Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

Private: India-Srilanka Fisherman issue

2 days back, an article in Hindu caught our eyes. It was – “Indian trawlers are back, say Sri Lanka’s fishermen”. This is not a new issue, in fact, this news piece has it’s own way of making it back to the headlines again and again.

The conflict has also strained both countries’ bilateral ties, with talks at the highest levels and among fisher leaders on both sides proving futile for years.

So, today let us look at this news from a holistic point of view, through this edition of Burning Issue.

  • Indian boats have been fishing in the troubled waters for centuries and had a free run of the Bay of Bengal, the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar until 1974 and 1976 when treaties were signed between the two countries to demarcate the maritime boundary — the ‘International Maritime Boundary Line'(IMBL).
  • However, the treaties failed to factor in the hardship of thousands of traditional Indian fishermen who were forced to restrict themselves to a meager area in their fishing forays.
  • The small islet of Katchatheevu, hitherto used by them for sorting their catch and drying their nets, fell on the Lankan side of the IMBL.
  • Fishermen often risk their lives and cross the IMBL rather than return empty-handed, but the Sri Lankan Navy is on alert, and have either arrested or destroyed fishing nets and vessels of those who have crossed the line.

The Palk Bay

Historically, the shallow waters of the Palk Bay and geographical contiguity between India and Sri Lanka facilitated the movement of ideas, goods, and men.

  • The Palk Bay, a narrow strip of water separating the state of Tamil Nadu in India from the Northern Province of Sri Lanka.
  • The bay, which is 137 km in length and varies from 64 to 137 kilometers in width, is divided by the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL).
  • Bordering it are five Indian districts and three Sri Lankan districts.

Its significance

  • The bonds of ethnicity, language, and religion helped fishermen lead the lives of harmonious coexistence for several centuries.
  • Frequent migrations between India and Sri Lanka through the Palk Bay took place. Intermarriages were common.
  • However, over the last several decades, internal and bilateral relations have suffered from a range of issues from coastal insecurity to overfishing.

End of the civil war

  • The region has become a highly contested site in recent decades, with the conflict taking on a new dimension since the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2009.
  • Now the livelihood of Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen was at stake, thus, the Sri Lankan navy expanded and become more vigilant.
  • In India, the fisheries dispute chiefly began with an internal debate about sovereignty related to the ceding of the island of Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka.
  • The problem got exacerbated by the tension between fishermen practicing traditional fishing and those using trawlers.

What are the issues here?

The various dimensions of the fishermen issue between India and Sri Lanka can be encapsulated as follows:

1) Issue over Sovereignty

  • The maritime boundary agreements of 1974 and 1976 delimited international boundaries in the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar and Bay of Bengal, respectively.
  • They were concluded by the two governments in the name of good neighbourly relations, but they did not reflect realities on the ground because the people concerned, namely fishermen, were not consulted.
  • The principle of national sovereignty underpinned both agreements.
  • A close personal relationship between both prime ministers, Indira Gandhi and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, facilitated the successful conclusion.
  • However, from the perspective of Tamil Nadu, the ceding of the island of Katchatheevu in the Palk Bay to Sri Lanka was a grave mistake.

2) Poaching and Trawling

  • Fueling the dispute over Katchatheevu is the overuse of mechanized trawlers in the Palk Bay, the damaging environmental and economic effects of trawling.
  • To increase productivity and boost exports, the government of India embarked on a radical transformation of fishing techniques. The result was the introduction of trawlers.
  • Quick returns from prawns attracted many from non-fishing communities to invest in this profitable venture. As a result, numerous fishermen became wage labourers.
  • Trawlers have since been referred to as the “hoovers of the shelf bottom” and “bulldozers mowing down fish and other benthic species.
  • After their introduction, the Indian side of the Palk Bay quickly became devoid of fish.

3) Tougher laws

  • After some respite in the last couple of years, Sri Lanka introduced tougher laws banning bottom-trawling and put heavy fines for trespassing foreign vessels.
  • Crossing the IMBL poses a greater threat as Sri Lanka has amended its Foreign Fisheries Boats Regulation Act to increase the fine on Indian vessels found fishing in Sri Lankan waters to a minimum of LKR 6 million (about ₹25 lakh) and a maximum of LKR 175 million (about ₹17.5 Crore).

4) Fisherman’s concerns

  • There is a depletion of fisheries on the Indian side, so Indian fishermen cross into Sri Lankan waters thus denying the livelihood of their counterparts.
  • They deliberately cross the territorial waters even at the risk of getting arrested or shot dead by the Sri Lankan Navy.
  • Sri Lankan fishermen across Palk Bay are concerned over similar depletion on their side (where there is a ban for trawlers) because of poaching by their brethren from Tamil Nadu.
  • Apart from enforcing the trawler ban, the Sri Lankan Navy has also stepped up the monitoring of coasts, especially those that are proximate to India. The idea is to prevent any movement of remnant militants back into the island.

Implications on the fishermen

  • The ongoing dispute has escalated tensions between those fishermen using traditional methods and those using mechanized methods, as well as increased the infringement of territorial boundaries.
  • According to the government of Tamil Nadu, the sufferings of Indian Tamil fishermen is a direct consequence of ceding Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka and sacrificing the traditional fishing rights enjoyed by Indian fishermen.
  • In a defiant speech on August 15, 1991, Jayalalitha called on the people of Tamil Nadu to retrieve the island.

