The discourse on fundamental issues concerning Sri Lankan Tamils continues to revolve around political settlement, the two key components of which are greater devolution of powers to provinces and the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces. These two aspects featured in the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka peace accord and continue to resonate with Tamil leaders of different political hues. R. Sampanthan, Leader of Opposition and Tamil National Alliance chief, and Suresh Preamachandran, leader of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front, are emphatic that the 1987 Accord remains valid. In their view, India was duty-bound to ensure full and proper implementation of some provisions of the agreement, which had been incorporated into the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. Their observations are pertinent given that Sri Lanka is contemplating drafting a new Constitution.
Days after these two Tamil leaders spoke publicly on this matter, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka’s Annual Report for 2017 was released. As in previous years, this report emphasised the poor contribution of the civil-war-hit Northern and Eastern provinces to the GDP of the country (4.2% and 5.7%, respectively). Sections of the middle class in these regions feel that it is time for the political leadership to highlight the need for economic development of the region. “Only when we increase our share, the Sinhalese leadership would realise that we have the necessary capacity and competence to handle greater powers that could be devolved through any political settlement,” says V. Niranjan, coordinator of the Jaffna Managers’ Forum, a civil society organisation.
Of late, New Delhi has not been stating its position publicly on the political settlement, except for calling for the strengthening of the 13th Amendment. However, it would be receptive to supporting plans for the region’s economic development.
In the last five years, despite the Northern province having a Tamil, C.V. Wigneswaran, as Chief Minister, no big initiative has been undertaken for economic engagement with India. The Northern Railway reconstruction project, leading to the revival of train services between Talaimannar and Colombo, and the construction of 46,000 houses in the North and East were both initiated when Mahinda Rajapaksa was President and the North had no elected Chief Minister.
Earlier this year, a bilateral pact was signed between India and Sri Lanka to rehabilitate the Kankesanthurai Harbour. The propose to modernise Palaly airport, near Jaffna, has not taken off as yet. By pitching for economic development of the North and the East through Indian involvement, the Tamil leadership may pave the way for realising Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s idea of an economic union between five southern States and Sri Lanka, which, if fructified, would have a combined GDP of over $500 billion.
The writer, a former Sri Lanka and Maldives correspondent, is with ‘The Hindu’ in Chennai