It was gratifying to read the Sunday Times editorial of February 23, 2014 which referred to the Report of the Indo-Sri Lanka Study Group, established under a joint initiative of the Pathfinder Foundation (PF) and Manipal Global Education (MaGE) of India. As the editorial indicated, this Group comprised senior diplomats, academics, service personnel and economists. [...]


Sunday Times 2

Resetting Indo-Lanka relations


It was gratifying to read the Sunday Times editorial of February 23, 2014 which referred to the Report of the Indo-Sri Lanka Study Group, established under a joint initiative of the Pathfinder Foundation (PF) and Manipal Global Education (MaGE) of India. As the editorial indicated, this Group comprised senior diplomats, academics, service personnel and economists. Their Report was handed over to Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President, Sri Lanka and Shiv Shankar Menon, National Security Advisor, India, in early January 2013. The Study Group urged both governments to pay urgent attention to the implementation of the recommendations contained in their report.

The Sunday Times editorial was timely in the lead-up to the Sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, next month. While tensions currently exist in the bilateral relations between the two countries, it is important that a concerted effort is made by both parties to restore the relationship to one of “irreversible excellence”, as cited in the editorial and ascribed to a former Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka. Geography and geopolitics deem this would be advantageous for both Sri Lanka and India. The relationship between the two countries is multifaceted and offers considerable scope for significant expansion and rapid improvement in the coming years. As the Sunday Times editorial indicated, the PF/MaGE joint exercise was conceived as a discreet and informal dialogue process to explore jointly ways and means of strengthening bilateral relations through innovative recommendations which complement official efforts to this end.

In this connection, it would be useful to elaborate upon the recommendations of the Study Group, which were well summarised in the Sunday Times editorial. Their Report emphasised that casting aside mutual suspicions and apprehensions of each other’s motives, the two countries need to work together to lay a firm foundation for closer and mutually beneficial cooperation in many fields, including security, trade, investment, education, health and culture.

It is likely that irritants will surface in the bilateral relationship from time-to-time. This is inevitable between two countries located so close to each other but are asymmetrical in many aspects. In this connection, the Report recommends a structured, systematic and continuous dialogue, based on mutual respect and sovereign equality between the two governments, to deal with issues that arise from time-to-time and remove any potential irritants.

The Study Group Report acknowledged that the impact of the ethnic issues on bilateral relations must be addressed with sensitivity by both sides to ensure that the larger national interests of the two countries are not prejudiced. In this context, the Report recognised the importance of a well-structured process of reconciliation with strong political support from all stakeholders, while giving effect to bilateral understandings and commitments. The Study Group also encouraged all concerned, particularly the political parties, including the minority parties and the Opposition in Sri Lanka, to re-position themselves in relation to the post-LTTE realities [by committing to effective devolution to the grassroots level and initiating a structured dialogue within a specified period of time]. Effective and expeditious implementation of the LLRC Report, particularly those relating to post-conflict reconciliation, was also encouraged. In addition, the Group was also of the view that both countries should refrain from raising in multilateral fora issues which would be better dealt with at the bilateral level.

On strategic issues, the Study Group recommended the strengthening of existing institutional mechanisms which have been established to address different aspects of the bilateral relationship. In this connection, mutual consultative arrangements for combating terrorism, trafficking in narcotics, people smuggling and other forms of transnational crime should be strengthened; while regular intelligence-sharing on all issues of common concern should be arranged. The cooperation and dialogue on the Delimitation of the Continental Shelf between the two countries in the Bay of Bengal and the specific method used in establishing the outer edge of the Continental Basin in the Southern part of the Bay of Bengal should be continued.

The Study Group Report has an important annexure on the sustainable management of fisheries and other marine resources of the Palk Bay, including the establishment of a joint mechanism for this purpose. It provides a framework for addressing this sensitive issue in a balanced and humane manner. Fisheries continue to be a major irritant in Indo-Sri Lanka relations. The Study Group made recommendations in this annexure which should receive the urgent attention of the two governments.

The Study Group Report also highlighted the considerable potential that exists for expanding economic relations. In this connection, it called for a Vision and Road Map 2035 for economic relations to be prepared in consultation with the corporate sector, academia, think-tanks and strategic communities. In the short-term, the Report attached priority to the following: building on the success of the FTA, including promoting greater understanding of the issues contained in the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA); exploring ways of expanding two-way investment flows; assisting Sri Lankan enterprises to plug into Indian supply chains; mitigating global financial risks through arrangements between the two Central Banks; promoting tourism; increasing connectivity through further liberalization of air and maritime services; cooperating on energy security; supporting vocational training and skills development; providing further assistance for reconstruction and development in the North and East of Sri Lanka; and paying greater attention to the socioeconomic needs of the people of Indian origin in the estate sector.

The civilisational links between the two countries that span millennia provide a platform for improving bilateral relations through stronger people-to-people contacts. The Report urged the following: streamlining scholarship schemes; providing affordable reprints of text books on technical subjects from India; making available teachers from India to meet any temporary shortages for teachers of English and Tamil; encouraging greater contacts between think-tanks in the two countries; exploring the feasibility of establishing a reputable Indian Institute for Technology (IIT) in Sri Lanka; increasing cooperation between the respective University Grants Commissions; promoting visits by school children to places of historical and cultural interest in each other’s countries; increasing sporting contacts, particularly among youth; encouraging two way flows of artistes and creative people; promoting greater flow of media personnel between the two countries and arranging training and exposure for Sri Lankan journalists in Indian media institutions.
The members of the Study Group believe that implementing these multifaceted recommendations would serve to build mutual confidence which would enhance trust, cooperation and understanding in all areas of the bilateral relationship.

The PF is in the process of working with Indian interlocutors to establish an ongoing track-II dialogue as a follow-up to the Study Group.

The Pathfinder Foundation: Members of the teams

The members of the Sri Lankan team: Bernard Goonetilleke – former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs (leader); Nihal Rodrigo – former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs; H. M. G. S. Palihakkara – former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs; Rohan Perera – former Legal Advisor, Ministry of External Affairs; Indrajit Coomaraswamy – Economist; Valsan Vethody – former Diplomat/Businessman.
The members of the Indian team: P.K.H. Tharakan – former Indian Police Service; A. Gopinathan – former Indian Foreign Service; Vijay Singh – former Secretary, Defence; General Deepak Kapoor – former Commander, Indian Army; V. Suryanarayanan – Academic.

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