Outgoing Indian High Commissioner, Gopal Baglay, in an interview with Daily Mirror at the end of his three and half year stint in Sri Lanka, shared his views on the development of bilateral ties and what holds for future. Q You have been here for more than three years. How has your experience in Sri Lanka been? A: Both professionally and personally, I had the most memorable time of my diplomatic career in Sri Lanka. To represent India in Sri Lanka as the High Commissioner has been an absolute honour. My tenure here coincided with a critical time for Sri Lanka. I say this with great satisfaction that the close friendship between India and Sri Lanka has proved its mettle. I leave Sri Lanka with the sense that India-Sri Lanka ties are poised to scale new heights. Personally, I found the people of Sri Lanka to be extremely warm and hospitable. The affinity between our peoples made me feel at home wherever I went in the country. I thoroughly enjoyed my tenure here. I would like to believe that during this time, India and Sri Lanka have been able to create new pathways for cooperation. They also decided on a roadmap for the future. Q What are the most striking commonalities between the two sides? A: I think the commonalities are many. After all, India and Sri Lanka are civilisational twins. Our relationship is very aptly described with the Sinhala word Sahodara, meaning brothers from the same womb. There are remarkable commonalities in our languages, religions, food, music, literature, arts, etc. We share history and heritage, and are bound to have a common destiny. We also have commonalities in our aspirations. To me, among the most striking commonalities are the shared values of democracy and diversity that both our peoples celebrate. We have demonstrated that democracy delivers. We have seen that progress and the empowerment of citizens go hand in hand. Q How would you look at the trajectory of bilateral ties during your term here? A: Overall, I would say that the trajectory has been positive. We have broken new ground and there is significant potential to further expand our cooperation across areas. The Virtual Bilateral Summit of 2020 between our two Prime Ministers was a milestone in laying a roadmap for the cooperative agenda for the prosperity of the people of both the countries. The formidable strength of the India-Sri Lanka partnership has been demonstrated in the recent past. Sri Lanka received its very first consignment of COVID-19 vaccines made in India under India’s Vaccine ‘Maitri’ initiative in January 2021, which enabled the roll out of Sri Lanka’s vaccination programme ahead of schedule. In early 2022, when Sri Lanka suffered its worst economic crisis since Independence, India mobilised an unprecedented assistance of over USD 4 billion for food, fuel, fertilisers and currency support to help the people of Sri Lanka. India was the first country to provide financing assurances needed by the IMF to help Sri Lanka. India also played a key role as the co-chair in the Official Creditors Committee in reaching an understanding with the Sri Lankan government on the terms of debt restructuring. Our bilateral ties were further consolidated during the visit of President Ranil Wickremesinghe to India in July 2023. The Joint Vision statement adopted by our leaders lays out the path to shared prosperity with connectivity as the key enabler. When I talk to the Sri Lankan people, whether in cities or villages, I feel that they see in India a dependable partner and a reliable friend. Mutual trust and goodwill as well as vast opportunities afforded by India’s sustained high growth have provided a solid platform for our ties to take off. Q There have been a lot of engagements in the economic sphere in the recent past. How has economic cooperation between the two countries deepened during your time? A: In the last few years, economic and commercial ties have deepened and have become the centre-piece of the India-Sri Lanka bilateral partnership. India has emerged as Sri Lanka’s largest trade partner, largest investor and the biggest source of tourist inflow into the country. Despite global headwinds, Sri Lanka’s exports to India have grown year on year. We have resumed the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) negotiations, interactions between our trade and industry bodies are closer and more frequent. Indian companies are keen on Sri Lanka and know that Sri Lanka is open for business. There have been some big ticket investments coming in from India, such as the West Container Terminal, solar and wind project in Mannarand Pooneryn of about 500 MW, and the ITC Ratnadeepa Project at Galle Face. Amongst the various notable achievements in the economic sphere in the recent past, I would like to mention specifically the signing of the lease agreements for the Trincomalee Tank Farms which had been pending for 20 years and cooperation in renewable energy projects. Q Several connectivity initiatives were announced during the visit of President Ranil Wickremesinghe to India in July 2023. Where do we stand on these initiatives? A: The India-Sri Lanka Economic Partnership Vision