Averting a Crisis

  • The underlying issues of the fisheries dispute need to be addressed, so that relations between fishermen and their governments, between Tamil Nadu and New Delhi, and between Tamil Nadu and Colombo do not reach a crisis point.
  • Immediate actions should be taken to begin the phase-out of trawling and identify other fishing practices.
  • Katchatheevu Issue: The unilateral abrogation of the maritime boundary agreement on India’s part would cause irreparable damage to India’s image. Need to stay away from politics here.

Alternative solutions

  • Leasing: Two courses of action exist: (1) get back the island of Katchatheevu on “lease in perpetuity” or (2) permit licensed Indian fishermen to fish within a designated area of Sri Lankan waters and vice versa.
  • Licensing: The second course of action would persuade Colombo to permit licensed Indian fishermen to fish in Sri Lankan waters for five nautical miles from the IMBL.
  • There is precedent in the 1976 boundary agreement, which allowed licensed Sri Lankan fishermen to fish in the Wadge Bank (a fertile fishing ground located near Kanyakumari) for a period of three years.
  • Reconsidering old agreements: A window of opportunity opened at the end of India–Sri Lanka foreign secretary consultations in July 2003, when the Sri Lankan government agreed for the first time to consider proposals for licensed fishing. This can be revisited.

Looping in fishermen themselves

  • Though the idea of meetings among fishermen was conceptualized way back in 2003, it was not pursued seriously.
  • Arranging frequent meetings between fishing communities of both countries could be systematized so as to develop a friendlier atmosphere mid-seas during fishing.
  • Starting ferry services between India and Sri Lanka can improve people to people linkages. Mutual recognition of each other’s concerns and interests can improve the relationship between both countries.
  • Media personnel can be invited to witness those practical issues confronted by the fishermen in each country. This would make a qualitative difference in reporting.

Way Forward

  • Action should be taken immediately to end the use of mechanized trawlers within one year, and the government should implement a buy-back arrangement as soon as possible.
  • Through incentives and persuasion, fishermen from the Palk Bay could be encouraged to switch over to deep-sea fishing in the Indian exclusive economic zone and in international waters.
  • Social security reforms for the fishermen community is necessary to empower them.
  • Diversification of livelihood options of fishermen.
  • Improving the fishing industry by itself like there is huge untapped potential for processed foods which will not only boost infrastructure in this sector but also reduce wastages.


The success of diplomacy lies in converting a crisis into an opportunity. If New Delhi and Tamil Nadu are determined, they can create a win-win scenario in the Palk Bay.

Overall, if the fishermen issue is not approached holistically, the marine frontiers between India and Sri Lanka will remain fishy and troubled. Ultimately, India must view the Palk Bay region as a common heritage of the two countries and project this vision.




Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

Keeping the southern neighbour engaged


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much

Mains level : Paper 2- India-Sri Lanka relations, issues involved-Tamil minority, Chinese growing influence etc.


During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s India visit, New Delhi is likely to talk to Colombo on the Tamil issue and counterbalance Beijing’s influence in the Indian Ocean.

Background of the current politics in Sri Lanka

  • Sri Lankan Prime Minister official visit to India is taking place a few months after he assumed office and his brother was sworn in as president
  • Nationalist wave after attacks: The brothers were voted to the office on a Sinhala nationalist wave, a sentiment that is a fallout of the Easter attacks on Christian shrines, including the Saint Anthony’s shrine, in April last year.
    • The attacks had killed more than 250 people, six months before the elections.
    • The polarisation worked in favour of the Rajapaksas vis-à-vis Sri Lanka’s 10 per cent Muslim population, mostly Tamils, who are especially numerous on the country’s east coast.

Tamil issue in Sri Lanka

  • No engagement with Hindu Tamil: While Muslims have become the number one scapegoat for the Easter tragedy, the Rajapaksas have not tried to engage the Hindu Tamils
  • LTTE background: Hindu Tamils, who make about 11 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population, have had an acrimonious relationship with Mahinda Rajapaksa ever since he wiped out the LTTE in 2009.
    • Many members of the community became collateral victims in the process.
  • Implications for India-Sri Lanka relations: Gotabaya was the defence secretary at that time. The Hindu Tamil factor may complicate India-Sri Lanka relations.
  • No inclusion minorities from Sri Lanka in CAA: In the Citizenship Amendment Act the Indian Parliament passed in 2019, the persecuted minorities of Sri Lanka are not taken into account.
    • However, the Hindu Tamils of Sri Lanka are feeling insecure again.

China-Sri Lanka axis

  • The China factor is likely to aggravate the complication: The Rajapaksas are known to be pro-Sri Lanka. Mahinda Rajapaksa was largely responsible for opening Sri Lanka to massive — and strategic -Chinese investments.
  • The Hambantota port issue: The Hambantota Port and 15,000 acres have been conceded to China on a 99-year lease, causing considerable consternation in New Delhi, which apprehends that this deep seaport could be used for military purposes, and not just trade.
    • The deal was put on a hold by former PM but the present dispensation wants it to be restored.
  • China’s growing clout in the Indian Ocean: India’s efforts were also designed to thwart China extending its influence in Sri Lanka at a time when the Narendra Modi administration is trying to counter Beijing’s clout in the Indian Ocean.
  • Modi’s visited on May 30, 2019, just after beginning his second tenure as PM.

