India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar was on a two-day official visit to Colombo on the invitation of his Sri Lankan counterpart. This was the External Affairs Minister’s first foreign visit in 2021, and also the first by a foreign dignitary to Sri Lanka in the New Year. Dr. Jaishankar called on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, State Minister of Estate Housing and Community Infrastructure Jeevan Thondaman and the State Minister for Backward Rural Areas Development Sathasivan Viyalendiran, Tamil leaders and the Sri Lankan Business Community.
The main purpose of the visit was to discuss the entire gamut of issues and facilitate the processes to address specific challenges impinging the bilateral relations. One of the main issues is the delay in the implementation of the Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) and agreements between the two countries. During the visit, External Affairs Minister called for early implementation of the projects under discussion in the areas of infrastructure, energy, and connectivity for mutual economic benefit and to accelerate Sri Lanka’s economic recovery. After a meeting with the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister; Dr, Jaishankar talked about the huge potential in the investment sector particularly in the special zone for pharmaceutical manufacturing and tourism.
The Indian External Affairs Minister is also said to have discussed the development of the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port. In May 2019, under the previous administration of Sri Lanka, a tripartite agreement was signed between Sri Lanka, India, and Japan to develop the ECT. India’s interest in the development of the terminal lies in the fact that 60 to 70 percent of the business to the Colombo Port comes from Indian transshipment.
India’s development partnership in the social, community, and human resources sector has made an immense contribution for uplifting the lives of the common people of Sri Lanka. During interactions with the Sri Lankan leaders, Dr. Jaishankar conveyed India’s intention to continue the development partnership with Sri Lanka in the areas of agriculture, technology, skill, and urban development as well as in the establishment of vocational training centres as deemed important by the Sri Lankan Government. The Minister also ensured India’s readiness to enhance Sri Lanka’s capabilities to meet growing maritime and security challenges.
Dr. Jaishankar conveyed India’s intention to carry forward its commitment to cooperate with Sri Lanka during the Covid-19 pandemic in the post-Covid period too, by positively responding to Sri Lanka’s request in accessing covid-19 vaccines from India.
Two important outstanding issues in the India-Sri Lanka bilateral relations-the Fishermen’s issue and the Reconciliation of the Tamils were also raised by the Indian Minister. Dr. Jaishankar reviewed India’s Cooperation with Sri Lanka in the fisheries sector following the last meeting of the Joint Working Group on Fisheries on December 30, 2020 with Sri Lankan Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda. A request was also made for early release of the Indian fishermen apprehended by the Sri Lankan authorities.
Some of the members of the current administration in Sri Lanka have been advocating for the repeal of the 13th Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution which talks about the provision for devolution of powers to Provincial Councils. The Amendment was recommended during the signing of the India-Sri Lanka Accord in 1987 and later passed by the Sri Lankan Parliament. Since, India is committed to the unity, stability, and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, New Delhi strongly believes that the Sri Lankan government must be committed to the meaningful devolution and implementation of the 13th amendment.
In the backdrop of the geo-strategic developments in the region and wide ranging speculations in Sri Lanka about the intention behind the cooperative partnership extended to Colombo by the regional and extra-regional powers; The Indian External Affairs Minister’s visit was significant. It has conveyed the message that India will always be a dependable partner and reliable friend of Sri Lanka, open to strengthening its relationship based on mutual trust, interest, respect, and sensitivity.
Script: Dr. Gulbin Sultana, Analyst on Sri Lanka