India awaits ‘true signal’

Delhi sets up Lanka friend test

The Jaffna Public Library, next to which India was promised land for a cultural centre. The project is yet to take off. Picture by Charu Sudan Kasturi

Colombo/Jaffna, Jan. 21: Next to the landmark Jaffna Public Library in the northern Sri Lanka city, cows graze on a patch of unused land that bears testament to the tensions between India and the just defeated President, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

This tract was promised to New Delhi in 2010, months after the end of the nearly three-decade-old civil war that had divided Tamils and Sinhalese on the island, to build an Indian cultural centre.

But almost five years and multiple reminders later, the plot is yet to be handed over to the Indian consulate in Jaffna for the Rs 50-crore project.

It is one of nearly a dozen cultural, strategic and infrastructure projects by India in Sri Lanka that New Delhi accuses the former Rajapaksa government of deliberately delaying.

Mahinda Rajapaksa

India on Sunday denied any role by its external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, in Rajapaksa’s electoral defeat earlier this month.

The foreign office rubbished a Reuters report that claimed the RAW station chief in Colombo had been brought back home ahead of the election following complaints by the Rajapaksa government.

Indian officials, though, privately make no secret of their relief at Rajapaksa’s defeat by Maithripala Sirisena.

But while India has welcomed new Lankan foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera’s choice of New Delhi for his first overseas visit, a true signal of the Sirisena government’s focus on India would come if it swiftly removes the roadblocks delaying the Indian projects.

“That is our expectation, make no mistake,” a senior Indian official in Sri Lanka told The Telegraph.

“We are of course willing to give the government time to settle in, but a true signal of its friendship with us would be a decision to end the artificial roadblocks that were created by the previous regime.”

One of India’s biggest infrastructure and strategic projects in Sri Lanka is the $350-million Sampur Thermal Power Plant near the white sand beaches of Trincomalee in the northeast. Colombo and Indian public sector giant National Thermal Power Corporation had signed a memorandum of understanding in 2006.

Nine years on, despite a few minor agreements related to the project, the proposed 500MW plant remains mired in controversy because of allegations that it would displace thousands of families.

“That’s a complete lie which the Rajapaksa government, at the very least, allowed to spread uncontested,” a second Indian diplomat here said.

“A total of only eight families will be displaced, but the Rajapaksa government’s silence pointed to complicity in the delay over the project.”

At Sri Lanka’s northernmost point, a half-hour drive from Jaffna, stands the Kankeanthurai harbour. It was destroyed in the civil war, during which the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam used boats to attack the Lankan navy.

Immediately after the war, India offered to help rebuild the port and Sri Lanka agreed. But there’s been no progress on that while the harbour remains under military control, out of bounds for citizens.

Maithripala Sirisena

After the war, Sri Lanka had also agreed to resume ferry services to India, from the northwest town of Mannar and further south down the coast from Colombo. One service was to connect Colombo to Tuticorin and the other to link Mannar with Rameswaram. This project, too, never moved beyond the drawing board.

Also in Mannar stands the Tiruketheeswaram temple, one of the Sri Lankan Tamils’ holiest sites, which was damaged during the war when it was occupied by the Lankan forces.

When the war ended, New Delhi had accepted a request from Colombo for the Archaeological Society of India to help restore the shrine. The plan hasn’t progressed.

In 2010, New Delhi had inked a pact with Colombo to rebuild railway tracks in Sri Lanka’s war-ravaged north. But repeated delays in access to the region meant that Indian officials could complete their work only by 2013.

The Rajapaksa government, despite prods from India, agreed to launch the extended tracks only in October 2014.

“It wasn’t as though there were any specific instructions to sabotage Indian projects,” a Sri Lankan diplomat said in Colombo. “But yes, Indian projects were certainly not a priority.”

In 2014, the annual meeting between senior Indian and Sri Lankan officials, led by their foreign ministers, was given a miss.

Indian foreign office spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin blamed this on “scheduling challenges” on Sunday but other officials differed.

“The meeting wasn’t held at least partly because there was really no progress on so many projects that there was little to talk about,” an Indian diplomat said. “That’s what we’re hoping will now change

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