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NEW DELHI : Assessing possible ways to help Sri Lanka in its post covid-19 economic recovery and taking stock of the status of Indian development projects are two of the main issues on the agenda of foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla who began his visit to the island nation of Sunday.

This is Shringla’s first visit to Sri Lanka—seen as a key neighbor of India—though ties have been buffeted by irritants in recent months on the back of Sri Lanka being seen as growing closer to India’s strategic rival China.

In the face of this, Shringla’s visit is seen as a signal of India’s willingness to reach out to Sri Lanka and put ties back on an even keel. On Sunday, Shringla began his visit with a trip to the central district of Kandy. He then toured the eastern port district of Trincomalee and the northern city of Jaffna. Northern and eastern Sri Lanka are places where the country’s Tamil minority mainly lives. On Monday, he will return to Colombo for meetings with Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, foreign minister Prof. GL Peiris and other key leaders.

Given that Sri Lanka has been one countries whose economy has taken a major hit due to the covid-19 pandemic, Shringla’s visit is aimed at gaining a firsthand assessment of the needs of the country and how India could help, a person familiar with the matter said.

“Sri Lanka’s economy contracted by 3.6 percent in 2020, the worst growth performance on record, as is the case in many countries fighting the pandemic," a World Bank report in June 2021 said. “Swift measures enacted by the government in the second quarter (of 2020) helped contain the first wave of Coronavirus (covid-19) successfully, but these measures hit sectors like tourism, construction, and transport especially hard, while collapsing global demand impacted the textile industry. Job and earning losses disrupted private consumption and uncertainty impeded investment," the World Bank report said.

Prior to the pandemic, the Sri Lankan economy had borne the brunt of the Easter Sunday terror attacks of 2019, “which also had significant effects on economic growth, especially on tourism," an Asian Development Bank report said earlier this year predicting that the “path to recovery will be challenging, given uncertainties in the global economic outlook and the fiscal constraints that Sri Lanka faces."

During a visit to Sri Lanka in January, Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar and his counterpart had held talks on cooperation in reviving economic activity in areas such as energy, infrastructure and connectivity, besides pharmaceutical manufacturing and tourism. New Delhi had also sent in vaccines for Sri Lanka but with the second wave of the pandemic hitting India in April-May, New Delhi turned its focus on domestic requirements of vaccines and Colombo turned to China for vaccine doses.

Ties were also hit by Sri Lanka going back on an agreement earlier this year to allow India and Japan to build and operate the East Container Terminal at the Colombo Port – seen as having occurred due to protests from Sri Lankan workers’ trade unions with tacit Chinese support. This month, India’s Adani group signed a pact with Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) to build a brand-new terminal next to the $500-million Chinese-run jetty at the Colombo port. Under the terms of the pact, Adani is to form a partnership with a local conglomerate, John Keells, and the Sri Lankan government-owned SLPA.

According to an Indian foreign ministry statement, Shringla’s visit “will contribute towards the long-standing multi-faceted relations and enhance bilateral partnership between the two countries."

Almost coinciding with Shringla’s visit, New Delhi announced that India and Sri Lanka would carry out a 12-day military exercise from Monday with a focus on enhancing counter-terrorism cooperation. Codenamed “Mitra Shakti" the exercise will be conducted at the Combat Training School in Sri Lanka's Ampara district from Monday, the Indian defence ministry said on Saturday.

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