New Delhi: India and Sri Lanka on Friday signed four agreements to cement cooperation between the two neighbours, including a customs pact to balance trade, a credit line of more than $300 million, a currency swap agreement and visa on arrival for Sri Lankan nationals in India.
The pacts were signed in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who arrived in Colombo on Friday on the last leg of a three-nation tour of Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka.
Modi is the first Prime Minister to visit Sri Lanka on a bilateral visit since Rajiv Gandhi in 1987. He was given a warm welcome on his arrival by President Maithripala Sirisena, who was elected to office in January.
Sirisena ousted Mahinda Rajapakse, whose last years as president had seen strains develop in the India-Sri Lanka relationship given his perceived tilt towards India’s strategic and economic rival China.
Sirisena, since his election, has given several indications of wanting to restore the warmth that once existed in India-Sri Lanka relations—despatching foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera to New Delhi on 18 January, days after the new cabinet took office and himself visiting India in February on his first visit abroad.
In an address to the Sri Lankan parliament later in the day, Modi urged the new Sri Lankan government to “historic opportunity to win the hearts and heal the wounds across all sections of society”, a reference to bridging the divide between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority.
It was the sense of alienation and marginalization that triggered the Sri Lankan ethnic civil war in the early 1980s. The war came to and end in May 2009 with the death of rebel Tamil Tiger chief Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Diversity, Modi said, can be a source of strength for nations. “When we accommodate the aspirations of all sections of our society, the nation gets the strength of every individual,” he said.
Modi, whose foreign policy has been dominated by the neighbourhood-first approach, outlined his vision for the region in the speech stating that “the future of any country is influenced by the state of its neighbourhood”.
India’s economic growth had picked up with the world looking towards India as “the new frontier of economic opportunity”, the Prime Minister said. “Our neighbours should have the first claim on India. I will be happy if India serves as a catalyst in the progress of our neighbours. In our region, Sri Lanka has the potential to be our strongest economic partner. We will work with you to address your concerns to boost trade and make it more balanced.”
Noting that economic ties were a key pillar of the India-Sri Lanka relationship, Modi said earlier Friday that the pact between customs authorities of the two countries “will simplify trade and reduce non-tariff barriers on both sides.
“We are not just looking at addressing problems. We are also focusing on new opportunities,” he said ahead of announcing a new line of credit of $318 million for Sri Lankan railways.
In a another important step, the Reserve Bank of India and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka have agreed to enter into a currency swap agreement of $1.5 billion—a move to keep the Sri Lankan rupee stable, Modi said. The pact assumes significance as the Sri Lankan rupee has been under pressure for quite some time, the Press Trust of India news agency reported. Despite attempts made by the central bank, the currency has been losing value since the beginning of this year. At the current valuation, one Indian rupee is equivalent to 2.12 Sri Lankan rupees, PTI said.
In the area of energy cooperation, Indian Oil Corp. Ltd’s Sri Lankan subsidiary, Lanka IOC Plc. and Ceylon Petroleum Corp. have agreed to jointly develop the upper tank farm of the China Bay installation in Trincomalee on mutually agreed terms, Modi said adding that a joint task force would be constituted “soon” to work out modalities.
“India stands ready to help Trincomalee become a regional petroleum hub,” Modi said. This is a departure from the Rajapakse government’s position of threatening to take back 99 oil storage tanks leased by Lanka IOC more than a year ago.
The China Bay Tank farm has 99 storage tanks with a capacity of 12,000 kilolitres each. Only 15 of these tanks are operational.
“I also look forward to early commencement of work on the ground in the Sampur coal power project. This landmark project would meet Sri Lanka’s energy needs,” Modi said. The coal plant is a joint venture project between the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and NTPC Ltd of India.
Modi, in his speech, spoke of setting up a joint task force on Ocean Economy which he described as a “new frontier that holds enormous promise for both” India and Sri Lanka.
To improve people-to-people ties, Modi said India had extended the facility of tourist visa on arrival facility to Sri Lankans starting from 14 April.
Air India will soon start direct flights between New Delhi and Colombo, Modi said adding that tourism circuits would be developed along the Ramayana Trail in Sri Lanka and a Buddhist pilgrimage circuit in India.