Past engagement events

  • New Delhi has tried to engage the new Sri Lankan government after the Rajapaksas assumed office.
    • India’s foreign minister S Jaishankar, landed in Sri Lanka on November 20, 2019, to invite Gotabaya for his first visit to India — rather than to China.
  • Gotabaya visited New Delhi for three days in late November last year.
  • Tamil issue discussed: Jaishankar is said to have told Gotabaya that India expects his government to treat Tamils with dignity in the process of reconciliation.
    • There is speculation that India might appoint an ambassador of Tamil origin to Colombo.
  • Cooperation against terrorism: The Indian PM went further when Gotabaya Rajapaksa visited New Delhi: He announced a $50 million line of credit for security and counter-terrorism
  • Line of credit for Infra: India also announced another $400 million for development and infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka.
    • That the counter-terror fund would further strengthen cooperation against terrorism.
  • Allaying the fears over China: Gotabaya allayed India’s fears on China by saying that Sri Lanka would not allow a third country to affect Sri Lanka-India ties.


While addressing the issue of minority and growing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka both countries need to focus on the other areas of cooperation like counter-terrorism, trade, security, development, technology etc.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

[op-ed snap] Return to the homeland


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing much

Mains level : Refugees from Sri Lanka


A criticism of the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 questions why Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka will not be given citizenship under the new law.

Influx of refugees

  • Refugees for long – Tamil Nadu began witnessing an influx of refugees from August 1983 following Black July in Sri Lanka. Indian government maintained that these refugees should go back on their own.
  • Voluntary repatriation – India has been following the principle of nonrefoulement and favouring voluntary repatriation.
  • Indira Gandhi – In 1983, Indira Gandhi asserted that the country “cannot and will not take millions of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka”. This is keeping in mind the problems posed by the migration of refugees from Bangladesh to India in the early 1970s.

Sri Lankan refugees

  • India continued to receive thousands of refugees from Sri Lanka over the years. At one point, Tamil Nadu had 2 lakh refugees.
  • Between 1983 and 2013, around 3.04 lakh persons came to the State.

Nature of repatriation

  • Forcible repatriation – In the early 1990s, after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, a controversy erupted over reports of sections of refugees being sent back “forcibly”.
  • UNHCR validation – The Indian government agreed to allow representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to screen refugees to ascertain the voluntary nature of the repatriation.
  • UNHCR it is also involved in counselling the refugees, helping them obtain necessary documents, paying for their international travel and providing reintegration grants and post-return support.
  • Indian government – the Indian government has taken steps to facilitate voluntary repatriation. Visa fee is waived and overstay penalty is granted to non-camp refugees on a case-to-case basis. Camp refugees are given this benefit as a matter of routine.
  • Tamil refugees importance in going back – the civil war had an adverse demographic impact on the Tamils of Sri Lanka. The numerical strength of MPs from Tamil-speaking areas has gone down over the years as Sri Lanka follows proportional representation. If the refugees go back, this will help Tamils get more representatives in the Sri Lankan Parliament.

The Indo-Sri Lankan Accord

  • Reason for non-inclusion – The 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan Accord talks of repatriation.
  • The 2011 report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission set up by Mahinda Rajapaksa regime called for voluntary repatriation. 
  • It also stressed the need for creating a conducive environment for the refugees to return to and for initiating a formal bilateral consultation process.

Way ahead

  • Rajapaksas are back in power and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is receptive to the idea of refugees returning to Sri Lanka.
  • Negotiate – India should resume negotiations with Sri Lanka to give a push to the process of voluntary repatriation. 
  • Ensure safety – Sri Lanka should create conditions that will ensure the safety and security of the refugees returning to their homeland.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

[oped of the day] On a new footing


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing much

Mains level : India - Sri Lanka future of ties


India receives the new Sri Lankan President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. During his first term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had made a big effort to normalise the relationship; but the fractures in Sri Lanka’s power structure and its poor governance limited the possibilities.


  • It is feared as heralding the renewal of authoritarian rule in Sri Lanka.
  • The previous government in Colombo became dysfunctional due to deep differences between the president and prime minister.
  • The Rajapaksas are expected to bring political coherence.

With respect to India

  • The first trip to India – Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s visit to Delhi, the first trip abroad since the election, is an occasion to build mutual trust.
  • Moving ahead – Both sides have learnt much from their past mistakes and will have to find a new balance in the relationship. 
  • Managing proximity – For Gotabaya, the challenge is to be mindful of the sensitivities of its larger neighbour. For Modi, it is about respecting the sovereignty of its smaller neighbour.
  • Sri Lanka’s affirmation – Gotabaya has affirmed that Colombo will not do anything that might harm Delhi’s interests. He also expects that Delhi will respect Colombo’s freedom of choice in the conduct of its foreign and domestic policies. 

Indo – Sri Lankan issues

  • SL’s foreign relations – Sri Lanka’s ties to other powers have been of some concern to Delhi. This is focused on the nature of the ties between Colombo and Beijing. 
  • Tamil minorities – the prolonged conflict between the Sinhala majority and Tamil minority in Sri Lanka has undermined bilateral ties in recent decades.
  • No power game – Sri Lanka has affirmed that it does not want to be caught in the rivalry among the major powers and that it will follow a policy of “neutrality”. 
  • Red lines – India can’t accept a situation where Sri Lanka lets the People’s Liberation Army turn the Emerald Island into an aircraft carrier for China.

