July 23, Colombo: Sri Lanka’s Foreign Affairs Minister Ali Sabry has emphasized on strong connectivity between India and Sri Lanka highlighting how both ferry and aviation will increase people-to-people linkages and boost tourism and trade.
Speaking to WION diplomatic correspondent Sidhant Sibal from Colombo, FM Sabry explained that the feasibility of the proposal of land connectivity, while connecting with each other could be a good opportunity, need to be studied.
"Connecting with each other could be a good opportunity. But the proposal, first of all, you need to study the feasibility of it, see the benefit for both countries and see that it will be beneficial for both countries and both nations then we must go ahead with it."
Earlier this week, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe visited New Delhi, with both countries agreeing on new ferry services among other key connectivity issues.
Regarding the proposal for an energy pipeline, Sabry stated, "The idea is to freely flow oil, making it easier to connect. This could ensure energy security for both Sri Lanka and India at various points."
Both countries have also been working on FinTech connectivity, with a pact on UPI being announced during the visit of President Wickremesinghe. UPI is expected to start in Sri Lanka in a few months and will help Indian tourists.
On India’s security concerns in the backdrop of a visit of a Chinese vessel last year, Sabry assured, "We have finalized SOP and SOPs is in place...We have worked on that over a period of time in line with the UNCLOS-UN laws of seas".
Following is the full interview with WION:
WION: Connectivity was the key focus of the visit, connectivity in various formats, if you can talk about that. Also, a proposal on land connectivity, if you can talk about that, what is the plan for it?
Ali Sabry: We had a wonderful 2-day tour led by our President Ranil Wickremesinghe and the discussion centered around the economic partnership, mutual benefit for both countries and taking the maximum out of the expected economic growth in the region. So, in that everybody understands the entire growth is centered around people-to-people contact, whether it is business, social, economic, or educational thing, people are centered around that. That could only happen if you have better connectivity. So connectivity as you said that different forms and shapes but we thought in the long run it really to make sense of it like many countries and the regions which are connected with each other in various parts of the world, whether in Europe or in Northern America, or in the Middle East, going North Southeast Asia. Connecting with each other could be a good opportunity. But the proposal, first of all, you need to study the feasibility of it, see the benefit for both countries and see that it will be beneficial for both countries and the both nations then we must go ahead with it. So the idea is to propel growth through connectivity and connectivity really takes place when you are connected through land so ordinary people could drive from one end to the other end, and it becomes a larger region where economic cooperation, social cooperation educational cooperation, and people to people contact become a reality.
WION: Ferry connectivity, aviation connectivity were other focus areas, if you can talk about that..
Ali Sabry: Aviation connectivity is to some extent is well connected. Sri Lankan airlines fly to different destinations within India and some of the Indian Airlines are flying to Sri Lanka so we would want more airlines to fly for both times. We are open to it. Then of course the Alliance airline which flies from Chennai to Jafna is now flying more frequencies on every day. So that’s an area in which we want to see more connectivity so that it is affordable for people to travel and connect with each other. The second one of course the ferry, we identified two points, in Sri Lanka and two points in India so that it takes shape and form in the foreseeable future and very soon it and thirdly, His Excellency Prime Minister Narendra Modi very clearly stated that he would like to see more cruise tourism take place and connecting Sri Lankan and Indian ports in various regions. So these are the forms and shapes we are looking at connecting people, so we hope this will again, help to really tap the real potential of tourism and hospitality trade and other forms and shapes.
WION: Coming to land connectivity, will it be passed by the cabinet?
Ali Sabry: Yeah, generally any main decision-making process in Sri Lanka is we can propose any proposal thereafter, there will be a feasibility study from both countries. And once the feasibility study shows that it is feasible and then of course, it has to be taken into several layers, Attorney General have to clear and then the cabinet has to clear and ultimately they have to come before the parliament and get that get the clearance. So and why we want to do that is then it becomes not a partisan action it becomes a national issue. So, once a national decision is taken, is sustainable, it has long-term stability in that so, so these decisions are important decisions. It has to be taken by taken after consulting various levels with the decision makers and the representative of the people.
WION: Key announcement on Trincomalee as India, Sri Lanka agree to develop Trincomalee city as regional hub...if you can talk about that..
