Gently in Colombo

A friendlier government makes things easier for India, but Delhi still needs to tread with care.

Published:February 6, 2016 12:24 am

Sushma

Union External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Colombo for the ninth edition of the India-Sri Lanka Joint Commission will see the two sides discuss the bilateral relationship under a gamut of heads. Through the highs and lows of the relationship, the 26-year-old joint commission, which last met in New Delhi in 2013, has been symbolic of the bread-and-butter ties between the two countries, covering areas such as trade, education, defence cooperation, information technology, partnerships in the energy sector, and cultural and religious matters. Among the issues that have been predominant at the joint commission, the Tamil-on-Tamil fishing conflict defies all attempts at resolution. Tamil Nadu’s political tears for the Tamils of Sri Lanka could fill the Cauvery, but it actively connives to steal the livelihoods of Tamils in northern Sri Lanka. The only way out is to get the Tamil Nadu government and politicians to discourage fishermen from trespassing in Sri Lankan waters. There have been some efforts towards this, including attempts to wean them away from the ecologically harmful bottom trawling in the Palk Bay. But with assembly elections soon in the southern state, there is bound to be heightened rhetoric on Katchatheevu and fishing rights, with problematic consequences on the ground.

Another issue that has dominated discussions is the 500 MW Sampur coal-fired power project, a joint venture between Sri Lanka’s main state electricity provider and the National Thermal Power Corporation, which has been unable to get off the ground though it was signed 10 years ago. India has also been pushing for a comprehensive economic partnership, now being called the Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement, and wants progress on this. India and Sri Lanka have also spoken about developing Trincomalee as a regional energy hub. With a friendlier government in Colombo, Delhi is less tense about the relationship, but would still like to see less of China in the equation. Last month, India sent two warships to Sri Lanka immediately after three Chinese warships left the Colombo port. It also remains worried about the $1.4 billion Chinese Port City Project offshore from Colombo, which the Sri Lankan government has indicated will go ahead, albeit in a downsized way.

The joint commission does not deal with the Tamil question, the overarching political theme of India-Sri Lanka relations, but Delhi must remain engaged with it. President Maithripala Sirisena’s preoccupation with trying to keep control over the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s parallel focus on strengthening the United National Party over a divided SLFP, especially in the coming local government elections, should not mean a slowdown on the Tamil concerns of justice and reconciliation, and a just political settlement.

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