New regime

  • On Hambantota – Gotabaya said that it was a mistake for the previous government to have handed over the Hambantota port on a 99-year lease to China. He said that his government would like to renegotiate the agreement with China. 
  • On national interest – on economic issues, Lanka made it clear that it has every right to follow its national interest in engaging China. It wants all major countries including India, Japan, Singapore and the US to invest in Sri Lanka. The government has promised to reform and reorient the economy.

Legacy of the civil war

  • India’s involvement in the conflict saw India become a major collateral casualty in the war. 
  • The end of the war did not materially improve India’s position vis a vis Lanka.
  • There is scepticism that the grievances of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka and the strong majoritarian sentiment of their support base may complicate the peace process. 
  • The intervention in the 1980s proves that Delhi’s ability to shape its neighbour’s domestic politics is limited. India may be the loser if it makes the entire relationship hostage to the question of Tamil minority rights.
  • In the past, coalition politics saw Delhi cede a veto to Chennai over its Lanka policy. The present government is stronger vis a vis Chennai.

Way ahead for both nations

  • Colombo’s confidence-building measures with the Tamils.
  • India’s strong support for practical advances between Colombo and Jaffna.
  • Greater cross-border economic cooperation as well as between northern Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu.
  • Delhi’s political investment in resolving the fisheries dispute.


India must be seen as a friend of all the communities in Sri Lanka that can offer its good offices to resolve problems between themselves. Sri Lanka has to find that incremental progress on the Tamil question will widen its space in regional and global affairs and create better conditions for a much-needed economic renewal.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

[op-ed snap] Rule of Rajapaksas


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing much

Mains level : India - Sri Lanka


Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency has started. 


    • After Ranil Wickremesinghe stepped down as Prime Minister, the new president appointed Mahinda as the new prime minister of a caretaker government. 
    • Another brother, Chamal, has been appointed a minister in the government.
    • The government will hold forth until fresh parliamentary elections are held in 2020. The five-year term ends next August. 
    • Mahinda was barred from the presidential election because he had already held the office twice. He will run the country in close coordination with his brother. 


    • The parliamentary configuration did not allow the new dispensation to do away with progressive amendments to the Constitution. 
    • They aimed to check the powers of the executive presidency, including the two-time bar. 
    • The Rajapaksas could clock back on these 2015 amendments when the opportunity arises.

State of polity

    • President Rajapaksa is confident of winning the 2020 parliamentary election. 
    • A divided opposition, engaged in a tug of war between Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa, is unlikely to put up a fight to the Rajapaksa. 
    • Sri Lankan voters have seen that cohabitation, by which the president and prime minister are from different parties leads to paralysis of governance. 


    • India has communicated its desire for hastening national reconciliation in Sri Lanka. 
    • In the post-war years, the rulers oversaw an unprecedented militarisation of the Sinhala Buddhist majority community. 
    • Voters from the majority community have not forgotten that it was the Rajapaksas who crafted a victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE). 
    • This powered Gotabaya’s majoritarian victory in these elections. 


National reconciliation requires statesmanship of a tall order. Gotabaya emerged as the newest majoritarian right-wing leader. We are not sure if he can pull it off.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

[op-ed snap] Towards a Colombo reset


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing much

Mains level : India - Sri Lanka ties


The election of the new president of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa strengthened the narrative about Colombo’s “tilt” towards China and against India. The headline misrepresents the complex power play involving Beijing, Delhi and Colombo.

Power play

  • The Great Game in the Subcontinent is not limited to just India and China. 
  • There are considerable interests and influence of many other powers in the region, including the US, European Union, Japan and Russia. 
  • The exclusive focus on major power rivalry masks the agency of South Asian political elites and their capacity to manoeuvre among the major powers.


  • Although the Rajapaksas had blamed India for their defeat in the 2015 elections, they have sought to make up with Delhi in recent years. 
  • India has been engaging all the major political formations in Sri Lanka. 
  • The stage is ready for a reset in the bilateral relations between the two strong governments in Delhi and Colombo.


  • India is aware that China’s economic and strategic salience in the Subcontinent will continue to grow and is not tied to the regime leadership in its neighbourhood.
  • The outgoing coalition led by Sirisena and Wickremesinghe proves the irrelevance of labelling governments in Colombo as “pro-China” or “pro-India”.
  • It came to power criticising the Chinese projects in Sri Lanka as financially unsustainable. 
  • Two years into power, the coalition extended full backing to the Chinese projects. 
  • So-called “pro-India” regime offered China a 99-year lease on the Hambantota project. 
  • The government stalled key projects of interest to Delhi.

What India can do about China

  • India can’t expect its neighbours to shut down economic and commercial engagement with China.
  • There are questions about the terms of China’s assistance on projects, including those under the Belt and Road Initiative. 
  • India can only ask Sri Lanka not to take steps with Beijing that threaten India’s security. 
  • Both need a clear understanding of mutual red lines relating to national security and a political comfort level to discuss cases that fall within the orange zone. 
  • That should help prevent the recurrence of the controversy over Chinese submarines in Colombo port as in 2014.

Renewed friendship

  • Rajapaksas are reported as saying that China is a “trade partner” while India is a “close relative”. 
  • Other terms used to describe the new policy include “neutrality” and “non-alignment” between major powers.
  • The world rediscovers the geopolitical value of Sri Lanka at the heart of the Indo-Pacific.
  • It has huge opportunities to leverage its location for national benefit. 

