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Bilateral relations have expanded manifold - Outgoing Indian High Commissioner

Excerpts of an Interview with outgoing Indian High Commissioner Ashok K. Kantha.

Outgoing Indian High Commissioner

Ashok K. Kantha.
Pic by Susantha Wijegunasekera

Q: The time has come to bid farewell to Sri Lanka. What will you be taking back? Any regrets or that you wished you had more time to complete?

A: I am leaving Sri Lanka after a tenure of three and a half years. I arrived here in November 2009, which was six months after the end of the armed conflict. It was a historic juncture for Sri Lanka as well as India-Sri Lanka relations. During this period I have seen impressive changes taking place in Sri Lanka, I have also seen relations between India and Sri Lanka developing in a comprehensive manner. I will be taking back with me pleasant memories of my stay here. I am preparing to complete my assignment here with a sense of fulfilment that India-Sri Lanka relations which had always been close and friendly are today perhaps stronger than what they were when I arrived.

I believe there is a strong commitment from both sides to take this relationship forward. You talked about regrets, I will not say regrets but you know it's a process, when it comes to a job like mine, you work on the edifice which has been created by your predecessors and you leave behind some tasks for your successor.

India and Sri Lanka are linked by our geography, our history, shared civilizational heritage, by common interest, by a shared commitment to advancing this relationship. There is a lot of positives that one inherited and my objective all along is to build on those positives and not to let occasional differences come in the way of development of this relationship.

Q: What would you describe as your most satisfying job that was accomplished during your tenure?

A: It will be difficult for me to single out one single job that was completed to the satisfaction of both India and Sri Lanka. It has been a very eventful period in our bi-lateral relations. It was a period of extraordinary opportunities since the central preoccupation of Sri Lanka which had pulled it down for a long period, combating terrorism which had gone on in this country for nearly three decades, was coming to an end.

There were some problems relating to the aftermath but there were so many opportunities available to develop our relationship, we have sought to seek those opportunities. If I may cite some examples, we maintained a close political dialogue, we were fortunate to have four visits of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to India. I accompanied him on all those visits.

We had several high level visits from India to Sri Lanka. These visits helped develop the agenda of partnership of our two countries. Our job was to implement this agenda which we have tried to do in a proactive manner. The second area where I derive a lot of satisfaction, is how our trade and investment links have developed. Sri Lanka is India's largest trading partner in SAARC and India is Sri Lanka's largest trading partner globally.

Last year we crossed the milestone of bilateral trade turnover of $ 5 billion. In the last three years we have seen Indian companies expanding their business presence in Sri Lanka, we have pro-actively encouraged them to get engaged more in Sri Lanka's growth story. In 2011 and 2012 they brought in investment worth $ 300 million. If you look at the projects in the pipeline, investment we hope to materialise during the next five years will be at least $ 1.5 - 2 billion. This is really changing the whole landscape of economic engagement between the two countries. That is something which gives us a lot of satisfaction.

The third example relates to people-to-people links. We have multi-layered relations. While relations between the two governments are important, in many ways the people-to-people links are more important. Because they operate in so many different dimensions. We decided to jointly celebrate the 2600th anniversary of the enlightenment of the Buddha. As part of that we did so many activities jointly but one event which really stood out is the exposition of the sacred Kapilawasthu relics. That was in August/ September last year.

These relics came to Sri Lanka after a span of 34 years, and we were overwhelmed by the popular response, at least three million devotees turned up to worship the sacred relics. There was such a powerful outpouring of affection and goodwill which really gave us a lot of confidence in the strength between our relations.

If I can give you another example, we tried to expand our developmental partnership. As I mentioned I came here immediately after the armed conflict, the Government was dealing with a lot of challenges, resettlement, reconstruction, those activities were going on and we had sought to assist in the process.

