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The Sri Lankan Minister of Foreign Relations, Skills Development, Employment and Labour, Dinesh Gunawardena, made his first official overseas visit to India. He was accompanied by a four-member high-level delegation. The visit was in continuation of the recent visit of President of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to India in November 2019. During the visit, Mr. Gunawardena held high level talks with his Indian counterparts from the Ministries of External Affairs Dr. S Jaishankar, Skill Development and Entrepreneurship Mr. Mahendra Nath Pandey, as well as Indian Labour and Employment Minister Mr. Santosh Kumar Gangwar. The Sri Lankan Foreign Minister also addressed members of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI); he visited the Centre for Science and Environment, a public interest research and advocacy organisation based in New Delhi and the New Delhi Centre of the Mahabodhi Society of India.
During the delegation level talks hosted by India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar, both ministers discussed the entire gamut of bilateral relations including investment, security, fisheries, development assistance and ongoing projects, tourism, education and cultural cooperation and explored ways to further strengthen the close and friendly ties between India and Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Foreign Minister recapitulated the importance laid by President Rajapaksa during his maiden visit to India, on exploring newer areas of cooperation with India with emphasis on skill development, vocational training and capacity building and requested India’s support. Dr. Jaishankar assured India’s full support to such initiatives on the basis of the recognised strength of its institutions in these areas and based on Sri Lanka’s requirements. The two sides are contemplating signing of MoU in these sectors. Both the Ministers also exchanged views on regional and global issues of mutual interest, including climate change and counter terrorism.
Dr. Jaishankar took stock of the progress on the announcement made by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on the release of 15 Indian fishermen and 52 boats under Sri Lankan custody. It was conveyed by the Sri Lankan side that the process has already started in this regard. As reported in media, discussions were held on the return of Sri Lankan refugees living in India.
On his return to Sri Lanka, Minister Gunawardena conveyed to media that Sri Lankan Government was making arrangement to accept and provide necessary facilities through the respective District Secretariats to around 3000 Sri Lankan refugees who were willing to return to their homeland. The first batch of returnees are expected in February. Once the identities of the returnees are verified, the arrangements will be made with the state agencies in the island-nation’s North and East to resettle them in their original lands, according to the Sri Lankan Minister. It should be noted that the two countries have been discussing on the return of Sri Lankan refugees living in India for years. Until now, UNHRC made arrangements for all the refugees who volunteered to return to Sri Lanka. In the absence of Sri Lankan Government’s assistance and facilities on ground to resettle the refugees, many have refused to return. In this context, Mr. Gunawardena’s media statement is a welcome development.
As friendly countries India and Sri Lanka already have robust ties in the realm of security, tourism, culture, education, skill development, capacity building and infrastructure development. Nonetheless, certain concerns and issues exist between the two countries in the field of fisheries and the India funded development projects in Sri Lankan. Though these issues were identified long time back, they continue to act as irritant in the bilateral relations. It is believed that the process of high-level exchanges, which began between the two countries, following the Presidential elections held in November 2019, including the visit of Dinesh Gunawardena, will not only deepen the bilateral relations but also facilitate effective and sustainable solutions to address the existing issues of concerns.
Script: Gulbin Sultana, Research Analyst, IDSA