Way ahead

  • Sri Lanka should avoid provoking India. 
  • India should be mindful of Colombo’s security concerns and find ways to develop long-term strategic cooperation with Sri Lanka.
  • India needs to invest some political capital in resolving problems such as the long-standing dispute over fisheries. 
  • India, either alone or in partnership with like-minded countries like Japan, should offer sustainable terms for infrastructure development. 
  • India also needs to contribute more to the development of Colombo’s defence and counter-terror capabilities.

Tamil question

  • India’s involvement in Sri Lanka’s civil war has been far more consequential than the China facto. 
  • Successive coalition governments in India struggled to balance the pulls and pressures from Chennai and Colombo. 
  • If the new government in Sri Lanka can advance reconciliation with the Tamil minority, it will be easier to strengthen ties. 
  • The Western powers have expressed deep concerns about the war crimes in the military campaign against the LTTE and the need to bring those responsible to book.

Way ahead

  • India should look beyond old formulae to try and encourage reconciliation within Lanka and across the Palk Strait with Tamil Nadu. 
  • With a strong government in Sri Lanka, it is time for India to think boldly about its relationship with Sri Lanka.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

[op-ed snap] Two Asian powers and an island


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not Much

Mains level : Need for reviving Inda-Sri Lanka ties


  • The imposing Lotus Tower in Colombo, which was opened to the public recently, is considered to be the latest symbol of Sri Lanka-China ties.
  • An agreement to build this structure, which is to serve as a multi-functional telecommunication tower, was signed by the two countries in 2012.

Anti-China mood is no more

  • It may look ironical that much of the project’s execution took place under a regime which came into office at a time when there was a “strong anti-China mood”.
  • In the run-up to the 2015 presidential election, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was backing Sirisena, had assured people that another Chinese project, the $1.4 billion Colombo Port City, would be scrapped.
  • Then, there was also uncertainty over the fate of the Hambantota port, the development of which was originally offered to India by Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005.
  • India was said to have examined Hambantota purely from the point of view of economics, overlooking the strategic angle.
  • All of this is now history, as Colombo-Beijing ties have stood the test of time.

Two different records

  • China has been able to resolve all the controversies over these projects.
  • The Port City’s execution is underway without any major hitch. When it becomes a reality, it will stand beside the Colombo port, which serves as a major transshipment hub for India.
  • A Chinese company has got Hambantota on lease for 99 years along with associated land of 15,000 acres.
  • More importantly, Sri Lanka is a member-country of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Debt trap or a tailored bluff

  • Notwithstanding an argument that economic ties with China are driving Sri Lanka into a “debt trap”, the bilateral relationship on the economic front is only becoming stronger.
  • According to the 2018 annual report of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, imports from China accounted for 18.5%, just a little less than the 19% from India.

Indian failure

  • India couldn’t claim to have accomplished much in the Sirisena years, despite its “neighbourhood first” policy since May 2014.
  • Apart from a joint venture with Japan and Sri Lanka to develop the East Container Terminal at the Colombo Port, India cannot boast of having taken up any major infrastructure project in Sri Lanka.
  • There seems to be little progress in India’s proposals to develop the Palaly airport in the North and acquire a controlling stake in the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport.
  • And for all practical purposes, the Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement, an improved version of the existing bilateral FTA, has been shelved.

Success: Very few to count

  • In recent years, only a couple of social sector projects of India— building 60,000 homes for Tamils of the civil war-torn regions and the provision of ambulance services all over the island — gathered momentum.
  • Both these are being carried out using grants of the Indian government.
  • In July, an agreement was signed to upgrade a key railway segment, connecting the north and the south, at $91 million.

The resentful phase is over

  • Despite these deep ties, it is true that India and Sri Lanka have seen some unpleasantness in bilateral relations in contemporary times.
  • The anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983 dragged India into the Sri Lankan Tamil question.
  • India sustained its interest on developmental issues concerning the country Tamils, and now regarded as the most backward in Sri Lanka.
  • It will also be worth making one more attempt to encourage the voluntary repatriation of nearly 95,000 refugees who live in Tamil Nadu back to Sri Lanka.

India still holds deeper ties

  • China-funded infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka may look great, but India-Sri Lanka ties are deeper and more complex.
  • In good times and bad, India has been and will always be the first responder for Sri Lanka.
  • India’s assistance during the 2004 tsunami and PM Modi’s visit to Colombo in June (the first foreign dignitary to do so) in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks show India’s sincerity of approach.

Way ahead

  • Given its potential and willingness to do more in development cooperation, India cannot remain satisfied with such a modest track record.
  • A benign and comprehensive approach, backed by the sincerity of purpose, will not only earn India greater respect of Sri Lankans, but also send a message to other international players about the strength of its ties with Sri Lanka.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

[op-ed snap] Wrong step


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing Much

Mains level : Debate on directive of banning Niqab in Sri Lanka


President Maithripala Sirisena has taken the extraordinary step of effectively banning the niqab, a face covering worn by some Muslim women, under the country’s Emergency regulations, promulgated after the Easter Sunday bombings claimed by ISIS. It makes Sri Lanka the only country outside Europe to take such a decision.

Problems With the directive

It is unfortunate that President Sirisena took such an extreme step without wider consultation, as it goes against the fundamental freedoms set out in the Sri Lankan constitution.

1.Violating Freedom -Even accepting that the Emergency gives the government vast powers to suspend some freedoms, this is an unwarranted and extreme measure.

2.Not commonly used -The niqab is an import from the Middle East.It is not a common sight in Sri Lanka. Few women wear it.