As a result, in the last three and a half years our developmental partnership in Sri Lanka has expanded many fold. We completed at least three dozen projects ranging from large projects like the Southern railway expansion which was handed over last year in April, six months ahead of schedule, and projects like the renovation of 79 schools in the Northern Province.

We are happy that we have not only responded as per the preferences and priorities projected by the Government and the people, these projects have been delivered on time. My colleagues worked overtime to ensure that we managed to complete the projects in a satisfactory manner.

Education is one area that is important. Both Sri Lanka and India are blessed with rich human resource. More than anything else the quality of our human resource will determine our future. One initiative was tripling of scholarships awarded to Sri Lankan students, to study in India and in Sri Lanka. The expansion of our consulates here was another impressive milestone. We opened two new consulates in Jaffna and Hambantota.

Q: Now that Sri Lanka is moving ahead as a middle income country from a conflict affected third world state, do you perceive any changes to Sri Lanka - India relations?

A: If you look at Sri Lanka's growth trajectory, it is impressive. In the post-conflict period the country has recorded a high growth rate. I believe that Sri Lanka's manifest destiny, is to re-emerge as a hub economy given its strategic location, close to fast growing economies in the world and an important maritime route.

You have a number of inherent advantages, what we need to do is to tap synergies, we have already taken advantage of some of these, we will contribute to Sri Lanka's emergence as a hub economy.

The Colombo Port is one of the most successful ports in our part of the world. It accounts for nearly one fourth of total container transshipments in India. In turn, cargo coming or going to India accounts for 70 percent of the total business for the Colombo Port. Civil Aviation is another area. We have 120 flights between Colombo and eight destinations in India. This has helped develop Sri Lanka as an aviation hub.

To cement Sri Lanka's position as an aviation, maritime and manufacturing hub, we need to be more ambitious. We should not let apprehension which is often imaginary and based on inadequate information in the way of our perusing a far more pro-active agenda. If you don't build on the connectivity that is already between us, there will be a price to pay. This is one area that I believe that we can do more.

In terms of tourism, Indians are travelling overseas in larger numbers. While nearly one fifth of foreign tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka is from India, the number of tourists coming from India is a small fraction of the actual potential. If more than one million Indians can go to Singapore and Thailand every year, I don't see why the number of Indian tourists coming here should be less than 200,000 because Sri Lanka has so much to offer as a tourist destination. You are just next door. Greater two-way flow of tourists also re-inforces bonds.

Q: Will there be direct flights to new destinations in India?

A: Last year we liberalized our bilateral civil aviation regime and increased frequencies and offered new destinations. At present our policy is that we should facilitate greater connectivity, more flights between Colombo and various destinations in India. The civil aviation agreement is market-driven, we have open doors for our airlines to take advantage of the opportunity that is available, it's for them to do that.

In the last India - Sri Lanka joint commission meeting we agreed to explore the feasibility of overland connectivity between India and Sri Lanka. The distance between Talaimannar and Rameswaram is barely 16 nautical miles. The University of Moratuwa has done good work looking into the feasibility of this.

Q: Will visa free travel between India and Sri Lanka be a reality ever?

A: Our policy has been to make it easier for Sri Lankan nationals to travel to India. We have put in place a liberal visa regime, for all types of travellers. In fact in almost all cases we issue visas on the next working day. Visas can be applied online and we issue visas gratis to groups of pilgrims recommended by the Secretary, Ministry of Buddhasasana Affairs or Secretary, Tourism.

Q: Will these arrangements continue after your departure?

A: These are institutional arrangements and are going to continue even after my departure. I don't expect any change there. Moving towards a visa-free regime is something that we can discuss. In fact we are progressively moving towards arranging visa on arrival with some countries, recently we have agreed to have consular talks. That is definitely a possibility.

How long will it take for the two governments to discuss and work out suitable modalities. But that's an objective we need to move towards. Especially between two friendly countries like India and Sri Lanka, we should have smooth movement of people, goods, ideas and investment. This is something we need to encourage.