Ali Sabry: Yes, Sri Lanka has seen three major ports. Colombo is one of the world’s largest port and busiest ports. And then of course we have the Hambantota port, Trincomalee is the in the eastern part of Sri Lanka. That’s a very important port, which is the second deepest natural port in the world, in the world. So it’s a very strategically located port, and that’s easier to connect with the southern part of Indian ports. So we are looking at the whole region of Trincomalee to be developed and through that, to develop the living standard of the Eastern Sri Lankans and northern Sri Lanka in order to do that, we will--government of Sri Lanka will identify several projects-- in that some of the projects which we have earmarked are for port development, creating an energy hub and to develop the tank farms jointly and also to establish a probably industrial zone, hospitality trade. So, in all these things, we are also looking at the opportunity to work with the Indian side, a joint working group sitting and looking at the feasibility of those projects, various projects and work to get.
WION: Focus also on energy connectivity, with proposal of an energy pipeline, if you can talk about that
Ali Sabry: Yeah, oil pipeline, the idea is freely to flow the oil, rather than physically carrying it through mobile applications like what is happening now through the vehicles. So once that happens, it’s become easy to connect. So the idea is our Ministry of Power and Energy working very closely on that. We have looked at the feasibility of it. We feel this is good and this could ensure the energy security of the Sri Lankan at various points so both countries and within the country also in Sri Lanka to connect it at various points.
WION: Focus also on financial connectivity, the big announcement was on the UPI, so how do you see it benefiting people of the 2 countries, and also Indian tourists travelling to Sri Lanka?
Ali Sabry: yeah, I think it will be a good beginning, it will help many other Indians to feel safe, easy and devoid of unnecessary transaction costs. For example, if you are an Indian and to travel, he has to go get another third denomination currency by changing his Indian rupee and then come back to Sri Lanka and then again get Sri Lankan rupee and then before you go back, again change it to the international currency, then go back again get it into Indian currency. See this is a lot of countries have seen this, this is not good and therefore, like many other currencies, which we have identified, Indian currency will also be given an opportunity to use it as a legal tender and UPI will allow them to come into Sri Lanka and just use like you they use in India, at any shop, any place so that it really becomes very feasible for them. So that’s an idea, that will definitely encourage more Indians to travel more efficiently and at less expense. So therefore, we see this good opportunity for Indians to travel more and how Sri Lanka will benefit out of that is that more Indians feel better travelling to Sri Lanka and easy destination just like many of us travel to Singapore without some time visa-free or Visa on arrival, it could propel tourism growth so we see an opportunity and mutually beneficial for both countries.
WION: Are we looking at a timeline when the UPI can be started in Sri Lanka?
Ali Sabry: I believe within the next three months or so, we should be able to use that because we have signed a key agreement. Financial authorities and monetary authorities have worked on that. So all in all the maximum timeline I feel is about three months’ time
WION: Usage of Rupee has started in Sri Lanka, if you can give an update how the transaction has been going or what kind of transaction has been going?
Ali Sabry: Yeah, I think those discussions have been held with the experts. I think, once there is clarity on that, we will share with the ordinary public, general public rather, it’s important that at this point in time, we continue to work towards it. We all see an opportunity in that and a lot of traction in that, our experts are working on that with their counterparts. All in all, we see this will happen sooner rather than later.
WION: India has its set of concerns over security, and we saw a visit of a Chinese spy ship, any assurances by Sri Lanka or how both countries are working on the issue?
Ali Sabry: Basically, the conversation centred around keeping the Indian Ocean as a peaceful region and the commitment towards it. Number two is to be sensitive towards each other security concerns. In other words, as far as India is concerned that India’s legitimate security concerns are to be taken into consideration in whatever the decisions what we are making. To be fair by India, India didn’t ask or wanted us in any way to block any investment from any other countries or any trade with any other countries. And that’s all perfectly normal because every country is doing that. But security concerns which are legitimate need to be taken into consideration. So that we have repeatedly told that the legitimate security concerns of the Indian Government and the people of India will not be compromised by Sri Lanka at any stage being a responsible neighbour and also a close friend of India for generations.
WION: There was a plan for a standard operating procedure or SOP in the backdrop of the visit of the Chinese research vessel, any update on that?
