| by Y. K. Sinha
Here is the full text of Indian High Commissioner Y. K. Sinha's opening statement at a meeting with the Foreign Correspondents' Association of Sri Lanka, at the Taj Samudra Hotel, Colombo on April 4, 2014.
|High Commissioner's interaction with the Foreign Correspondents Association|
( April 4, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) 1. At the outset, let me thank the Foreign Correspondents Association (FCA) for inviting me to speak. I know, through my Indian journalist friends, that FCA has been quite active in organising interactions with persons of eminence, including Ambassadors and High Commissioners.
It is indeed a privilege to address you today. In the course of my opening remarks, I would like to give a broad overview of our bilateral relationship, including what we are doing in Sri Lanka.
2. While most countries in our neighbourhood enjoy close links with India, the ties that bind Sri Lanka with India are in many ways unique. Religious, cultural and linguistic bonds form a strong underpinning for a modern bilateral relationship that is complete as it encompasses a wide gamut of activities.
3. India is Sri Lanka's closest neighbour and in many ways our dearest neighbour. Civilizational ties encompassing religious, cultural, ethnic and linguistic links from pre-historic times bind us. Almost 2,300 years ago, Emperor Ashoka sent two great Ambassadors, his own children, Mahinda and Sanghamitta, to spread the timeless and powerful message of Lord Buddha. Since then, our relationship forged over centuries, has flourished with our shared interests and concerns. For these reasons, Sri Lanka continues to have a special place in Indian hearts. I feel particularly proud and privileged to serve in Sri Lanka as I feel that in many ways I am one of the inheritors of this great legacy, as I hail from the ancient metropolis, Pataliputra (present day Patna), the imperial capital of Emperor Ashoka and from where we believe both Arahat Mahinda and Theri Sanghamitta sailed down the Ganges to Sri Lanka. Till today there exists a big jetty or pier on the Ganga in Patna called "Mahendru Ghat" named after Prince Mahendra or Arahat Mahinda!
4. In recent years, our relationship has become multifaceted and diverse, comprising all areas of contemporary relevance. The relationship is marked by close contacts at the highest political level, growing trade and investment, burgeoning infrastructural linkages, cooperation in the fields of development, education, culture and defence, as well as a broad understanding on major issues of international interest.
5. More than 30 years of internecine conflict in Sri Lanka has taken a heavy toll and has ruptured the socio-political fabric of the country. While almost five years have elapsed since the Sri Lankan armed forces decisively defeated the dreaded LTTE, national reconciliation has unfortunately eluded the people of Sri Lanka. In recent years, with Sri Lanka being the subject of repeated resolutions at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the challenges that confront our bilateral relationship have also increased.
6. We have conveyed to the Government of Sri Lanka on a number of occasions the need for expeditious steps towards genuine national reconciliation, including investigations into allegations of human rights violations, restoration of normalcy in affected areas, reduction of 'high security zones', satisfactorily addressing the issue of missing persons and the redressal of humanitarian concerns of the affected families.
7. It is our view that the end of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka provided a unique opportunity to pursue a lasting political settlement within the framework of a united Sri Lanka, and acceptable to all the communities in the island, including the Tamils. Our emphasis, in this context, has been to encourage the Government of Sri Lanka to take forward the process of broader dialogue and show concrete movement towards a meaningful devolution of powers, through full implementation of the 13th Amendment and going beyond. This would greatly facilitate national reconciliation by building trust and confidence on all sides.
8. Government of India welcomed the successful culmination of elections for the Northern Provincial Council, in September 2013. We have urged Government of Sri Lanka and the TNA to engage constructively, in a spirit of partnership and mutual accommodation, so that the urgent needs of the people of the Northern Province are addressed with a sense of urgency and purpose. Only such a cooperative approach will pave the way for genuine reconciliation amongst the communities involved.
9. It is our hope that the Government of Sri Lanka, recognizing the critical importance of genuine reconciliation, acts with vision and sagacity. We will remain engaged and offer our support in a spirit of partnership and cooperation.
Trade and Commerce
10. India and Sri Lanka enjoy a robust trade and investment relationship. Sri Lanka is India's largest trading partner in South Asia. India in turn is Sri Lanka's largest trading partner globally. Trade between the two countries grew rapidly after the entry into force of the India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement in March 2000. Bilateral trade has since multiplied nearly ten-fold. According to Sri Lankan Customs data, bilateral trade amounted to US$ 4.01 billion in 2012, after having touched almost US$ 5 billion the year before. Sri Lanka has long been a priority destination for direct investment from India. We are among the leading investors in Sri Lanka with cumulative investments of over US$ 800 million since the turn of the century. In 2012, India was the fourth largest investor in Sri Lanka with investments of about US$ 160 million. In recent months, the two countries have continued discussions to take the economic and commercial engagement to the next level.
11. Our vast assistance programme in Sri Lanka has been appreciated for its timeliness and phased approach. Some analysts have even called it a mini-Marshall Plan!
12. Even before the armed conflict came to an end, India sent emergency relief assistance for the IDPs who were pouring out of the conflict zone. We distributed 250,000 family packs comprising daily use items such as clothing, utensils, essential food packets, personal hygiene items, etc. To meet the urgent medical needs of these IDPs, we had set up field hospitals, which provided emergency treatment to about 50,000 patients and conducted nearly 3,000 surgeries.
