A career diplomat, Chitranganee Wagiswara, High Commissioner of Sri Lanka, is the first woman to be the island nation’s envoy to India. As Foreign Secretary, she was Sri Lanka’s top diplomat for 18 months before being posted to New Delhi. She joined the Sri Lanka Foreign Service in 1981 and has served in missions in Italy, Canada (twice, including as High Commissioner), United Kingdom, Singapore and France.
Since 2015 and after her arrival in New Delhi nine months ago, relations between India and Sri Lanka have been on an upward trajectory, with a flurry of high level visits further cementing those ties.
In a conversation with Nilova Roy Chaudhury, High Commissioner Wagiswara talked about the bilateral relationship and why Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka for the Vesak festival was significant.
Excerpts from the interview with INDIA REVIEW & ANALYSIS, a journal of the Society for Policy Studies:
Q. A series of high level visits between the two countries indicate that relations between Sri Lanka and India are developing well. PM Modi said Buddhism was a shared heritage. How significant is this sentiment? How important is this religious diplomacy in bilateral ties?
A. Vesak is a very important event in Sri Lanka, which initiated the move to get the United Nations to observe the day of the birth, enlightenment and passing of the Buddha. The UN Day of Vesak was being hosted for the first time in Sri Lanka from May 12 to 14, 2017. Prime Minister Modi coming for the event was an honour and it was very well received. Buddhists were very pleased. It showed how good the relationship is. It may be religious diplomacy, but it was a good visit and showed continuing goodwill. Mr Modi’s visit placed Sri Lanka at the centre of Theravada Buddhism. It was a very important event and a matter of great pride for us. It drew a lot of attention to Sri Lanka which sees itself as a guardian of Buddhism; It is a Buddhist majority country. It also showed India’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy. Since 2015, when the government of President (Maithripala) Sirisena took office, his first visit outside Sri Lanka was to India. He has visited India thrice. Prime Minister Modi visited Sri Lanka in 2015. Our Prime Minister (Ranil Wickremasinghe) has visited India several times, most recently in April (2017.). Now our relations are excellent and there is warmth in the relationship. (Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake, who just assumed the post, came to New Delhi on June 6 and 7, on his first visit abroad).
Q.What are the major areas of convergence in the development partnership? What is the progress on the ETCA (Economic & Technology Cooperation Agreement)?
A. Four rounds of talks have been held on the ETCA, which is much more than a FTA (Free Trade Agreement) and goes beyond trade in goods to services. There are some issues on the Sri Lankan side. We are discussing issues like non-tariff barriers. There are some reservations in Sri Lanka in the services sector. There should not be any misgivings. The relationship has now got a new momentum and there is increased cooperation. We are working together on so many areas: railways, roads, infrastructure, housing, connectivity. Tourism is another other focus area. The largest number of tourists to visit Sri Lanka come from India.
We would like to finalise ETCA by the end of the year. (Your) Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has said India will move at Sri Lanka’s pace.
Q. India and Sri Lanka are in talks to jointly operate oil tanks at the strategic Trincomalee port. What is the progress on that issue?
A. You are referring to the 99 oil tanks in the Sri Lanka harbour. The new proposal is to have a joint venture between IOC (Indian Oil Corporation) and SLCPC (Sri Lanka Ceylon Petroleum Corporation); 30-odd tanks are now leased out and operated by IOC. There are misgivings with this project about energy security in Sri Lanka, particularly among the oil workers. The decision is that it will be a joint venture. (The issue) It has to be discussed and decided.
Q. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe left for Beijing to attend the Belt and Road Forum after PM Modi’s Colombo visit. India, as you know, boycotted the BRF event. Will China become a factor in the India-Sri Lanka relationship?
A. That is not the case. We have good relations with both countries. In April, we signed a MoU on projects with India. In May our Prime Minister went to China for the BRF. Between Singapore and Dubai, Sri Lanka is keen to become a hub in the Indian Ocean. So Sri Lanka joined and is part of the Maritime Silk Route.
The Prime Minister is looking at opportunities and talking of trying to give Sri Lanka ‘hub’ status. China’s influence in Sri Lanka happened because we need to bring in the peace dividend. China is an economic factor in our development. Hambantota and Colombo port have entailed a huge debt. We are looking at how to arrive at an agreement to convert debt to equity. Meanwhile, the harbour is not functional.
Q. The issue of fishing rights has been an emotive issue in bilateral ties. Is there a way to work out their differences so that instances of fishermen straying into each other’s waters and accidents at sea can be minimised?
A. It is an emotive issue. The problem is Indian fishermen coming in large trawlers and ‘bottom trawling’. Dragging nets along the sea bed, particularly for prawns and shrimp, this trawling destroys the entire ecosystem. There will be no fish left.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has said she would reach out to the unions in Tamil Nadu and advise them to move their trawlers away from the near waters beyond the maritime boundaries towards the deep seas for fishing. The fishermen’s associations held meetings in April. It was agreed that there will be more surveillance by the Coast Guards to prevent accidents and implementation of standard operating procedures.
Q. What is the level of defence cooperation between the two countries? Indian naval vessels were the earliest to reach after the recent floods, under humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HADR) cooperation between the two countries.
A. There are close defence ties between India and Sri Lanka. 700 to 800 of our servicemen, at different levels, are in India for training. We conduct joint exercises. All three Sri Lankan service chiefs have visited India in the last three months.
Sri Lanka has recently ordered two ships, Offshore Patrol Vehicles (OPVs), from India. These are being built at the Goa Shipyards.The Indian Navy came immediately after the recent floods. Three Indian naval vessels came for HADR. It was highly appreciated.
Q. How was the South Asia Satellite project received in Sri Lanka?
A. It was viewed very positively. Our President witnessed the launch via satellite and called it a “very positive” development. It will help in communications, agriculture and weather forecasting.