1. On the occasion of the 67th Republic Day of India, I extend my warm greetings and good wishes to my fellow Indian citizens and to the friendly people and the Government of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.
2. The last year has been quite transformative for India-Sri Lanka relations. I take this opportunity to congratulate the Government of Sri Lanka on completion of one year in office. Four high level bilateral visits within 90 days of the formation of a new government in Sri Lanka last year heralded a new chapter in our relations. President Maithripala Sirisena paid a State Visit to India in February 2015, which was his first overseas visit after assuming office. Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi made 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 during the first three months of 2015. In September 2015, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe visited New Delhi, his first official visit abroad after the January elections. Various agreements and MOUs were concluded during these visits.
3. The momentum generated by these visits has continued this year. Our Foreign Secretary visited earlier this month and had a series of very useful meetings. We now look forward to the visit of our External Affairs Minister, Smt. Sushma Swaraj, to Sri Lanka for the Joint Commission Meeting. Both countries are now working to take forward the agenda drawn up during these high level visits.
4. Sri Lanka continues to be a key part of India’s “neighbourhood first” policy, which recognizes that India’s neighbours, such as Sri Lanka, have a first claim on India, and that India’s growth is linked to the prosperity of its neighborhood. In this regard, India will continue to promote greater connectivity among SAARC countries, which is important for regional integration and economic progress.
5. A key element in strengthening bilateral ties with Sri Lanka will be deepening economic and commercial relations. We hope that Sri Lankan businesses will take advantage of their proximity to the fastest growing major economy in the world. The “Make in India” scheme offers great potential for those looking to invest in India. Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi has recently launched another ambitious new scheme, “Startup India, Standup India”, in addition to the “Make in India” initiative. This scheme involves a 19-point action plan for start-up enterprises in India, including a self-certification scheme related to nine labour and environment laws. The scheme, inter alia, seeks to encourage those ventures that would boost employment generation and assist in wealth creation. We invite Sri Lankan investors to take advantage of these initiatives.
6. I would like to highlight that bilateral trade remained buoyant in 2015. During the period January – November 2015, Sri Lankan imports from India amounted to US$ 3.75 billion, up by 6.17%, and Sri Lankan exports to India amounted to US$ 599 million, up by 12.3%, as compared to the same period in 2014. India is among the top investors in Sri Lanka with cumulative investments of over US$ 1 billion since 2003.
7. During his visit to India in September 2015, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe proposed concluding a bilateral Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement. We welcome the emphasis laid by the Hon’ble Prime Minister of Sri Lanka to promote the economic pillar of our relationship, and both sides are working together to fulfill the mandate given by our Prime Ministers, and conclude this agreement at an early date. This will not only boost trade, investment and technology cooperation, but also promote sub-regional economic integration and enhance people-to-people contacts. We are also looking to fast track various other ongoing projects, particularly in the power sector, railways and energy this year.
8. The increasing air connectivity between our two countries is a good reflection of the strengthening bilateral linkages. There are now 154 flights a week between Colombo and eight destinations in India, and India continues to be the largest destination for tourists into Sri Lanka, accounting for almost one-fifth of all tourist arrivals.
9. Special measures were taken during 2015 to simplify issuance of Indian visas to Sri Lankan nationals. In pursuance of the announcement made by the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India during his visit to Sri Lanka, the e-Tourist Visa (eTV) scheme was extended to Sri Lankan nationals w.e.f. April 14, 2015, to coincide with the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. Subsequently, in a goodwill gesture, the visa fee for eTV was sharply reduced. The new eTV fee for Sri Lankan nationals is only US$ 25 (plus bank charges of 2.5%), instead of US$ 60 (plus US$2 bank fee) charged earlier. We hope that more Sri Lankans will avail of the opportunity to visit India using the eTV. It may be noted that the eTV scheme continues to be in addition to the regular visa scheme.
10. An important pillar of our bilateral relations is development cooperation. India’s total development assistance commitment is now around US$ 2.6 billion, covering areas like housing, de-mining, agriculture, education, public health and connectivity. I would like to highlight that a significant part of this assistance is in the form of outright grants. Our flagship housing project, which aims to construct 50,000 houses, is proceeding well with around 44,000 houses constructed till date. The project is being implemented in close consultation with the Government of Sri Lanka and other stakeholders, and the highest standards of objectivity and transparency are being followed, both for beneficiary selection and the payment mechanism. The third phase, to construct 4,000 houses in the Central and Uva Provinces through an innovative community-driven approach, will be launched very shortly. We will continue to extend whatever assistance we can to support Sri Lanka’s development efforts.
11. In the cultural sphere, pursuant to an announcement made by the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India during his visit to Sri Lanka, the High Commission of India launched a Festival of India in Sri Lanka in November 2015, with ‘Nrityarupa’, a scintillating dance medley from different parts of India performed in Colombo, Kandy and Galle. The theme of the Festival is "Sangam": a confluence of cultures of India and Sri Lanka. The logo of the Festival, which is a pictorial depiction of "Sangam" in Sinhala, Hindi and Tamil, is a manifestation of the symbiotic ties that bind us. The Festival of India is a celebration of our shared civilizational heritage and will further strengthen the close links between our peoples and cultures. Various events will be held as part of the Festival during 2015-16. We will be unveiling an exhibition entitled “Rise of Digital India” in BMICH in February 2016, which will showcase the phenomenal rise of computing sector in India, and the use of computing and application of digital technologies in India since independence, which has touched the lives of millions of Indians in areas such as agriculture, power generation, weather forecasting, e-commerce, atomic energy, space, communication and e-governance.
12. In December 2015, an "India Corner", set up in partnership with the Jaffna Municipal Council, was inaugurated at the Jaffna Public Library. The "India Corner" offers access to a variety of books, DVDs, periodicals and other entertainment material to the people of Jaffna. It houses books procured from India, mainly in Tamil language, and is a major step in further cementing India's cultural relationship with the people of Jaffna.
13. India and Sri Lanka continue to enjoy a strong defence partnership based on extensive training and close linkages between our Armed Forces. Common security concerns, especially the protection of important sea lanes in our immediate maritime neighbourhood, guide our bilateral defence exchanges. Sri Lanka is our largest partner in defence training and we will continue to expand our cooperation in this area. Regular high level exchanges of visits, joint training and exercises, ship visits and sports interactions are some other elements of our robust bilateral defence cooperation. As a testimony to this close cooperation, India’s state of the art aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, visited Sri Lanka on a good will visit last week, its maiden overseas port call since being inducted into the Indian Navy two years ago.
14. India has an abiding interest in the security of Sri Lanka and remains committed to Sri Lanka’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity. We have always supported efforts to preserve Sri Lanka’s character as a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious society in which all citizens can live in equality, safety and harmony, and prosper and fulfill their aspirations. India will continue to remain engaged with Sri Lanka and offer our support in a spirit of partnership and cooperation.
15. I have no doubt that as close neighbours whose destinies are intertwined , our bilateral partnership will continue to scale even greater heights.
Long live India-Sri Lanka friendship!