By Meera Srinivasan
India on Monday underscored the need for early conclusion of bilateral projects in Sri Lanka, and the enhancement of connectivity by air and sea between the neighbouring countries, which are seeking to reset ties amid a strain in ties.
Visiting Sri Lanka on a four-day visit beginning October 2, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla on Monday held talks with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris and Foreign Secretary Admiral (retd) Jayanath Colombage, discussing key bilateral issues, while focusing on recovery from the pandemic through enhanced cooperation in tourism and development partnership, according to tweets from the Indian High Commission in Colombo.
In his remarks at the Temple Trees, the official residence of the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Mr. Shringla said: “With the easing of the situation in Sri Lanka, it may be opportune for us to work on connectivity initiatives like the Jaffna to Chennai flight, ferry services between Karaikal and Kankesanthurai, and Dhanushkodi and Talaimanar and the Buddhist corridor with the new international airport at Kushinagar,” referring to halted, or delayed projects awaiting a push for revival or completion.
A media release issued by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s office following his meeting with Mr. Shringla said India is looking forward to receiving the first pilgrims’ flight from Sri Lanka to Kushinagar Airport in Uttar Pradesh — a popular destination for Buddhist pilgrims — that is now upgraded to an international airport.
During his virtual bilateral summit with PM Rajapaksa last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a $15 million grant for the promotion of Buddhist ties, aimed at deepening “people-to-people linkages” between the two countries. “Prime Minister Rajapaksa appreciated Prime Minister Modi’s initiative to promote Buddhist ties. Secretary Shringla said it was a priority area of Prime Minister Modi,” the media release said.
Resumption of tourism was another main point of discussion. “With the vaccine drives in both countries progressing well, Secretary Shringla spoke of the importance of resuming connectivity. India has been Sri Lanka’s top source of tourists with inbound tourism from India making up about 18% of total tourist arrivals in pre-COVID-19 years,” the release said.
The apparent lack of movement in India-backed projects, in addition to Colombo abruptly reneging on a Port terminal deal earlier this year, and China’s increasing role in the island nation have been sources of concern for New Delhi.
On Monday, the visiting Foreign Secretary virtually launched a few India-backed projects from Colombo. He dedicated 1,235 houses as part of the Indian Housing Project in the central hill country. A total of 14,000 houses are being built in the area, which is home to thousands of Malaiyaha [or hill country] Tamils whose ancestors hail from south India. This is in addition to the 46,000 homes built for families affected by the civil war in the Tamil-majority north, and the multi-ethnic east.
Further, Mr. Shringla inaugurated a ‘Model Housing Village’ in the northern Vavuniya district, a school building at Vadamarachchi in Jaffna, and the Saraswathy Central College building in Pussellawa in Kandy. “I would also like to highlight that these projects employ local companies and invariably use Sri Lankan material and labour in their execution,” he said.