Q. Sri-Lanka is the key to Indian Ocean that both India and China are wooing. Discuss India-Sri Lanka relations and the ﬁshermen issue between the two countries.
A. The relationship between India and Sri Lanka is more than 2,500 years old. Both countries have a legacy of intellectual, cultural, religious and linguistic interaction. In recent years, the relationship has been marked by close contacts at all levels. Trade and investment have grown and there is cooperation in the ﬁelds of development, education, culture and defence. Both countries share a broad understanding on major issues of international interest. In recent years, signiﬁcant progress in implementation of developmental assistance projects for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and disadvantaged sections of the population in Sri Lanka has helped further cement the bonds of friendship between the two countries.
India has been engaging with Sri Lanka for a number of years with cooperation and with the emergence of blue economy, Sri Lanka has emerged as the biggest pearl of Indian Ocean. China’s Sting of Pearls initiative has further added to the Indian interest. Areas of convergence and cooperation in the India-Sri-Lanka relations are:
Political ties: India and Sri-Lanka have had deep historical and political relations. Unfortunately, the coexistence between the Sinhalese and the Tamils broke down when Sri Lankan nationalism attempted to consolidate itself around a Sinhala Buddhist identity. From 1987 to 1990, India gingerly engaged in a degree of military intervention (in part aimed at addressing the large ﬂows of Tamil refugees accruing to India) under the guise of peacekeeping. This however did not augur well. India subsequently moved towards a more ‘hands off’ policy to the extent that sentiments in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu allowed. This, however, provided space to other players such as Pakistan, China, Israel, and the USA. However, India in its ‘neighbourhood ﬁrst’ policy is trying to re-engage with Sri Lanka especially after the end of civil war. Furthermore, the ideals of democracy become a keystone for expanding the relationship.
Commercial Relations: Sri Lanka has long been a priority destination for direct investment from India. Sri Lanka is one of India’s largest trading partner in SAARC. India in turn is Sri Lanka’s greatest trade partner globally. Trade between the two countries grew particularly rapidly after the entry into force of the India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement in March 2000. A number of new investments from Indian company are in the pipeline or under implementation. Notable among them are proposal of South City, Kolkata for real estate development in Colombo, Tata Housing Slave Island Development project along the Urban Development Authority of Sri Lanka, and ‘Colombo One’ project of ITC Ltd.
Developmental Cooperation: Sri Lanka is one of the major recipients of development credit given by the Government of India. India is also ﬁnancing to support repair of tsunami-damaged Colombo-Matara rail link and construction railway lines in Northern Sri Lanka. India also continues to assist a large number of smaller development projects in areas like education, health, transport connectivity, small and medium enterprise development and training in many parts of the country through its grant funding.
Cultural Relations-The Cultural Cooperation Agreement signed by the Government of India and the Government of Sri Lanka on 29 November, 1977 at New Delhi forms the basis for periodic Cultural Exchange Programmes between the two countries. Tourism also forms an important link between India and Sri Lanka. Government of India formally launched the e-Tourist Visa (eTV) scheme for Sri Lankan tourists in 2015.
Sri Lanka’s geographic location makes it a great opportunity. The Palk Bay which links the two neighbours although has also caused a lot of problems. Given the proximity of the territorial waters of both countries, especially in the Palk Straits and the Gulf of Mannar, incidents of straying of ﬁshermen are common.
Indian boats have been ﬁshing in the troubled waters for centuries and had a free run of the Bay of Bengal, the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar until 1974 and 1976 when treaties were signed between the two countries to demarcate the maritime boundary — the IMBL. However, the treaties failed to factor in the hardship of thousands of traditional ﬁshermen who were forced to restrict themselves to a meagre area in their ﬁshing forays. The small islet of Katchatheevu, hitherto used by them for sorting their catch and drying their nets, fell on the other side of the IMBL. V. Suryanaryan highlights the need of the two countries to look at Palk Bay as a common heritage and not a source of contention to facilitate movement of people, goods and ideas to preserve Indian Ocean as a zone of freedom and cooperation.