Stay connected with Sri Lanka

© Deccan Herald

By N Manoharan

During the recent visit of Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe to India, the focus on connectivity emerged as a key area of discussion. Both countries adopted a vision document that underscored the significance of strengthening “maritime, air, energy, and people-to-people connectivity.”

The revival of maritime connectivity between the two countries, which was suspended due to ethnic conflict, has been a long-standing proposal. As per the MoU signed in 2011, two routes were initially identified for the ferry service: Colombo to Tuticorin, and Thalaimannar to Rameshwaram. Currently, the Nagapattinam to Kankesanthurai route is being considered. The re-establishment of ferry service will boost tourism, pilgrimage, trade, and other exchanges between the two countries. Sri Lanka has emerged as the most popular tourist destination for Indian tourists. For Sri Lanka, facing an unprecedented economic crisis, a convenient and affordable ferry service could generate much-needed foreign exchange.

In terms of air connectivity, India and Sri Lanka have been following an ‘open skies’ policy since 2003. Colombo is a significant air hub in the region. The number of Indian airports from which flights to Sri Lanka take off and land is around 25, including the Chennai-Jaffna segment that recommenced recently. With more than 150 flights every week between India and Sri Lanka, tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka from India are the highest. The extension of the Electronic Travel Authorization Scheme to Sri Lankan citizens has contributed to an increase in tourist flow between the two countries. The revival of the Buddhist Circuit in India and the Ramayana Trail in Sri Lanka promises to further boost tourism.

The MoU for cooperation in the field of renewable energy marks a crucial step forward in energy connectivity. Additionally, the decision to establish a high-capacity power grid interconnection between Sri Lanka and India enables two-way electricity trade. Indian assistance in developing Trincomalee as an energy hub is aligns with Sri Lanka’s vision of leveraging the region for industry and economic activities. Also, the idea of constructing “a multi-product petroleum pipeline from southern India to Sri Lanka will ensure an affordable and reliable supply of energy resources for the island nation.” India is already involved in enhancing Sri Lanka’s power generation capacity at the Sampur Coal Power Plant.

While people-to-people connectivity between India and Sri Lanka dates back centuries, the Cultural Cooperation Agreement signed in 1977 laid a foundation for enhancing cultural ties. The Programme of Cultural Cooperation is implemented every three years to enhance cultural cooperation in five broad areas: performing arts, visual arts, exhibitions, museums, libraries, archives, and cultural documentation; archaeology; cultural documentation; publications; and professional exchanges. Educational cooperation forms a vital component of this collaboration with increased scholarships and self-financing slots for undergraduate, master’s, and PhD courses for Sri Lankan students in India–under the India Sri Lanka Knowledge Initiative, announced on January 19, 2012, the number of scholarships was increased from 113 slots to 270 per year and later to 290. Apart from this, 370 scholarships are offered annually to Sri Lankan nationals under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Scheme (ITECS).

In addition, scholarship support for deserving students pursuing their GCE ‘A’ level and University degrees in Sri Lanka was expanded to cover about 500 students annually. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) has its own set of SAARC and Commonwealth scholarships for Sri Lankans. The establishment of the Centre for Contemporary Indian Studies at the University of Colombo in February 2012 was a good move in enhancing the cultural linkage and popularising Indian studies in Sri Lanka. But the principal query that should be addressed is whether there are career opportunities after the completion of courses in India Studies. If this is taken care of, then the popularity of India Studies could be established in the neighbourhood and beyond.

For small island countries like Sri Lanka, connectivity plays a critical role in driving growth and prosperity. For India, the best way to secure the neighbourhood is to drastically improve connectivity with its neighbours. India has the advantage of centrality and proximity. To step up intra-regional trade, an increase in intra-regional connectivity is important. Market forces may be given free rein and, in fact, could be encouraged and incentivized. The demographic dividend could be harnessed better through connectivity. People-to-people contacts will have a spillover effect on politics and the economy. As Tom Ford observes, “The most important things in life are the connections you make with others.” This applies to countries as well.

(The author is director, Centre for East Asian Studies, Christ University, Bengaluru)

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