High Commissioner's Message on the occasion of 69th Independence Day of India
1. On the occasion of the 69th Independence Day of India, I extend my greetings and best wishes to my fellow citizens and to the friendly people and the Government of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.
2. This has been a very eventful year, for both India and Sri Lanka, and for our bilateral relations. Today, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is engaging the world with greater confidence and assurance. It is doing so with the intent of ensuring stronger growth, greater connectivity, closer integration and deeper harmony. India wants to expand commonalities and manage differences with the world. It is prepared to shoulder greater responsibility and expects that this would be duly reflected in the structure of the international order. India’s is pursuing a new neighbourhood policy of “Neighbourhood First”, which puts a premium on greater connectivity, stronger and mutually beneficial cooperation and deeper ties with its neighbours. There is also recognition that neighbours have a first claim on India and Sri Lanka is amongst our closest and dearest neighbours. Sri Lanka, too, has seen significant developments, including landmark presidential elections, the formation of a government of national unity, constitutional reforms, and a renewal of hope for the future. On the eve of parliamentary elections, Sri Lanka is poised to embark upon a new journey of peace, reconciliation and progress. In the light of the civilisational ties that bind us, India will continue to extend its hand of friendship and support to Sri Lanka in this endeavour.
3. Domestic developments in our countries have led to a revitalization of India – Sri Lanka relations. Four high level bilateral visits within 90 days of the formation of a new government in Sri Lanka heralded a new chapter in our relations. President Maithripala Sirisena visited India in February, which was his first overseas visit after assuming office. Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a historic visit to Sri Lanka in March, the first stand alone bilateral visit to Sri Lanka by an Indian Prime Minister since 1987. There was also an exchange of visits between the Foreign Ministers of the two countries, underlining the friendship and cooperation between our two countries. These visits have imparted a new dynamism to our bilateral relations.
4. Close economic engagement continues to be a key pillar of our bilateral relationship. During his visit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that Sri Lanka has the potential to be India’s strongest economic partner in the region. He urged businesses in India and Sri Lanka to pursue enhanced engagement, by moving forward with greater belief in the mutual comparative advantages and, most importantly, with full confidence in the fruits of partnership. Both countries are reaping the benefits of the 15 year old India – Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (FTA), which was signed in 2000. The robust growth in bilateral trade during 2014 has continued in 2015. As per figures of Sri Lankan Customs, during the first half of 2015, bilateral trade has increased by more than 20% as compared to the same period in 2014. India also figures in the top 5 sources of Foreign Direct Investment into Sri Lanka in 2015.
5. During Prime Minister Modi’s visit, important initiatives were announced to deepen bilateral economic and commercial engagement. These included the Joint Development of the Upper Tank Farm of the China Bay Installation in Trincomalee; a Joint Task Force on Ocean Economy; a fresh Line of Credit of US$ 318 million for the railways sector; a currency swap worth US$ 1.5 billion between the Central Bank of Sri Lanka and the Reserve Bank of India; extension of the e-Tourist Visa (eTV) scheme to Sri Lankan nationals; and commencement of direct flights by Air India between New Delhi and Colombo. Prime Minister Modi also inaugurated the Talaimannar Pier - Madhu Raod section of the Northern Railway line and the Talaimannar Pier Railway Station.
6. The symbiotic relationship between India and Sri Lanka is exemplified through the inter-woven lives of ordinary Indians and Sri Lankans. This relationship is buttressed by the message of peace, tolerance and friendship, defined by the journey of Arahat Mahinda and Sanghamitra Theri two millennia ago. Even today, this message resonates in both countries. Just last week, the prestigious Indian scholarships named after Mahatma Gandhi were awarded to 150 high school students from all 25 districts across Sri Lanka by H.E. Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. Most of the students who received this scholarship in the past have gone on to excel in their chosen fields of study at the undergraduate and higher levels. India has been attracting a growing number of Sri Lankan students for tertiary education, as it offers a more affordable alternative to other countries without compromising on quality. Currently, India offers about 290 scholarships to Sri Lankan students for higher studies in India and about 500 scholarships for studies in Sri Lanka. We urge the youth of Sri Lanka to take full advantage of these scholarships.
7. India’s commitment to development partnership with Sri Lanka has been reiterated by our leadership on various occasions. In this respect, we are guided, and will continue to do so, by the Government and people of Sri Lanka. Also, this assistance will continue to be disbursed with the same level of transparency that we expect in our own country. Our flagship Housing Project involving construction of 50000 houses in Sri Lanka has made excellent progress. During his visit to Jaffna, Prime Minister Modi had handed over houses to some beneficiaries in Ilavalai North West in Jaffna. We are hopeful of completing the second phase of the project on schedule by end-2015. For the third phase of the Housing Project, including construction of 4,000 houses in the Central and Uva Provinces, work is expected to start as soon as the modalities are worked out.
8. It is very encouraging to note that our bilateral relations are expanding to new vistas, particularly in science and technology. During the visit of President Sirisena to India in February, an agreement was signed on cooperation in peaceful uses of nuclear energy, which is an area with immense potential for cooperation, particularly in the field of medicine. We also hope that Sri Lanka will seek maximum benefits from India's satellite for the SAARC region, which is expected to be launched by December 2016.
9. The extension of e-Tourist Visa facility to Sri Lankan citizens has provided a boost to greater people to people contacts between our two countries. With effect from April this year, India also reduced fees for Sri Lankan nationals visiting National Museum in Delhi to see the Kapilavastu Relics. Sri Lankan nationals now have to pay a nominal entry fee of INR 10 (against INR 300 previously) to view the rich and varied collection at the National Museum, and Sri Lanka is the only country to be accorded this special status. India and Sri Lanka have agreed to develop the Buddhist and Ramayana Trails respectively. These initiatives will help transform age old spiritual links and geographical proximity into contemporary inter-linkages. We hope to bridge the hearts and minds of our two people to reflect our shared destiny.
10. Yesterday, as a part of the Indian Independence Day celebrations, the Indian Cultural Centre organized a musical soiree by the famous fusion percussionist, Pandit Subhen Chatterjee. Indeed, we are happy to be inaugurating a Festival of India later this year.
11. Cricketing ties are a part of the shared societal fabric of the two countries. Currently, the Indian Cricket Team is on tour in Sri Lanka and is playing a three test series, with the first test underway at Galle. As part of the Festival of India, we will be organizing, in cooperation with Sri Lanka Cricket, an exhibition early next year, which will chronicle the cricketing ties between our two countries.
12. A future of prosperity requires a strong foundation of security, peace and stability in our countries and in our region. The security of our two countries is indivisible. Equally, our shared responsibility for our maritime neighbourhood is clear. India will continue to cooperate closely with Sri Lanka on issues relating to maritime security and to reap the benefits of the ocean economy.
13. As Sri Lanka votes in crucial parliamentary elections two days from now, India remains committed to assist all Sri Lankans in their efforts to build a future that accommodates the aspirations of all sections of society for a life of equality, justice, peace and dignity in a united Sri Lanka. We look forward to working closely with the government that is elected by Sri Lankans, to further strengthen the strong edifice of our bilateral relations. As Prime Minister Modi said, our recent histories have shown that we have suffered together; and we are more effective when we work with each other.
Long live India-Sri Lanka relations!