New Delhi: The bilateral relationship between India and Sri Lanka has been “complicated” since the time of the Ramayana, but leaders of the two countries have always had an “open, transparent and direct dialogue since independence” according to Asoka Milinda Moragoda, Sri Lanka’s new high commissioner to India.
In an exclusive interview with ThePrint, Moragoda, who took charge as Colombo’s new envoy in September 2021, said both countries are democracies and thus have inherent “untidiness in decision-making”, even as he explained some of the recent decisions taken by the Sri Lankan government that led to tensions in bilateral ties.
“The relationship has been complicated from Ramayana until now. When you have a giant neighbour, it is an asymmetrical relationship,” he told ThePrint.
“But I think compared to many other countries we have far fewer tensions, in the regional context. We are both democracies and untidiness in decision-making can be inherent in democratic processes. Still, since independence all our leaders have always had open, transparent, and direct dialogue,” he added.
Explaining the rationale behind Colombo’s sudden decision to scrap the $500-million East Container Terminal (ECT) project — signed as a government-to-government deal among India, Japan and Sri Lanka — in February this year, and instead hand over the West Container Terminal (WCT) development plan to the Adani Group, the high commissioner said this was done from an investment point of view.
“In the ECT, we were only able to provide 49 per cent to India and Japan — that was the arrangement — while 51 per cent was with Sri Lanka Port Authority. Of course, India and Japan could have a say in the management. In the WCT’s context, 85 per cent of the equity has been made available to Adani Group and its local partner,” he said.
He also emphasised that the Sri Lankan government is keen to have more advanced technology in its ports, and thus wanted to go for a private deal.
“The technologies in the ports are leapfrogging. This is now a technology-driven business, unlike older times. So to that extent, the transaction is even better.”
Moragoda also said, “Private investment is preferable to purely strategic investments,” adding that “strategic investments eventually become unsustainable”.
“So for me, an investment by a private investor in the West Terminal is far better than investing money purely for strategic reasons.”
Elaborating on the economic aspect of the Colombo Port, he said that 80 per cent of the business the port does is that of transshipment, of which 70 per cent goes to India. Out of this 70 per cent, 35 per cent goes to Adani Ports.
“So from an investment point of view, this makes perfect sense,” he said.
In March 2021, the Adani Group signed a $700-million deal with the state-run Sri Lanka Ports Authority to develop and run the strategic Colombo Port’s West International Container Terminal.
The Adani Group will have a 51 per cent stake, and the agreement to build, operate and transfer (BOT) will be valid for 35 years.
The terminal will come up just next to China’s jetty at the port.
During the last visit to Colombo by Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla in October, India did push for the ECT to go through as New Delhi views it as a strategic deal, considering Beijing’s growing influence there.
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Expansion of India-Sri Lanka economic ties
According to High Commissioner Moragoda, India and Sri Lanka are now aiming to expand their business and economic ties.
During the visit by Sri Lankan Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa on 1-2 December, India and Sri Lanka discussed four pillars for short and medium-term cooperation: a food and health security package, an energy security package, an offer of a currency swap, and facilitating Indian investment in different sectors.
“After the visit of the finance minister, I think the one area where we want to do a lot more would be the renewable energy sector. We have tremendous wind energy potential. There is a possibility to have a cable link between India and Sri Lanka so that we can export or import electricity depending on the situation,” Moragoda said.
In the petroleum sector, he said, the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm project is an important component of the partnership between the two countries.
“India is one of the largest consumers of petroleum in the world, and cooperation will help us achieve energy security and price stability,” the envoy said.
Shringla also raised the issue of this project during his visit.
In the tourism sector — one of the mainstays of the Sri Lankan economy — India had a market share of nearly 25 per cent before the COVID-19 pandemic. Colombo plans to boost that by resuming some of the traditional routes.
“We want to restart the ferry service from Rameswaram (in India) to Thalaimannar (in Sri Lanka), which has remained stalled since the war. This has been a traditional link. We can look at other possibilities on connectivity by sea, which has not taken off for some reason,” he said.
Meanwhile, India’s ITC Hotels is investing upwards of $400 million in Sri Lanka, said Moragoda, adding, “This is their first major hotel project outside India and it will start operations from next year.”
Indian IT conglomerates like HCL are also expanding their businesses there. “So, a lot has been happening. India is one of the major investors in Sri Lanka,” he emphasised.
Moragoda also said that Sri Lanka is planning to open a consulate in Kolkata soon because of West Bengal’s traditional links with the country. Both governments have approved the plan.
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Deadlock in Parliament over 13th Amendment issue
The 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution deals with devolution of power to the Tamil community there. Discussing the problem of implementing the amendment, Moragoda said the matter was stuck in Parliament.
“The 13th Amendment is in the Constitution. The last government wanted to change the electoral system of how the provincial councils were elected. Earlier, it was on a complete proportional representation system,” Moragoda said.
He added, “Within the country, there has generally been a lot of criticism about the prevailing electoral system. There is a deadlock in Parliament regarding the delimitation process, which has to be resolved. This could require a two-thirds majority in Parliament.”
The 13th Amendment became part of the Constitution after the Indo-Sri Lankan agreement was signed in 1987. It proposed the establishment of a provincial council system and devolution of power for nine provinces in Sri Lanka. However, successive governments in Sri Lanka have not implemented it.
India has been urging Sri Lanka to implement and enforce the amendment ever since the latter’s war with Tamil separatists ended in 2009. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had also taken up the issue with Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa when he came to India on a bilateral visit in 2019.
Indo-Pacific and defence cooperation
As the Indian Ocean region increasingly becomes a zone of conflict with global superpowers like the US and China ratcheting up tensions, Sri Lanka is once again faced with challenges.
Meanwhile, India has also now become an active participant in the Indo-Pacific strategic construct, advocating a rules-based order in the region.
“From 1505 until independence in 1948, Sri Lanka was colonised by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British in succession. In this context, the sea has brought us both challenges and opportunities,” Moragoda said.
“Various invaders came for our resources and we are quite used to dealing with a complex and at times hostile external environment,” he said, adding, “Today the region is preoccupied with the Indo-Pacific and the Belt and Road. Twenty to 30 years from now, we could be talking about something totally different.”
He added, “Our invaders came from the sea and our opportunities also came from the sea. So historically we Sri Lankans have been adept and agile in managing these uncertainties.”
However, he said that Sri Lanka needs to do much more to utilise the full potential of its strategic location.
“We have not done enough. We lost many opportunities due to our 30-year conflict. War is like cancer. It is easy to start wars, but it can take generations to normalise a society after a sustained conflict.”
Currently, Sri Lanka is the chair of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), an organisation of seven South and Southeast Asian states including India. However, due to COVID-19, Colombo has been unable to organise the summit meeting of all leaders of BIMSTEC countries.
“Because of Covid we could not hold the BIMSTEC Summit. Connectivity is the main theme for BIMSTEC. In my view as far as Sri Lanka is concerned, we have to build strong ties with India,” the envoy said.
The BIMSTEC Summit is expected to be held in the first half of 2022.
On defence cooperation between India and Sri Lanka, Moragoda said that at present, about 700 Sri Lankan cadets are obtaining military training in India. He also said both countries are now also moving towards a growing number of joint military exercises.
(Edited by Rohan Manoj)
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