India and Sri Lanka have a lot to learn from each other, says envoy Milinda Moragoda

I hope we can build strategic projects in ports, oil and gas etc., says Sri Lankan High Commissioner

Updated - October 02, 2021 11:36 am IST

Published - October 01, 2021 09:55 pm IST

Sri Lankan High Commissioner Milinda Moragoda during an interview in New Delhi on October 1, 2021.

Sri Lankan High Commissioner Milinda Moragoda during an interview in New Delhi on October 1, 2021.

After several months of strain in India-Sri Lanka ties, and the COVID lockdown, the visit by Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla to Colombo on Saturday is being seen as an effort to reset ties. In an exclusive interview, Sri Lankan High Commissioner Milinda Moragoda says the visit will see a full review of bilateral projects and proposals in the area of ports, oil, energy and digital technology .

In the integrated country strategy for India that you presented to your government before you came to Delhi, you spoke of a “growing trust deficit” between India and Sri Lanka. What is the primary cause of it?

Our relationship is civilisational, that dates from Buddha and Rama and our relationship is defined by those two aspects. In the context of the trust deficits, I think from time to time, these things happen. Just like in the 1980s, there was a perception that Sri Lanka was close to the U.S. and now the perception is that we are there with China. Our PM Mahinda Rajapaksa says that India and Sri Lanka are like brothers and sisters, and therefore, there can be misunderstandings, there can be wrong perceptions. But those are things we discuss with each other, and as long as we don't always look at every little episode as a huge issue, we can resolve these [perceptions].

Do you think that the decision to scrap the India-Japan MoU on the East Coast terminal in 2020 has damaged India- Sri Lanka relations perceptibly?

I don’t think it has damaged… I mean, the basic reality is we are a democracy and we are a South Asian democracy… if it was a dictatorship, the ECT could have been given by simply issuing an order, but as there was resistance to that particular terminal being handed over, the government offered another Terminal, the West Coast Terminal, for which the agreement was signed yesterday by the Adani group. And from a commercial point of view, we expect a doubling of our capacity in Colombo harbour, between the two ports in the next five years or so, most of which — about 80% — is trans-shipment to India.

Sri Lanka’s track record has not been good – apart from the ECT, the government has backtracked on the Trincomalee oil tank farms project, Mattala airport. There is a sense in India that Sri Lanka is hesitant to go ahead with projects promised to India…

I think that is wrong. I mean, the Adani port is one where from the moment President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced the decision for the WCT, it was a matter of months. In fact that the deal was signed one month earlier than it was due to be signed, it was actually ready to be signed early November. I hope that we can build such strategic projects in ports, oil and gas, renewable energy with a common grid and the digital area. One area we are looking at seriously is India’s Aadhar card project. We will move sometimes one step back, sometimes three steps forward. That's how it works.

In your integrated country strategy, there is little mention on the Tamil reconciliation process. Does that mean that you believe India no longer has a role in the resolution of Sri Lanka's problems in the north?

We said in the strategy that the two countries could learn from each other when it comes to democracy and diversity, because we have a lot to learn from each other. There is there's no question about saying India has no role. In the context of the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka, I feel we should think afresh. In Sri Lanka the way we are divided, we are a highly polarised society.

We are polarised on party lines, on ethnic lines, on religious lines, on language lines. And that reconciliation has to be across the board because the trauma has been across the country. I think we need to give President Gotabaya the opportunity to implement what he was elected for. [India-Sri Lanka] need to talk about it, we should engage each other. But finally, the solution we have to find out on our own. With [India’s] support.

Prime Minister Modi announced very recently that India will restart its exports of vaccines that had been suddenly stopped after the second wave here. Is Sri Lanka hopeful of getting some of those vaccines?

We will obviously appreciate it if vaccines are available. Our vaccination programme is going quite smoothly so far. We would like it if India does start re exporting but we have been able to, I think, manage [the vaccine situation] here.

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