3. Demand for Ban on other garments –There is now the danger that the ban on the niqab will be read up in its implementation to include the more commonly worn hijab and burqa, especially as there have been demands earlier by Buddhist extremists that these garments should be banned.

It could also open up demands for banning other visible identity markers, such as caps and bears worn by men.

4. Steps were already taken by civil society – Significantly, even before the President took the step, Muslim civil society organisations and the clergy had already urgently appealed to their “sisters” to stop wearing the full face veil or desist from being seen in public spaces wearing it.

5. Fear of repercussion – It is clear the community, which is more integrated into the Sri Lankan polity and economy than the Tamils, are fearful of the repercussions of the attack, and wants to play down identity markers.

6. No consultation with women – It is unclear if the women in the community were consulted. They are being asked to shoulder the burden of holding up the community’s credentials.

Ineffective Directive

  • It cannot be stressed enough that the problem that has erupted in Sri Lanka has not been caused by women’s apparel.
  • Banning the niqab may make the government look as if it is taking action, but it is hardly the way to meet the challenge posed by radicalism of the ISIS kind. From 2015 at least, Sri Lanka has been aware that some of its young citizens have been attracted to ISIS and were travelling to Syria for battle innoculation. There is no evidence to show that it acted seriously on this information.
  • True, Sri Lanka was still in the first flush of the post-Rajapakse years, and the government was more focussed on dismantling some of the authoritarian structures from his time.
  • Still, it is beyond comprehension that the government did not have an accurate handle on the radicalisation of even the handful of ISIS recruits.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

[op-ed snap] Terror next door


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing Much

Mains level : Reasons for Serial blasts in Sri Lanka


The Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka could widen ethnic faultlines, threaten to disrupt a decade of calm.


  • Sri Lanka’s decade of peace after the LTTE’s military defeat in May 2009 has been shattered with a diabolical plan to drag the country back into its darkest days.
  • The death toll is nearly 300 from the chain of eight bombings on Easter Sunday targeting churches and hotels across the island nation, worse than anything it has experienced at the hands of the LTTE in the three decades of civil war.
  • The scale and the ferocity of the attack has no precedent in Sri Lanka’s troubled history, one from which it believed it had finally emerged.
  • In the last decade, a generation of Sri Lankans has come of age for whom conflict was history, who have no experience of curfews and emergency regulations or the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
  • Now all this is threatening to engulf Sri Lanka again.

Fault in action on intelligence

  • it is Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s acknowledgment that the country’s security apparatus had “prior information” on the attacks that causes more anguish.
  • The differences between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe appear to have played a good part in the security warning not being taken seriously.
  • The PM has alleged that he was not kept in the loop about the intelligence warnings.
  • If so, the inability of the country’s top functionaries to get along has had deadly consequences. It casts their leadership abilities in extremely poor light. However, the administration has done well to prevent any backlash on the Muslim community.

Reasons for attack

1.Rise of extremism and fundamentalism –

Given that investigators believe this was the handiwork of radicalised local Muslims, there have been straws in the wind of such radicalisation for years, as a reaction to attacks by the LTTE on Muslims through the 1990s, and after the war, to the rise of Buddhist fundamentalism that began targeting Muslims.

2.Spread of Wahabism

Sri Lanka, where nearly 10 per cent of the 22 million population is Muslim, has also not been insulated from the global spread of Wahabism.

3. Politicisation

Mainstream Muslim parties, major players in Sri Lanka’s robust democratic political space, had managed to keep the radicals at bay all these years despite the failure of the political class to repair the ethnic faultlines.

4.Local Grievances

The targeting of Christians, who are an even smaller minority in Sri Lanka than Muslims, and in a manner similar to anti-Christian incidents in other parts of the world, also points to more than a local grievance.


But it seems too early to say if the Easter bloodbath was the handiwork of ISIS, which would be searching for new spaces to compensate for its total loss of territory. Solving these puzzles will help Sri Lanka, also the rest of South Asia, to craft responses that ensure there will be no repetition of this nightmare.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

[pib] Exercise Mitra Shakti-VI


Mains Paper 2: IR | Bilateral, regional and global groupings and agreements involving India and/or affecting India’s interests

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Ex Mitra Shakti

Mains level:  India-Sri Lanka Strategic relationship



  • It is conducted annually as part of military diplomacy and interaction between armies of India & Sri Lanka.
  • The joint exercise for the year 2018-19 will be conducted in Sri Lanka.
  • Troops from 1st Battalion the BIHAR Regiment of the Indian Army and Gemunu Watch Battalion of Sri Lankan Army would be jointly undertaking the exercise.
  • The aim of the exercise is to build and promote close relations between armies of both the countries and to enhance ability of joint exercise commander to take military contingents of both nations under command.
  • The exercise will involve tactical level operations in an international Counter Insurgency and Counter Terrorist environment under United Nations.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

India to control Mattala Airport in Hambantota


Mains Paper 2: IR | India and its neighborhood relations

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Not much

Mains level: India- Sri Lanka relations


A Sri Lanka-India JV

  1. India has agreed to form a joint venture with Sri Lanka to operate the country’s loss-making Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport in Hambantota.
  2. The $210 million facility, 241km south-east of Colombo, is dubbed the “world’s emptiest airport” due to a lack of flights.
  3. The joint venture would see India gain a major stake of the airport.

