the VOA communication facilities to spy on India. And communicate with submarines in the region. Sri Lanka also had to agree to review agreements with foreign broadcasting organization. We had agreements with Voice of America ad Radio Deutschewelle at the time. Sri Lanka was a good location for communication.

Sri Lanka realized during Eelam war IV, that India’s support is not essential for Sri Lanka. There are other countries to turn to, notably China and Russia. Sri Lanka also learnt that India can be ‘managed.’  The army was ordered to wait till the Tamilnadu elections ended, then finish the war before the next Indian government came to power.  India did not want Sri Lanka to get Chinese radar, so they reluctantly supplied the radar, but Sri Lanka acquired the Chinese radar as well.

The relationship with India needs fostering with care, said analysts. This should be a priority. Sri Lanka can do nothing about India’s physical proximity. India is entitled to ask that neighboring states  respect India’s security concerns and Sri Lanka must accept this. Today, India fears encirclement by Pakistan, Bangladesh   and China. Sri Lanka is compelled to walk a tight rope between India and China who are seen as having competing interests in this region, particularly in the areas of economics and politics. Sri Lanka has carried out this tight rope walk quite successfully, so far

A servile admirer once said that Finland is careful not to antagonize its neighbor, Russia. We must also follow a policy of Finlandization and not antagonize our big neighbor India. Such servility is not necessary and in any case, Sri Lanka is not prepared to be servile to India.  China gave us a Conference hall, Nelum Pokuna etc. Japan gave Sri Jayewardenepura Hospital, what has India given, asked one critic.

Sri Lanka’s own interests will be served well with a reliable relationship with India, observed analysts. This does not mean subservience or a one-way approach dominated by hectoring and gratuitous advice. The relationship, if it is to be comfortable and sustainable, must be one between two proud sovereign nations. Economic relations must be developed on the basis of reciprocity and transparency.   (CONCLUDED)

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