Ali Sabry: Yes, we have finalised SOP and SOPs are in place. We will share this with all our stakeholders and the friends of the SOPs. We have worked on that over a period of time in line with the UNCLOS-UN laws of the seas. We have developed that and then probably we will put that in place very soon.
WION: Sri Lanka has also sought an innocent passage, for its vessels to the Arabian Sea, was that matter raised?
Ali Sabry: Yes, in fact, the Sri Lankan side made a request that, innocent passage to be allowed which means not to engage in fishing in the Indian water, but sometimes from Sri Lanka you had to pass the Indian water to get into the mid sea and the Arabian Sea which is international waters, anybody can fish in that particular areas. So we have sought the innocent passage that will pass through the Indian territory and Indian waters to go into the international waters, so our fishermen who are engaging in multi-day troll operations.
WION: Indian PM Modi called for a humane view on the fisherman issue, if you can talk about your view?
Ali Sabry: Yeah, basically two things were in the conversation. That is all agreed that we should have a joint working group sitting and talking in detail in order to avoid any unpleasantries. Secondly, Sri Lanka, kind of explained that the bottom trawling which is taking place, bottom trawling is very dangerous, it just sweeps the seabed and it could be very dangerous. And in our understanding, the bottom trawling had already done a lot of damage to the seabed on the side of the Indian waters. So there are a lot of bottom trawlers coming into international waters and to the Sri Lankan water, which is bad for all, not only for Sri Lanka but for India as well in the long run, because that will kind of destroy marine life. So therefore we explain the concerns that we have and our fishermen have, and I’m sure Fisheries Working Group will sit and discuss this and finalise it so.
WION: If you can give an update on the current economic situation in Sri Lanka? India played a key role, but what is the current situation?
Ali Sabry: Actually, compared to the last year, we have made a lot of progress. We had a plan, for getting over this economic crisis. The first step was to stabilize the economy, that is, to control inflation and eliminate the various queues and shortages, the second was the recovery; and the third was the growth. So what we are now going through is the second page of recovery. We have started to recover; it is like a vehicle that was going down where you first stop stabilization, then slowly take it back to the normal level of the ground, and then you start moving. So, we are on the second level, we are coming to the ground stage now, and now we have taken off. So in terms of that, in other words, we have controlled the inflation, which was running around 80% and came down to a single figure in July, less than 10%. The Sri Lankan Rupee has stabilized; in fact, until recently it gained about 20%, and it’s already again for this year about 10 to 12%. Then there are no queues, 24 hours electricity, and tourists have started to come back, migrants working in the middle east, and in East Asia and also from some of the countries in the West have started sending their money through the normal channels. So our foreign reserves have significantly improved. The Sri Lankan situation is much better than it used to be. You can see that right now. So many of cricket matches are taking place. This month tourism has picked up very well. So we are very confident that Sri Lanka is on a path to a moderate recovery. But it is just the first step a long, long way to go. We understand the gravity of it. And President Ranil Wickremesinghe had given leadership to an unprecedented economic reform package in terms of revenue generation, in terms of fiscal discipline and in also in terms of laws, which are necessary to curb corruption. So all in all, we have made some good progress, but a long, long way to go. I could only see some resemblances and similarities of India in the early 1990s, they started a reform program. Across the government and party lines, they continued with the same policies and are reaping the benefits now. So we can only learn lessons from that and hope that we will continue to proceed with these reforms in order to achieve the true potential of the Sri Lankan economy.
WION: Sir, you and the President have played a key role in Sri Lankan recovery, My last question is: what next in Indo-Sri Lanka ties? Do we expect Prime Minister Modi to travel to Sri Lanka?
Ali Sabry: We would love to have the honourable Prime Minister Modi visit Sri Lanka. And we also wanted your finance minister, who played a very crucial role in getting Sri Lanka out of the woods, to visit Sri Lanka, and we will have many high-level delegations coming from both sides. We also discussed the parliamentary groups—Sri Lankans and Indian parliamentarians meet--so that they will tell people to people contact and work together by dispelling all the myths and the suspicion of each other so that you can move on with the new generation of leadership. So we look forward and are confident that in the years to come, our relationship, with both Sri Lanka and India will be stronger, better, mutually beneficial, and will be an example for the region.