Only India offered to help

  1. Mattala airport, named after former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, was one of the major infrastructure projects of Rajapaksa’s nearly a decade-long rule.
  2. The project was funded through high interest Chinese commercial loans. The airport was officially opened in March 2013.
  3. The only international flight operating from there was halted in May due to recurrent losses and flight safety issues.
  4. The government in 2017 invited investors to turn the airport into a profit-sharing joint venture. However no proposals were received to operate, manage and maintain it.

Hambantota Seaport kneel to China to recover losses

  1. The seaport built in Hambantota, another Rajapaksa pet project, has been leased to China to set off Chinese loans as equity.
  2. The Hambantota port was a major Chinese-assisted infrastructure project in the home district of Rajapaksa, whose nearly a decade-long rule was ended by President Maithripala Sirisena in 2015.
  3. However, the regime change is not attributed to disfavor India, unlike that has been the case with the Maldives.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

India, Sri Lanka to firm up plan to combat drug crimes; bilateral meet in Delhi


Mains Paper 2: IR | Bilateral, regional and global groupings and agreements involving India and/or affecting India’s interests

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Not much

Mains level: Effectiveness of control delivery operations.

Decision on drug related crimes

  1. India and Sri Lanka have decided to enhance mutual cooperation to combat drug crimes
  2. A two-day bilateral meeting of anti-narcotics agencies of the two countries is going on
  3. Sri Lankan officers have arrived to hold talks with their Indian counterparts, the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB)
  4. This is the 3rd bilateral meeting between the two countries as part of 2013 India-Sri Lanka agreement on cooperation to combat terrorism and illicit drug trafficking

Control delivery operations

  1. The two agencies will explore the feasibility to have controlled delivery operations, the status of arrested persons and sharing of best practices
  2. These operations means “letting drug couriers carry out their operation under surveillance to catch them red-handed”
  3. Controlled delivery operations will help the two countries in cracking down on criminal syndicates in a big way as it is a time-tested method to get success in drug crimes

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

India, Sri Lanka to expedite projects


Mains Paper 2: IR | India and its neighborhood- relations.

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Not much

Mains level: Complement this newscard with our previous newscards on the Indo-Sri Lanka relationship. Read the Attached story for it.


Top agenda of discussion

  1. The Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe recently met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and President Ram Nath Kovind
  2. Expediting decisions on joint projects and “solving the problems that have emerged” was at the top of the agenda(in the meeting)

Infrastructure profects

  1. Among the projects discussed in particular were the plans for India to develop (1) the Trincomalee harbour, including the Oil Tank farms project, as well as the Indian bid to lease and manage (2) the Mattala airport in Hambantota

Case of pending projects

  1. The emphasis on speeding up joint ventures comes after months where there has been no movement on many of the pending decisions on joint ventures

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

Where clashes of geopolitics, politics and economic interests intersect

Image source


Mains Paper 2: IR | Effect of policies & politics of developed & developing countries on India’s interests, Indian diaspora

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Hambantota, Indian Ocean Region

Mains level: Competition between India and China Indian ocean region and China building String of pearls around India


Unique battleground

  1. Home to about six lakh people and investments worth billions of dollars, the district of Hambantota, along Sri Lanka’s southeastern coast, is currently witness to at least three clashes
  2. It has recently become a new theatre for India-China geopolitical conflict


  1. At the geopolitical level, China and India have competing interests
  2. Hambantota’s image makeover with ‘mega development’ foretells Sri Lanka’s pivotal role in the Indian Ocean Region
  3. This is after Colombo sold majority of its stake in the Hambantota port to China
  4. India has offered to run the nearby Mattala airport

US-Japan with India

  1. Also watching from India’s side are countries such as the U.S. and Japan
  2. They share India’s concern over the heightened presence of China, which pumped in billions of dollars into infrastructure projects in post-war Sri Lanka
  3. China sees the port town as a valuable transshipment hub in its ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative

How is ‘development’ affecting this small town?

  1. The ‘development’ is threatening to shake its ecosystem
  2. People are in perpetual fear, worrying when their land might be gazetted for development activity
  3. With forest cover diminishing in the wake of development, there is an increase in incidence of human-elephant conflict
  4. This often leads to destruction of agricultural fields, damage to houses, and, at times, grave injury or death to humans encountering the tusker

Prospects for India

  1. India could invest in the local agriculture and information technology sectors and boost them
  2. India can also set up an automobile assembly facility, considering that car manufacturers in India transship their vehicles through the port

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

[op-ed snap] Humanitarian concerns for India-Sri Lanka fishing water

  1. Context: Agreement between India and Sri Lanka on establishing a Joint Working Group on fisheries- step forward in resolving dispute between fishermen of both countries
  2. Points of Agreement: A hotline between the Coast Guards of both countries, meeting of the JWG once in three months, meeting of the fisheries ministers every six months, no violence or loss of life of fishermen
  3. Prevailing issues: SL fishermen firm on immediate end to all incursion, against seized Indian boats being released without legal process
  4. TN fishermen ask for a three-year phase-out period for their trawlers, and they would fish for 85 days a year until then- rejected by SL
  5. SL holds that Indian vessels cause serious economic and ecological damage
  6. Steps to prevent boundary transgression: Provide livelihood alternative for TN fishermen
  7. Equip them for deep sea fishing option
  8. Show greater understanding of the plight of SL Tamil fishermen, who are economically weaker and yet to fully recover from a devastating war
  9. SL can look at a licensing system under which fishermen from both sides can fish on specified days using sustainable methods and permissible equipment