13. Once the armed conflict came to an end, we shifted our focus towards rehabilitation and resettlement of lDPs. We helped provide temporary shelters and supplied over 10 metric tonnes of corrugated roofing sheets and 400,000 cement bags.
14. The next priority was livelihood restoration. In order to quickly revive farming activities in the North, we supplied 95,000 packs of agricultural implements and seeds to farmers. We also provided 500 tractors to agro-centres across the five districts of the Northern Province. To help facilitate movement of the people and their early resettlement, India contributed seven demining teams, which I understand, cleared over 70 million square metres of mine-infested areas. We also organized artificial limb-fitment camps to address the needs of victims of mines and other unexploded ordnances.
15. Once the emergency and short-term needs were catered to, we moved on to the longer-term needs of housing, reconstruction and development. Capacity-building is an integral part of our assistance strategy for this phase. Our portfolio of development projects now encompasses virtually all major sectors of the economy, including housing, infrastructure, education, health, agriculture, fisheries, industry, handicrafts, culture and sports.
16. We have devoted a lion's share of our resources for our Housing Project involving construction of 50,000 houses and with a commitment of over US$ 270 million, thereby making it the flagship project of our grant assistance to this country. It is perhaps the largest such project undertaken by India anywhere in the world. We completed the pilot project for constructing 1,000 houses in the Northern Province by July 2012. The second phase of the project, involving construction of 43,OnU-liouses under an owner-driven approach, is progressing well. So far, we have completed construction of nearly 12,000 houses.
17. Up country Tamils in Sri Lanka, most of whom are estate workers, also deserve our support and help. The third phase of our housing project, for construction of 4,000 houses under the agency-driven model, is meant for estate workers in the Central and Uva Provinces. We are launching the project shortly. We are also looking at expanding our assistance through various other projects to help the estate workers, among the most disadvantaged on the island.
18. Restoration of transportation links is the lifeline for economic revival in any post-conflict society. Accordingly, India provided a line of credit worth USO 800 million to improve the railway infrastructure in the Northern Province. The Northern Railway Line Project, which will eventually restore rail connectivity between Omanthai and Kankesanthurai (KKS), and also between Medawachchiya and Talaimannar, will be completed by mid-2014. Our expectation is to see the Yaal Devi Express, which used to ply on this route, restart its services up to Jaffna in 2014. The train has already commenced services up to Pallai. Earlier we had helped rehabilitate the southern railway line from Matara to Kalutara, devastated by the tsunami of 2004. With Government of Sri Lanka's plans to extend the southern line to Hambantota and even Kataragama, a time will soon come when our Sri Lankan brothers and sisters will be able to travel by rail! ferry from Kataragama to Bodh Gaya or any other part of India.
19. Complementing our assistance in the railway sector, we have removed- wrecks from the Kankesanthurai Harbour and have also completed the process of dredging the port. Our efforts would also be to enhance sea-side connectivity by restarting the ferry service between Rameswaram and Talaimannar. For this purpose, we are helping reconstruct the pier at Talaimannar. In addition, we have also offered a line-of-credit to upgrade the Palaly Airbase and develop it into a full-fledged civilian airport, with regional connectivity.
20. We are committed to setting up a Faculty of Agriculture and one for Engineering at the Kilinochchi Campus of Jaffna University at a cost of SLR 600 million. We helped set up vocational training centres in Batticaloa and Nuwara Eliya and propose to set up one in the Vanni region. Our interventions in the health sector include the supply of high-value equipment to the Jaffna Teaching Hospital and the district hospitals in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. We are in the process of implementing a project to construct a 200-bed ward complex for the District Hospital in Vavuniya. In the Central Province, we are nearing completion of a project to construct a 150-bed base hospital at Dickoya, Hatton.
21. In terms of revival of the local economy, we have taken a number of initiatives, which include rehabilitating the Atchchuvely Industrial Zone, reviving the fishnet factory in Jaffna, supply of fishing equipment and outboard motors to fishermen in Mannar district and setting up Handicrafts Villages in Hambantota and Jaffna. We have also completed a project to provide assistance for 1,320 small businesses that were destroyed by the armed conflict in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts. We also handed over equipment worth SLR 70 million to the Palmyra Research Institute in Jaffna.
22. In the field of culture, we are in the process of setting up a state-of-the-art Cultural Centre that Jaffna would be proud of, at an estimated cost of SLR 1 billion. We are also looking at a project to renovate the Duraiappah Stadium, to give a fillip to sports activities in the Northern Province. In order to help promote the Government's trilingual policy, we have pledged assistance in an MoU signed with GoSL last October. We are also setting up 9 state-of-the-art language labs in each of the 9 provinces of Sri Lanka. In the field of education we provide about 770 scholarships per year for studies both in India and Sri Lanka.
23. I have taxed your patience by going into some detail about our development cooperation programme in Sri Lanka for two reasons. Firstly, perhaps the extent and scope of this assistance, estimated at US$ 1.3 billion, is not as well-known as it should be and secondly to illustrate how neighbouring countries, even though developing, can work together in the true spirit of South-South cooperation. I am sanguine that India-Sri Lanka relations will expand exponentially in the coming years.