Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a forceful pitch for devolution of powers and resources to provinces in Sri Lanka, a key demand of the island’s Tamil-dominated northern and eastern provinces. But, he underlined that the unity of Sri Lanka was “paramount”.
The first Indian prime minister to visit Sri Lanka after Rajiv Gandhi in 1987, Modi travelled to Jaffna where he met Tamil politicians, including the northern province chief minister C V Wigneswaran.
Addressing the Sri Lankan parliament, Modi said: “When we empower states, districts and villages, we make our country stronger. You can call this my bias. I have been a chief minister for 13 years, a prime minister for less than a year.”
“Today, my top priority is to make states in India stronger. I am a firm believer in cooperative federalism. So, we are devolving more power and more resources to the states. And, we are making them formal partners in national decision-making processes.”
“All of us in this region, indeed every nation of diversity, have dealt with the issues of identities and inclusion, of rights and claims, of dignity and opportunity for different sections of our societies. We have all seen its diverse expressions. We have faced tragic violence. We have encountered brutal terrorism. We have also seen successful examples of peaceful settlements.”
“Each of us has sought to address these complex issues in our own ways. However, we choose to reconcile them, to me something is obvious: Diversity can be a source of strength for nations. When we accommodate the aspirations of all sections of our society, the nation gets the strength of every individual.”
Underlining that Sri Lanka has lived through decades of tragic violence and conflict, he said: “You now stand at a moment of historic opportunity to win the hearts and heal the wounds across all sections of society. The recent elections in Sri Lanka have reflected the collective voice of the nation, the hope for change, reconciliation and unity.”
Describing the steps taken by the new government as “bold and admirable,” he said: “For India, the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka are paramount.” After talks with Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena, he turned to an expression first used by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2009 that they will implement 13th amendment-plus. “I believe that early and full implementation of the 13th amendment and going beyond it would contribute to this process,” he said. Rajapaksa did not fulfil the commitment he made shortly after ending the war with the LTTE in May 2009.
Sirisena, who called Modi’s visit a “fortunate event” and a “blessing”, said: “I trust it (the visit) will help to further improve current relations between the two countries and assist in taking the relationships with minority communities to greater heights.”
On the issue of fishermen of the two countries who stray into each other’s waters, Modi said this “complex” issue involved “livelihood and humanitarian concerns” on both sides, and should be handled from this perspective. Last week, Premier Ranil Wikcremesinghe kicked up a row when he said intruding Indian fishermen would be shot by the Lankan navy.
Modi also spoke on the Indian Ocean being “critical” to the security of the two countries. Arriving in Colombo after visits to Seychelles and Mauritius, he said they can be more successful if they build a “climate of trust and confidence” and remain “sensitive to each other’s interest”.
“We deeply value our security cooperation with Sri Lanka. We should expand the maritime security cooperation between India, Sri Lanka and Maldives to include others in the Indian Ocean area,” he said, in the wake of growing Chinese interest in the region.
India, Sri Lanka sign 4 pacts
India and Sri Lanka signed four bilateral pacts - agreement on visa, customs, youth development and building Rabindranath Tagore memorial – during Modi's visit. Modi said his meeting with Sirisena has been very productive. It "gives me confidence and optimism about the future of our relations," Modi said.
"The agreement on cooperation between our customs authorities is a step in that direction. It will simplify trade and reduce non-tariff barriers on both sides," he said. Modi said the progress made by two countries reflects "our shared commitment to stronger economic cooperation. Our trade has seen impressive growth over the past decade. I am aware of your concerns about trade with India. As I said in Delhi, we will try and address them," he said.
Modi said India stands ready to help Trincomalee become a petroleum hub and announced that New Delhi will provide a fresh Line of Credit of up to USD 318 million for the railways sector in Lanka.
"This will be used to procure rolling stock, and to restore and upgrade existing railway track," he said. Modi also said that the Reserve Bank of India and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka have agreed to enter into a Currency Swap Agreement of USD 1.5 billion to help keep the Sri Lankan rupee stable.
He lauded the efforts of newly elected President Sirisena and assured him of all help from India. "We stand with you in your efforts to build a future that accommodates the aspirations of all sections of society, including the Sri Lankan Tamil community, for a life of equality, justice, peace and dignity in a united Sri Lanka.
Modi flags off train service
Mosi flagged off a train service at the north-western Lankan town of Talaimannar - the closest point to India -restored after decades of civil war, completing the reconstruction of the entire Northern Province Railway Line. Accompanied by Sirisena, Modi also unveiled a plaque inaugurating Talaimannar 1650 Pier Railway station. Modi flew in there by an IAF chopper from the ancient holy town of Anuradhapura where he offered prayers at the sacred Mahabodhi tree.
Assurance to Lankan businessmen
In his address to Lanka's business community at the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, Modi acknowledged that there were concerns in Sri Lanka about the huge trade imbalance. "I am prepared to work with you to address them. I want balanced growth in trade. We will try to make it easier and smoother for you to access the Indian market," he said.
Sri Lanka is India's major trading partner in South Asia. The bilateral trade between India and Sri Lanka in 2013-14 was USD 5.23 billion with Indian exports amounting to USD 3.98 billion and Sri Lankan exports amounting to USD 678 million. "I often say that a nation's fortunes are linked to its neighbourhood. There are many in India who would argue that India is too large to need her neighbours. "There are many in our region who worry that India's economic size will hurt them. I disagree with both views. For one, we all need a stable and peaceful neighbourhood to concentrate on national development," he added.
"There are already powerful examples in South Asia that show us that differences in size is no constraint to beneficial partnerships, if we use our strengths and seize our opportunities".
Underlining the need to expand the ongoing free trade agreement (FTA) that was signed in December 1998, Modi said India would take all necessary measures to ensure that Sri Lankan goods enter Indian markets smoothly.
India to develop two islands in Indian Ocean
In a major boost for India in the Indian Ocean, the government has bagged ''infrastructure development rights'' for two islands in the region - Agalega from Mauritius and Assumption from Seychelles - during Modi's ocean outreach comprising visits.
New Delhi marked its Indian Ocean presence with Modi offering to set up joint working groups with the two blue economies in the region to harness potential for economic cooperation. The understanding to allow India to develop these islands is of huge strategic significance for India which is widely seen as having lost out to China in having a purposeful engagement with the littoral states despite its own central location.
The Modi government has sought to address the issue by acknowledging the primacy of Indian Ocean for India's security and for maintaining peace and stability in the region. Official sources said that the development rights for the two islands had been discussed for months before these were successfully concluded during Modi's visit in a sign that ''Indian Ocean was going to be India's Ocean''.
''Our agreement today on the development of infrastructure in the Assumption Island (Seychelles) gives a strong boost to this partnership,'' said Modi in a media statement, adding that the ocean economy was indispensable to meeting India's future challenges. Modi also launched a Coastal Surveillance Radar Project
India signed an MoU with Mauritius for setting up and upgrading infrastructure for improving sea and air connectivity at the outer island of Mauritius ''which will go a long way in ameliorating the condition of the inhabitants of this remote Island". Foreign ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said these facilities are also expected to enhance the capabilities of the Mauritian defence forces in safeguarding their interests in the island.