There is an “urgent need” to understand the “weaknesses and strengths” of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution and “act accordingly”, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Tuesday told Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, while expressing a desire to revive the spirit of the relations of the 1960s and 1970s.
Mr. Shringla called on the President on Tuesday morning, before wrapping up his official visit. In addition to underscoring the need to expedite bilateral projects, the Foreign Secretary, in his meeting with President Rajapaksa on the final day of his visit, reiterated India’s position “on complete implementation of the provisions under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, including devolution of powers and the holding of provincial council elections at the earliest”, the Indian mission said in a statement, referring to the nearly 34-year-old legislation that remains contentious in Sri Lanka.
Both countries agreed on the need for “short-term and long-term steps” to take relations to “a higher level”, the President’s office said adding that President Rajapaksa is expecting India’s support in advancing the 1971 proposal made by then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike to declare the Indian Ocean a peace zone.
According to official sources in Colombo familiar with the Foreign Secretary’s discussions over the last few days, the Indian official had raised concern over maritime security in the region, particularly in the wake of Sri Lankan authorities recently apprehending massive hauls of narcotics that India suspects came from a “regional drug mafia”. “Any threat to Sri Lanka’s peace and security is a threat to the region and Sri Lanka must not become a conduit,” the Indian side is said to have conveyed.
The President’s remarks on elevating ties come after considerable strain in relations over Colombo’s unilateral move earlier this year, cancelling a trilateral Port terminal project agreement signed with India and Japan in 2019; and New Delhi’s persisting concern over the “slow pace” of India-backed development projects amid China’s increasing presence in Sri Lanka’s economic and developmental spheres.
However, last week, the Adani Group obtained 51% stake in a deal signed with Sri Lanka’s John Keells Holdings and the Sri Lanka Port Authority, to jointly develop the West Container Terminal at the Colombo Port, offered as a “compromise” to India.
Thrust on energy
According to official sources, both sides identified areas of greater collaboration in the energy sector. The development of the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm at the eastern tip of the island nation was a key point of discussion, sources indicated, with Colombo expressing willingness to iron out differences. The statement from President Rajapaksa’s office said the Minister of Energy has been “entrusted with the task of resolving the situation” regarding the Trincomalee oil tanks in a manner that is “beneficial to both countries”.
“The subject Minister is likely to travel to New Delhi soon,” an official source said, requesting anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the ongoing negotiations. India has been linked to the project for over three decades now, but the proposal for India and Sri Lanka to jointly refurbish and commission the World War II-era oil storage facility has only hit roadblocks, with worker unions and nationalist groups periodically opposing any Indian involvement in a strategic national asset.
To keep the conversation going and firm up proposals, New Delhi will likely host at least four top Ministers from Colombo soon, officials told The Hindu.
Mr. Shringla’s visit, an official source observed, was mainly to ‘sensitise’ Sri Lankan interlocutors about the need for “greater focus” on bilateral relations. Sri Lanka has ‘reassured India, a top official said.