More talks needed between India-SL provincial leaders: Consul General of Lanka in Mumbai, India
Sri Lankan Consul General in Mumbai Ambassador Dr Valsan called for more communication between provincial politicians in India and Sri Lanka, which “will correct a lot of misperceptions”.
Speaking to Sidhant Sibal from WION, Ambassador Dr. Valsan said, “We have a healthy channel of communication between senior leadership and relevant institutions in India and Sri Lanka … I believe that in Apart from traditional areas of connectivity, an important area that needs improvement is political connectivity at the provincial level.
India and Sri Lanka have had many high-level engagements, including the recent visit of Indian Foreign Minister Harsh Shringla to the country. Sri Lanka is likely to host the BIMSTEC summit later this year, and if that happens in person, the Indian prime minister is expected to visit the country.
The Sri Lankan diplomat also raised the possibility of connecting the Ramayana trail between India and Sri Lanka. “If we can connect this Ramayana trail, with the India and Sri Lanka trail, it will improve connectivity between these two nations,” he said.
WION: How do you see the links between India and Sri Lanka? What can be done to further increase the interaction in the already substantial relationship?
Ambassador Dr Valsan: From Sri Lanka’s perspective, we think it’s a great relationship; there must be a great relationship because it is over 2,400 years old and over time has built on common cultural and historical ties. In fact, Buddhism is the greatest bond given to us by India.
More than anything else, in contemporary times, there is a strong Indian footprint in foreign direct investment in Sri Lanka, and our two-way trade is around $ 4.5 billion per year, of which 84% is of Indian exports to Sri Lanka. In tourism, the largest arrivals are from India, accounting for about 450,000 tourists, or about 18% of total tourist arrivals. About 10 percent of our GDP comes from tourism.
Many Sri Lankan students study at Indian universities, some with scholarships and some without. A large number of Sri Lankan soldiers are trained in India. It is the dream of every Buddhist in Sri Lanka to pay homage at least once in their life at places of pilgrimage in India.
In an emergency like the 2004 tsunami and the Covid pandemic, India was on our doorstep with help and a large community of Indian descent has lived in Sri Lanka for many generations and this also includes my family. Apart from that, there are 14-15,000 Indian expats related to various activities who live happily in Sri Lanka. I can go on and on, but it shows that we have all of the positive elements of a relationship, be it cultural, civilizational, economic, or even geostrategic – we have all the elements intact.
So it has to be a great relationship and for that reason we have Indian policy first, when it comes to our foreign policy formulation. However, that doesn’t mean our relationship is problem free. There are problems, there is another dimension to the relationship, and that is the transactional relationship. Whenever there is a transactional relationship, it will have its own issues in our case – it has been happening since the 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan agreement under special circumstances. Yet we are dealing with these issues and moving forward.
Fortunately, we have a healthy channel of communication between senior leaders and relevant institutions in India and Sri Lanka. Any bilateral relationship is constantly evolving and it depends on various factors, including geostrategic. Personally, I think that aside from the traditional areas of connectivity, an important area that needs to be improved is political connectivity at the provincial level. At present, it is mainly limited to political connectivity in Delhi and Colombo due to protocol constraints, especially in India. Because of this, the relationship very often becomes vulnerable to local and perceptual issues at the provincial level. As much as possible, the relationship should be based on broad-based connectivity respecting individual sovereignty, integrity and self-respect rather than formal agreements. Formal agreements are always vulnerable to perception issues. Since India is too big and powerful, I feel that India should be asymmetrical in its attitude towards Sri Lanka rather than basing its relationship on reciprocity. So asymmetry is the name of the game.
WION: How can Mumbai be a launching pad for Sri Lankan investments in India and vice versa?
Ambassador Dr Valsan: Right now there is a lot of Indian investment in Sri Lanka – a big footprint. Already there is economic activity between Sri Lanka and Mumbai. Most of the companies invested in Sri Lanka are based in Mumbai eg Primal Glass, CEAT, TATA, ITC, Ultra Tech Cement, Mahindra & Mahindra and more. The footprint is very large. Today, the Adani group has also invested 700 million dollars in the port of Colombo. However, there are other opportunities, we have opened three zones, one is 400 acres of land exclusively for pharma around Hambantota port and a great opportunity for Indian investment, 300 acres of exclusive zone for textiles , and Mumbai being the textile and pharmaceutical city, these two areas are something Indian investors should explore. The third area is urban development projects because all over Sri Lanka we are in the process of restoring all heritage buildings and coming up with many infrastructure projects and I’m sure Indian investors can look into these areas.
WION: What about connectivity?
Ambassador Dr Valsan: Connectivity, from now on, widespread connectivity at the traditional level, person-to-person, like I said, needs to improve a bit. Connectivity should be a lot at the political level, for example, for people like us based in Mumbai and Chennai there are a lot of protocol constraints. So, I think communication should be at the political level; provincial politicians from India and Sri Lanka must talk and meet. In this way, a lot of problems and misperceptions can be sorted out.
WION: Regarding tourism, how do you plan to increase Indian tourism especially from Mumbai, Maharashtra and this part of India?
Ambassador Dr Valsan: From Sir Lanka’s point of view, we have a lot of plans. Besides traditional tourism, from Mumbai, we thought we would focus on two aspects. One is the Ramayana Trail, if you look at Valmiki Ramayana over 50 percent of the Ramayana has occurred in Sri Lanka and we have identified so many places that are related to the Ramayana. I’m not saying these are historically or archaeologically true, but these are the beliefs of the people. These are based on the legends of the local people. So this is an area that we thought to explore and we thought we would be in contact with Hindu cultural organizations here and some of those institutions. We will present our case on the Ramayana Trail. I spoke to my high commissioner, even in India the central government has the Ramayana corridor. So if we can connect this Ramayana trail, with the India and Sri Lanka trail, it will improve the connectivity between these two nations. It is an area. The second area is the Buddhist path which has many similarities. Even in India, there is a lot of interest in promoting Buddhist sites, which will be very well received by Sri Lankan Buddhists. As I said, each of the Buddhists looks forward to coming to visit sites in India, areas related to the life of Buddha. From our perspective, I thought, we will try to connect areas of Maharashtra to our heritage sites in Sri Lanka. We will give care.
WION: Since Organic Fertilizer from India has passed laboratory tests and you are considering to facilitate its sourcing from India. Something on this?
Ambassador Dr Valsan: Of course yes, we will definitely buy from India and this is one of the reasons we did the lab test. Our Minister of State for Agriculture has already announced that we have a huge procurement plan in India, but you know, the nuts and bolts of procurement, too early for me to talk about. Normally, this decision is taken at the government level, if the government asks us to intervene or facilitate things, the mission will be involved.