Eyes in ocean, unique ID, culture ties: India, Lanka seal pacts beyond aid

DAYS AFTER finalising an agreement for Indian Dornier aircraft for the Sri Lankan Air Force, Delhi and Colombo are stepping up their cooperation in the Indian Ocean with a Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) to be set up by Bharat Electronics Ltd at the Sri Lankan Naval Headquarters in Colombo.

The Memorandum of Understanding for MRCC is among the host of agreements signed in the Sri Lankan capital Monday during the visit of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, who met Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa.

Another MoU is for India to set up a hybrid solar and wind farm in the three islands off Jaffna, where Sri Lanka cancelled a similar Chinese project after Delhi objected to it on security grounds. The islands are very close to Rameswaram on the Tamil Nadu coastline.

Jaishankar also inaugurated a cultural centre in Jaffna, to be run by the local municipality. Conceived as a “reconciliation” project, it has been built with Indian financial assistance. India will also provide a grant of $15 million for the maintenance of Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka. Another agreement is for collaboration between the Sushma Swaraj Institute of Foreign Service and the Colombo-based Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute.

Under the terms of the MRCC agreement, a maritime rescue sub-centre will come up at Hambantota, where the Chinese state-owned shipping and logistics company, China Merchants Port Holdings, runs the second largest Sri Lankan port after Colombo.

BEL will set up an MRCC network of seven sub-units in naval bases along the entire Sri Lankan coast: Galle in the south, Argum Bay, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Kallawa on the eastern coast, and Mullikulam and Point Pedro in the north. This will, crucially, give India eyes in a part of the Indian Ocean where it has no presence.

The MRCC network is meant to give Sri Lanka’s present search and rescue operations more capacity and depth, and improve direct communications in case India’s help is required. Last year, the Indian Coast Guard helped out with two ships that went up in flames in Sri Lankan waters.

Earlier this month, during the visit of Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, the two sides finalised an agreement under which India is to provide three Dornier aircraft to the SLAF. During the same visit, Sri Lanka also accepted from India the gift of a 4,000-m floating dock for its Navy.

The two countries, along with the Maldives, and the recently added Mauritius, are also in the Colombo Security Conclave, which envisages close cooperation on maritime security to combat smuggling, terrorism, drug trafficking, and illegal fishing and poaching.

Jaishankar is on a visit to Colombo for the ministerial meet of the BIMSTEC regional grouping whose other members are Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka. As the chair, Sri Lanka hosts the summit March 30.

But the visit has included a substantial bilateral component, coming as it does amid India’s involvement in assisting Sri Lanka during an unprecedented economic crisis.

Delhi has provided a $2.4-bn package of financial assistance in February and March. It is also appointing experts to assist Sri Lanka’s economic recovery, and for various joint projects. The Indian Express has learnt that Colombo has reached out to New Delhi for an additional $1-billion assistance, over and above the $1-billion line of credit announced March 17.

Jaishankar also visited the office of Indian I-T major HCL Technologies with Lanka’s Youth and Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa, who is the PM’s son. HCL Technologies commenced operations in Sri Lanka in 2020 after it joined hands with the Board of Investment (BOI) of Sri Lanka.

Jaishankar and Peiris also witnessed the signing of an MoU on implementation of the Sri Lanka Unique Digital Identity (SL-UDI) programme with India’s grant assistance. This will be modelled on India’s Aadhaar. Another MoU signed on Monday was for the establishment of computer labs in 200 schools in Galle district.

Jaishankar also met a group of Sri Lankan Tamil leaders. Last Friday, President Rajapaksa had met with Tamil MPs for the first time since the 2020 parliamentary elections. There were no discussions at the two-hour meeting on the political question of devolution to the North and East.

Rajapaksa announced a development fund for the Tamil majority region and a statement from the President’s office said he had briefed MPs, all from the Tamil National Alliance, on several issues including the release of suspects, the launch of a “truth-finding mechanism,” and “resolving of issues related to missing persons.”

The meeting was scheduled twice before in the last two years but was cancelled both times. The TNA recently wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking India to get Rajapaksa to implement the 13th amendment for political devolution to the provinces, a constitutional provision inserted on India’s insistence in 1987.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button