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s ties with China and beyond

  1. Sri Lanka: Categorically denied there was any military engagement involved in its negotiations with China for its ‘One Road, One Belt’ initiative
  2. Negotiating an FTA with China under its OBOR initiative as it is necessary to make the Chinese investments in the country realise their full potential
  3. Jab at the developed world: The rules of globalization were written by the West and the Empire & we have only played by it
  4. At the end of the day, it’s not neoliberalism or free-market or anything else that worked
  5. Asia will bail the world out, if we are allowed to write the rules
  6. Otherwise we create our own system and deliver (on making our people happy) by building our own markets

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

Give boost to regional trade- Sri Lankan PM

  1. Sri Lanka has suggested the creation of a larger special zone of economic cooperation around the Bay of Bengal
  2. It would takes on board Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia in addition to BIMSTEC countries
  3. Sri Lanka is negotiating FTA with Singapore, while India already has comprehensive economic partnership pact with the latter
  4. So there is scope for a trilateral arrangement to boost the three economies

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

India-Sri Lanka economic pact by 2016-end, says Ranil Wickremesinghe

  1. Prime Ministers of both India & Sri Lanka have decided to conclude an enhanced bilateral economic partnership and also the existing FTA by the end of this year
  2. Aim: To allow the free flow of services, investments and technology
  3. Closer economic ties can especially boost India’s five southern States

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka to seal trade pact with India by mid-2017

  1. News: Sri Lanka and India have urged their officials to expedite negotiations on the proposed Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA)
  2. Though certain sections in Sri Lanka had reservations against the ETCA, the government had organised a campaign to counter the anti-ETCA drive
  3. Context: India has been negotiating with Sri Lanka on the ETCA, an extension over the existing Free Trade Agreement (FTA)
  4. Though Sri Lanka depends upon Beijing for 20% of its imports, there is no bilateral FTA
  5. Trivia: India accounts for 23% of Sri Lanka’s total imports

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

India sends relief material to Sri Lanka

  1. India has dispatched military ships and an aircraft with rescue and relief material to Sri Lanka
  2. Reason: Torrential rains and landslides have resulted in several deaths and massive devastation over the last few days in Sri Lanka
  3. Ships: Two Navy ships — one Naval Offshore Patrol INS Sunayna and one survey ship INS Sutlej with relief material
  4. Relief material: Inflatable rafts, fresh water, medical supplies, clothing and other provisions necessary for disaster relief operations
  1. India has dispatched military ships and an aircraft with rescue and relief material to Sri Lanka
  2. Reason: Torrential rains and landslides have resulted in several deaths and massive devastation over the last few days in Sri Lanka
  3. Ships: Two Navy ships — one Naval Offshore Patrol INS Sunayna and one survey ship INS Sutlej with relief material
  4. Relief material: Inflatable rafts, fresh water, medical supplies, clothing and other provisions necessary for disaster relief operations

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

Connecting Sri Lanka- bridge or undersea?

  1. Context: India is considering an ambitious bridge or undersea tunnel linking the Indian mainland with Sri Lanka
  2. Bridge between: Rameswaram and Sri Lanka
  3. Proposed by: Manila-based Asian Development Bank (ADB), which will also finance the project
  4. Benefit: A boost to sub regional cooperation within SAARC
  1. Context: India is considering an ambitious bridge or undersea tunnel linking the Indian mainland with Sri Lanka
  2. Bridge between: Rameswaram and Sri Lanka
  3. Proposed by: Manila-based Asian Development Bank (ADB), which will also finance the project
  4. Benefit: A boost to sub regional cooperation within SAARC

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

India assures Sri Lanka of support for reconciliation

  1. India has expressed support for Sri Lanka on its reconciliation and development policies
  2. The Sri Lankan has sought India’s assistance to improve the health and education of people living in estates, who were essentially of the recent Indian origin
  3. Background – LTTE armed conflict that led to turmoil in the Sri Lanka
  4. New Issues – The fishermen of the Northern Province of SL are facing problem due to bottom trawling
  5. New Developments – India’s offer to set up an IT park in Sri Lanka that could attract investments
  1. India has expressed support for Sri Lanka on its reconciliation and development policies
  2. The Sri Lankan has sought India’s assistance to improve the health and education of people living in estates, who were essentially of the recent Indian origin
  3. Background – LTTE armed conflict that led to turmoil in the Sri Lanka
  4. New Issues – The fishermen of the Northern Province of SL are facing problem due to bottom trawling
  5. New Developments – India’s offer to set up an IT park in Sri Lanka that could attract investments

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

India ready to address Sri Lanka’s concerns on economy pact

  1. India will address Sri Lanka’s concerns on the proposed Economic and Technological Cooperation Agreement
  2. It will also address issues concerning regulations and procedures
  3. This comes in response to criticism from certain quarters that the proposed agreement would take away jobs of Sri Lankan professionals
  4. Earlier, Sri Lankan govt. too expressed its reservations about allowing Indian professionals in Sri Lanka under any new agreement
  1. India will address Sri Lanka’s concerns on the proposed Economic and Technological Cooperation Agreement
  2. It will also address issues concerning regulations and procedures
  3. This comes in response to criticism from certain quarters that the proposed agreement would take away jobs of Sri Lankan professionals
  4. Earlier, Sri Lankan govt. too expressed its reservations about allowing Indian professionals in Sri Lanka under any new agreement
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