jointly adopted during the visit of the President of Sri Lanka to India in July 2023 is centred on connectivity. Both Governments are working together to transform this vision into reality. As a result, the ferry service between Nagapattinam and Kankesanthurai was launched in October 2023. Productive discussions have been held between the Governments on the connectivity corridor, multi-product pipeline and power grid connectivity. For greater digital connectivity, Lanka Pay from Sri Lanka and NIPL from India will soon be ready to launch a QR based payment system in Sri Lanka benefitting Indian and Sri Lankan tourists. Q What happened to the India-Sri Lanka ferry service? A: Given the high demand among the people of both countries and the keen interest in the leadership for an uninterrupted ferry service, both governments are taking steps to select private entities for the operation of the Nagapattinam-Kankesanthurai ferry service. Similarly, discussions are being held to develop relevant infrastructure at Rameswaram and Talaimannar for commencing ferry services suspended for the last four decades. Q What measures could be adopted to address the on-going fishermen issue, despite attempts being made to resolve the matter for decades? A: India remains committed to resolve the persistent fishermen issue to our mutual satisfaction. As livelihoods of fishermen on both sides are involved, it has to be addressed in a humanitarian manner with the involvement of all stakeholders including the fishermen communities on both sides. The Government of India has adopted a multipronged approach to resolve the issue, including various initiatives for Indian fishermen to switch over to deep sea fishing. Further, pending the long-lasting solution, India is striving to bring benefits of scientific research and expertise for the commercially sustainable development of fisheries in Sri Lanka so that the benefits can directly reach the fishermen and the common people. Q There is a perception in Sri Lanka that the implementation period of Indian projects in Sri Lanka is considerably long. Your thoughts? A: Let me share with your readers that India’s development partnership portfolio with Sri Lanka stands at over US $ 5 billion, including both grants and Lines of Credit. The Indian government’s developmental assistance projects are entirely based on the priorities set out by the government and the people of Sri Lanka. These projects are diverse, both in terms of their subject areas and geographical reach. India is perhaps the only bilateral partner with development projects in each of Sri Lanka’s 25 districts. India’s projects have been well received for their tangible impact on people’s lives, their transparent approach and their implementation in a manner that supports local economies. The assistance specifically focuses on capacity-building, human resources development, uplifting of weaker sections as well as infrastructure development. It is noteworthy that despite disruptions owing to the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crises, Indian government-assisted development projects continued to the extent possible. To name a few: the upgrading of the Railway Line from Maho to Omanthai, the supply of buses for public transport, the supply of SUVs to the Ministry of Public Security. And all this is while India assisted Sri Lanka with USD 4 billion, with no strings attached, to ensure that the people of Sri Lanka could face the challenges that had arisen. Additionally, I would like to underline that GOI-assisted projects are for the people of Sri Lanka and by the people of Sri Lanka. They are implemented via the Sri Lankan government’s concerned line Ministries and local agencies. As and when the concerned Ministries revise the needs and accordingly the scope of the project, we try to quickly adapt and deliver as swiftly as possible in response to the evolving requirements. Q We see that India has been undertaking several steps to deepen the ties in the sphere of Buddhism. Could you elaborate further on some of these steps? A: Buddhism imparts an ever present vibrancy to the India-Sri Lanka relationship. Prime Minister Modi’s visits to Sri Lanka in the recent past have exhibited the same. In 2015, he visited the Jaya Sri Mahabodhi temple. In 2017, he was the Chief Guest at the UN Vesak Day celebrations in Colombo. In the Virtual Summit in 2020, he announced a US $ 15 million grant of assistance for the protection and promotion of Buddhist ties between our two countries. We recently signed an MOU with US $ 10 million for solar electrification of temples in Sri Lanka under this grant. Some other recent steps taken to deepen our ties in the sphere of Buddhism include exposition of the venerated relics of Lord Buddha from Kapilawasthu in Sri Lanka, and the exposition of relics from the Waskaduwe Vihara in India in October 2021. The inaugural flight to the Kushinagar Airport in India was from Sri Lanka. India has organised special pilgrimage trips for Sri Lankan Armed Forces personnel and their families to Bodh Gaya. Q Can you please give us an overall picture of the India-Sri Lanka defence