New Delhi: The economic revival of Sri Lanka, currently facing an unprecedented crisis, is contingent upon enhanced engagement with India, while the security interests of the two neighbours are closely interlinked, according to Ashok K. Kantha, former Indian envoy to Colombo.
In an interview with ThePrint, Kantha, who is currently director at the New Delhi-based Institute of Chinese Studies, also said that Chinese projects in Sri Lanka were among the factors contributing to the latter’s financial meltdown.
Kantha said, “Economic engagement with India by way of two-way investment flows, closer connectivity and exploitation of synergies that are there between India and Sri Lanka — all that will be a very important component of the revival package Sri Lanka will develop.”
He added that Colombo’s economic revival will “not be based” only on restructuring of debt and a potential financial package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Discussing security cooperation between New Delhi and Colombo — and especially the India-Sri Lanka-Maldives trilateral cooperation — Kantha said, “The security interests of India and Sri Lanka are closely interlinked. There is no doubt about it. Traditionally, we are the largest provider of military training to Sri Lanka. We have stepped in from time to time with support of other kinds, including in the area of maritime domain awareness. That cooperation, which is already very substantive between India and Sri Lanka, needs to be continued and stepped up.”
In November 2021, India, Maldives and Sri Lanka held their biennial joint trilateral maritime drill — Dosti — in the Indian Ocean.
Kantha, who was also secretary (east) at the Ministry of External Affairs, said the IMF package, though important, will “not be a panacea”.
“Sri Lanka has gone through arrangements with the IMF 15 or 16 times in the past. So it’s not something new. At this moment it’s really required, but much more needs to be done. For the development of Sri Lanka, cooperation with India is a true engine of growth. This will bring benefits on both sides,” he said.
Kantha also expressed concern about how some key Indian infrastructure projects have faced delays due to a lackadaisical approach by successive Sri Lankan governments.
“Some of the Indian projects were inordinately delayed not because of any lack of will on our part, but because requisite decisions could not be taken on the Sri Lankan side. These projects need to progress and be implemented effectively,” he added.
On Thursday, as the economic crisis and its political fallout roiled on in Sri Lanka, a court barred ex-PM Mahinda Rajapaksa, his son and MP Namal Rajapaksa and 15 allies from leaving the country, as they are being investigated over an assault on anti-government protestors.
Meanwhile, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in an address to the nation Wednesday night, had said he would appoint a new prime minister and cabinet “this week”, pledged to empower parliament and also asserted that he was ready to abolish the country’s executive presidency once the situation stabilises.
‘China undoubtedly contributed to Sri Lanka’s economic crisis’
Kantha served as India’s high commissioner to Sri Lanka from 2009 to 2013, when Mahinda Rajapaksa was president. Decisions made by Rajapaksa at that time are also responsible for what’s happening in Sri Lanka today, Kantha argued.
“China undoubtedly contributed to the present economic crisis in Sri Lanka. After the end of the civil war in 2009, then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa opted for an economic developmental model which was fuelled by external commercial borrowings, including large borrowings from China. He opted for projects which were not economically viable …These projects have not yielded economic dividends,” said Kantha, who also served as India’s ambassador to China.
“They have contributed to Sri Lanka’s economic difficulties today and they have also proved to be debt traps,” he said, referring to projects such as the Hambantota Port, Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport and Port City Colombo, among others.
He also said that some of the advice given by Beijing to Colombo wasn’t helpful, while Sri Lanka’s decision to knock on the doors of the IMF was also delayed thanks to China.
“Instead of providing emergency support to Sri Lanka, China opposed the restructuring of debt. It was not in favour of Sri Lanka going to the IMF, which was delayed. And in both these issues, India has been fully supportive of Sri Lanka. India, as you know, has intervened with the IMF and tried to persuade it to give emergency assistance to Sri Lanka,” he added.
No attempt by India to interfere in Sri Lanka’s domestic politics
According to the veteran diplomat, while India has been consistently helping Sri Lanka by way of aid during this time of unprecedented crisis, it hasn’t tried to meddle in Colombo’s domestic politics.
“We have a very complex situation in our immediate neighbourhood as well as globally. India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy is eminently sensible and needs to be continued, and as part of that we will continue to be the first responder. Our support is going to the people of Sri Lanka,” he said.
He added, “There is absolutely no attempt on our part to prop up any particular political dispensation in Sri Lanka. It’s for the people of Sri Lanka to decide what kind of government they will have. It’s not for India to interfere and intervene in those processes, so I think that differentiation is clearly maintained by the Government of India, in terms of providing support to Sri Lanka as a country.”
Kantha said that at present a “political transition” is taking place in Sri Lanka, and an interim government needs to be put in place in order to take “tough and difficult” decisions.
“What we are looking at today is a combination of an unprecedented economic crisis — described as the worst since the independence of Sri Lanka in 1948 — which has triggered a political crisis, which in turn has become a political stalemate,” he said.
He also said, “There has been haemorrhaging of political support for the ruling dispensation — there is no doubt about that — which is reflected in massive demonstrations which are taking place all over Sri Lanka.”
(Edited by Rohan Manoj)