External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna on Saturday reaffirmed that India would stay engaged with Sri Lanka to revive the livelihoods of those in the war-ravaged Northern Province and help people rebuild their lives.

He was speaking at the inauguration of the Indian consulate in Jaffna town, seen as the cultural and commercial bastion of Sri Lankan Tamils.

“This is one consulate that I have pursued since the war ended. All officials, including the Joint Secretary [Thiru Moorthy] worked very hard to realise this. I am very happy,” Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, who accompanied the Minister, told The Hindu.

In a way, Mr. Krishna made history as he is the first Cabinet Minister from India to visit Jaffna after the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam by the Sri Lankan security forces in May last year. The Minister was also the first to land in Jaffna in about three decades: the last Foreign Minister who went round Sri Lanka for a spot survey was P.V. Narasimha Rao, on July 30, 1983.

Special relationship

Stating that India's relations with Sri Lanka would be incomplete without highlighting the special relationship between the people of the Northern Province in general, the Jaffna Peninsula in particular, and those of southern India, the Minister recalled the nature of bonds that existed before the province plunged into conflict.

Mr. Krishna said there must be several persons in this audience who would have seen the days when there was a direct flight from Palaly to Tiruchi and a ferry service from Talaimannar to Rameswaram. It was possible that some at the gathering would even have gone to Chennai — Madras as it was called — only to catch a movie.

A proposal for revival of the ferry service was in an advanced stage.

On the travails of the civilians caught in the war, Mr. Krishna said: “While the armed conflict that ended last year impacted on all sections of this country, it did so disproportionately on the civilian population of the Northern Province, as innocent men, women and children were caught in the crossfire not of their own making.”

India tried to contribute whatever it could to alleviate the miseries of the people in the Northern Province with relief supplies in the initial stages and assistance to the Sri Lankan government in resettlement and rehabilitation of the nearly three lakh war displaced.

Mr. Krishna symbolically handed over the giant ignition key of a tractor to Basil Rajapaksa, Minister for Economic Development, at a ceremony in front of the Jaffna Library. This marked the Indian government handing over 500 Mahindra 575 D-1 tractors. The tractors would be placed at the Agricultural Services Centres in the north and hired out to farmers.

Mr. Krishna travelled to Ariyali, a settlement 12 km from Jaffna, to unveil a model home for the Internally Displaced Persons. As many as 50,000 such houses would be built in the north and the east.

The 547-sqft house was designed after consultations with the locals. “We realised that the people in this area do not like toilets attached to the house. So we made that alteration. Also, in the front portion, thinnai [pyol] is something that they wanted,” said Mr. Thiru Moorthy, when asked about the design of the houses.

Vanakkam, romba santhoshama irukku, said Mr. Krishna, breaking into Tamil, seeing an audience that was completely Tamil at the foundation stone laying ceremony. “This is the beginning of the housing project. You all should live happily and send your children to school,” he continued in Tamil.

Later in the day, the Minister inaugurated one phase of the work on rehabilitation of the Northern Railway at Madawachchi, over 50 km from Anuradhapura.

On reconstruction by India of transport infrastructure, Mr. Krishna said it would restore normal life, generate and support livelihood activities and also assist in restoring connectivity not only within the province but also with the rest of the country, thus promoting integration and reconciliation.

Local labour

Reconstruction of the Omanthai–Pallai and Medawachchiya–Talaimannar lines was being undertaken by IRCON. The organisation would also upgrade the Colombo-Matara coastal rail line. “The decision to use local labour came from the Minister himself. What is the point of a project that does not use any locals,” asked an MEA official.

In his speech at the Indian consulate in Jaffna, the Minister reiterated that the end of armed conflict provided Sri Lanka an unparalleled opportunity to address all outstanding issues in a spirit of understanding and mutual accommodation and to work towards genuine national reconciliation.

“We are convinced that a meaningful devolution package, building upon the 13th Amendment, would create the necessary conditions for a lasting political settlement. We hope that this process of dialogue and discussion would start soon with the participation of all communities. The ultimate goal is to live in dignity and peace,” Mr. Krishna said.

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