partnership? A: Well, the approach to our defence ties with Sri Lanka is premised on India’s philosophy of Vasudaiva Kutumbakam, the world is one family. This is further magnified in Sri Lanka’s case by our policy of “Neighbourhood First”. Just as it is natural for us to ensure that our efforts for peace, prosperity and progress be for the region, we also seek to ensure that the region remains secure. This security depends upon working together as partners to face both conventional and non-conventional common challenges. Sri Lanka is India’s closest maritime neighbour and a key partner in the Indian Ocean domain. The engagement with Sri Lanka in the defence and security segments is all-encompassing, cutting across the supply of military equipment, joint exercises, high level visits, the deployment of Indian instructors and training teams, staff talks, goodwill visits, etc. In fact, you would like to recall that the Indian Naval Submarine, “Vagir” made its maiden port of call to Colombo earlier this year. Thousands of people including school children, scouts, guides, members of the NCC as well as officers from the Sri Lanka Navy and their family members visited the Submarine, which became famous as the people’s submarine, thus creating an environment of security and trust which continues to be the focal objective of our defence and security cooperation, placing peace, progress and the prosperity of our peoples always at the first place. Maintaining regional stability, curbing smuggling networks and preventing terrorism and extremist threats in the maritime neighbourhood are common priorities spurring the deepening of naval cooperation. Regional security cooperation initiatives such as the Colombo Security Conclave have also contributed to joint preparedness. Maritime information exchange arrangements are also enabling prompt shared action against illegal activities in the Indian Ocean region. To sum up, actually we see the security of India and Sri Lanka as mutual and indivisible. India is secure when Sri Lanka is secure. Q India offers numerous scholarships to students and training opportunities to civilians and military personnel. Could you please shed more light on these schemes and their benefits? A: Correct. India offers over 700 scholarships for students across school level, undergraduate, masters and research programmes. More than 200 of these are fully paid scholarships and fellowships for students to pursue higher education in Indian universities. We also offer 402 fully-funded slots annually under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) Program to officials in the Sri Lankan government and also to other citizens. ITEC offers short term training programs in technical and professional disciplines to enhance skill sets and employability. On the defence side, more than 1200 personnel across the army, navy and air force are trained in India each year. Not sure if you know, more than 50 percent of the total defence training slots offered by India are reserved for personnel from Sri Lanka. It is the training programmes that help deepen the connectivity between the youth of our countries. It is these young minds that will chart the path forward for our countries, and the relationship. Q How does India view Sri Lanka’s overall approach to ties with China? Is security an important concern in this regard? A: India’s relationship with Sri Lanka stands on its own and doesn’t depend on third party countries. Sri Lanka’s relations with any third party country are its own sovereign decision. I can talk about India’s relationship with Sri Lanka – which is sui generis. The India-Sri Lanka relationship is unique for its long-standing, deep-rooted and multifaceted civilizational ties. These shared affinities have nurtured interlinks in every sphere of life. Not only can we boast of a wide-ranging bilateral partnership, we are increasingly cooperating in the regional domain as well. India and Sri Lanka work closely on regional platforms like the IORA, BIMSTEC, Colombo Security Conclave, etc with the perspective of One Indian Ocean region, addressing the regional concerns mutually. Our increasing cooperation in all areas, including security, is intended at enhancing the well-being and prosperity of our peoples. We are confident of Sri Lanka’s wisdom to make the choices that are right for its people in security or any other sphere, serve to fulfill the people’s aspirations, and preserve and promote the value system and millennia-old unparalleled traditions of the people of Sri Lanka. Q In closing, as someone who has spent more than three years in Sri Lanka, what would be your farewell message to the people of Sri Lanka? A: Sri Lanka is the Pearl of the Indian Ocean. It is a country with great potential, for its geo-strategic location next door to the world’s fifth largest economy – India. I know that the people of Sri Lanka have gone through a difficult phase with impressive resilience. I would just like to say that India has always stood with the people of Sri Lanka and we will continue to do so. We firmly believe that blood is thicker than water, and you can definitely count on us.