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Forging Bilateral Relations

Written by Asma Siddiqui  •  Region  •  June 2013 PDF Print E-mail

Sri Lanka and India, two strong South Asian neighbors with a mutual history, are adamant to strengthen bilateral ties for more than one reason.

In May 2013, Indian High Commissioner, Ashok K. Kantha and Sri Lankan Economic Development Minister, Basil Rajapaksa launched an Indian-funded housing project in Sri Lanka’s predominantly Tamil Eastern Province. The initiative calls for the construction of 4,000 housing units.

Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh first announced the housing project during Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s state visit to India in June 2010. The announcement of this project is part of India’s overall commitment to build 50,000 houses in Sri Lanka at a cost of approximately US$270 million; the largest investment by the Government of India abroad. 12,000 homes have already been built, with an additional 10,000 to be completed by the end of the year.

In earlier times when communication between countries was minimal, the only significant foreign impact in Sri Lanka was that of India. Of course the greatest gift to Sri Lanka from India was Buddhism, which consequently became the fountainhead of Sinhalese literature.

The profound cultural influence of India on Sri Lanka has been underpinned by political and economic links. The Sri Lankan Independence movement drew inspiration to a certain extent from the Indian Independence movement. It was mainly as a consequence of India’s freedom struggle that the less militant Sri Lanka won its independence. In the sphere of economics, India is currently Sri Lanka’s biggest trading partner and major investor. In addition to normal trade, a Free Trade Agreement exists between the two countries. The interaction between India and Sri Lanka in every sphere – cultural, economic and political – is now more intense than ever before, while at the same time both countries are more open to influences from other countries as well.

But these commonalities have not managed to evaporate the differences. From 1983 to 2009, Sri Lanka was torn apart by a bloody civil war, which saw the government fight the Tamil Tigers rebel group. The conflict broke out after Tamil nationalists decided to create an independent state in the northeast of the island, eventually turning into an ethnic clash that left tens of thousands of people dead and more than 200,000 internally displaced. Since the civil war ended in 2009, there is severe loathing for India. The Sinhalese are angry with India for funding and training the Tamil Tigers in their infancy while the Tamils are angry that India did not intervene to stop the massacre.

India’s offering of expertise on constitutional, legal and federal institutional governance to Sri Lanka is not viewed with much importance. The Tamil Nadu factor in the Government of India’s decision-making process has already served to constrain Sri Lanka’s movement. It is only in the areas of security and cultural exchanges as well as in the economic domain involving the enhancement of entrepreneurial and manufacturing skills, where the merging of Indian and Sri Lankan interests can be possible and bilateral relations be made strong.

India must strive to bring about a sustainable trade balance that is not adverse to Sri Lanka. According to the Ministry of Finance and Planning’s External Resources Department’s 2012 ‘Global Partnership Towards Development’ report, India was the second largest development aid giver to Sri Lanka, providing over $700 million to the island nation. Even as the anti-Sri Lanka mood in Tamil Nadu intensifies, the Center has increased its annual grant to the Sri Lankan government in the Union Budget. The allocation has gone up to Rs 500 crore for 2013-2014 from Rs 290 crore last year.

The Indian Budget has allocated Rs 5,550 crore as aid for foreign governments and organizations. The grants for Sri Lanka are meant to assist Tamils but parties in Tamil Nadu have accused the government there of diverting the Indian aid for other purposes. In May 2013, in a bid to enhance access to the former war-torn north, the Sri Lankan government opened the first phase of a $650 million northern railway project after 30 years of suspension. While inaugurating the service, Minister for Economic Development, Basil Rajapaksa, was of the opinion that India had supported Sri Lanka at every stage of rehabilitation and reconstruction of north Sri Lanka.

Railway services to the north were suspended in 1983 after the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) blew up key railway bridges connecting the northern peninsula to the mainland. This created civil unrest in the country. Since the war ended in 2009, the Sri Lankan government has set in motion plans to reconnect the north via rail and invited assistance from foreign countries. In 2010, the Indian government agreed to fund the project. The project is being executed by the Indian Railway Ministry’s IRCON International Limited to restore the 252 km-railway line that would connect different parts of the country.

With these ongoing projects aided by India there is an increased chance of restoring the common bond that the two countries shared with each other. India needs to invest further while Sri Lanka should genuinely cooperate. Only with close coordination can the two countries solve their mutual problems and create a better future and good relations in times to come. 


Asma Siddiqui is a freelance journalist who writes on social issues.
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