Q: In a recent speech, you mentioned India was Sri Lanka's closest friend. But at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March this year when South Asian nations stood by Sri Lanka, India took a different stand. Your comments?

A: What you need to look at is the totality of relations India and Sri Lanka share. Recently Prof. G.L. Peiris said friendship between India and Sri Lanka was indestructible. Dr. Sarath Amunugama described the two countries as inseparable friends.

These are descriptions we subscribe to. We have extremely close relations. There is no doubt that this relationship is growing in all areas - political dialogue, trade and investment, security cooperation, educational exchanges and people-to-people contact.

We see all-round progress and that gives us confidence. The big picture of our relationship is positive. There are occasional differences. We may have different perspectives on some issues. At times these differences get manifested in different positions taken by ourselves in international fora but what you have to remember is that on most of the occasions with some exceptions, India has stood by Sri Lanka. Not only in our bilateral engagement but also in international fora.

We have provided consistent support to Sri Lanka. We have tried to assist Sri Lanka fulfilling your aspirations of development and economic growth, we have been partners.

When dealing with terrorism India was with Sri Lanka.

Let's not look at one or two votes in isolation but as part of this larger pattern of relationship that we have sought to nurture together.

Q: Is this going to be India's consistent stand when it comes to issues that pin on the last stages of terrorism will India continue to isolate Sri Lanka in situations like last March-Geneva?

A: When it comes to post-war development in Sri Lanka we have always given credit for positive developments within this country, be it resettlement, rehabilitation of ex-combatants, or demining or reconstruction. A lot of good things have happened and we have been supportive though a lot more things remains to be don. We have tried to extend our assistance to the fullest measure possible.

There are some areas we expect there will be faster progress. For instance towards reconciliation. Here again what we are suggesting is that the implementation of the LLRC recommendations with a sense of urgency. It will advance the process of reconciliation. We are suggesting progress towards a political settlement in a manner where all communities feel they are equal stakeholders in society.

Both India and Sri Lanka are multi-cultural and multi-linguistic, diverse societies. It is important for us to develop in a manner so that growth is inclusive. That's what we have been discussing with our Sri Lankan friends.

The vote in Geneva that you referred to earlier, was not a vote against Sri Lanka, our positions might have been in divergence to one particular issue. India will never do anything which will hurt Sri Lanka's interests because we believe that fundamental interests of Sri Lanka and India are interlinked. There is absolutely no contradiction in these interests.

Q: There is a feeling or accusations by certain domestic elements that India is trying to dictate terms to Sri Lanka on a political settlement. Your comments?

A: i don't agree with that There is a natural interest in India of what happens in Sri Lanka in the progress towards a political settlement . These are issues that we discuss. The Government of Sri Lanka has talked about, in the past of meaningful devolution, a political settlement, a political package based on the 13th Amendment plus approach. These are assurances given by the Government and we are not asking for anything more than that. We always recognize that these are domestic processes where Sri Lanka's people, through an internal dialogue arrive at a settlement which is acceptable to them.

India has never tried to dictate terms to Sri Lanka. That is not our approach.

Q: You have always said pilgrims travel between the two countries and they must be protected. There were target attacks on Sri Lankan pilgrims in the recent past. What is the situation now?

A: There have been some isolated incidents where some Sri Lankans pilgrims were subject to harassment and assault. We took immediate action in all cases, the perpetrators were detained and prosecuted. The Government of India and the Government of Tamil Nadu immediately stepped up security. You would have noticed that there has been no recurrence.

Pilgrimage between our two countries have gone on for centuries if not for millenia, its a very important part of our relations. India is a large country and it is impossibile to avoid isolated incidents. But we are committed to ensuring that Sri Lankan pilgrims going to India are assured of safety and security. It is absolutely safe for Sri Lankan pilgrims to travel to India. There have been no incidents thereafter.

The new High Commissioner is expected to assume duties in Colombo by mid June.

 

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