Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe said that the Free Trade Agreement would be revived and upgraded into a comprehensive economic and technological partnership.
He pointed out Sri Lanka and India gradually have to wean themselves out of the barriers to investment and the non-tariff barriers to trade especially in relation to Sri Lanka Indo economic relations.
He made these observations addressing the Sri Lanka India Society (SLIS) get together held at the Taj Samudra Hotel in Colombo on Thursday (15) evening to mark the 75th anniversary of independence of India.
Following is the full speech made by the President:
Your Excellency, the High Commissioner, Honourable Minister of Foreign Affairs, Distinguished guests and friends.
First, I must thank Mr. Kumar Nadesan for all the nice things he said about me. No doubt influenced by the fact that I have given a moratorium for the newspaper industry. I must say, you all have set up a record, looking at last year and this year, that two people from the same school and the same class have been the chief guest at these meetings. It gives me great pleasure to be here with you all on the 75th anniversary of India’s independence. As I said earlier, the late Jawaharlal Nehru, Pundit Ji’s speech that day, traced with destiny, referred not only to India but I think to all of Asia. Even before India became independent in 1946, you called the first Asian Relations Conference that paved the way for the Asian nations to get together. Subsequently, other Asians and Africans got together. Actually, India in that sense was the head of the others. China came in only in 1949 and Japan in 1952, the three greats that constitute the main powers of Asia.
We also have to remember the achievements of India. India was born out of a partition of states put together and there was a question of how long India would last. So India has lasted 75 years and therefore will last very much longer. There is no doubt of that. In this you must remember two individuals, one is Deputy Prime Minister, Vallabhbhai Patel, who did the work of bringing some of the states together, especially the more difficult ones. And most of all Pandit Ji who established India, the concept of India and the Indian identity. So that itself is a tribute and the achievement of India.
India and Sri Lanka have many things in common. That is symbolised by your flag carrying the Ashoka Chakra. Under Ashoka, the great Emperor, Buddhism came to Sri Lanka. The Mauryan rule came to Sri Lanka. Even after the Mauryan system collapsed with the succeeding Guptas, the Mauryan system of rule came and stayed in Sri Lanka well in the latter part of our dry zone kingdom, the Rajarata Kingdom. So far, institutes of government, the planning of our cities come from this system.
We also had Buddhism, which was sent in by Emperor Asoka and then the Indian flag today symbolises the origin of how Sri Lankan society was built. The two languages we have, Sinhala and Tamil which originated from Sanskrit and Pali to be exact Magadi, which was preached by the Buddha as he went down the Ganges plains. This is just the beginning. So many other systems of customs have come along here from India, from North India, and more so in the last thousand or more years from South India.
You could see a commonality in the customs that have come from Tamil Nadu and the customs that have come from Kerala. Many of you, Sinhalese here are great believers in ‘Rahu Kalaya’- that is what you have got from Kerala. No one gave it to you here. We worship the goddess Pattini, another import from Kerala. So we have here a large number of people, not merely the Buddhist, not merely the Hindus, but even a sizable section of the Muslims who convert to Muslim on the Quran translated to Tamil from South India, so that that shows the influence that India as a continent has had on Sri Lanka.
So we have, now, got independence six months after each other and we have ventured out on a journey. So, there are many common cultural heritages that we have. Religion, culture, as you saw the dancers here, that’s one part. If you look at that red and white that the Kandyan wears, that again is from Kerala, the colour scheme that comes from there. So this is the commonality. We have our differences, but we built on this. And democracy is one thing that is common to us that we built up in the modern age. We must thank the British Empire for giving us cricket, which again has brought all of us together and to India with Bollywood.
These are the new factors which bind us together. So that’s why we always say this is not merely one of a bilateral relationship. It goes beyond that. Take your national anthem written by Rabindranath Tagore and take our national anthem written by a student of Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore was the greatest Indian or Southeast Asian which I could not mention in the first half of the 20th century. He belongs to all of us.
I remember my mother describing the occasion when Rabindranath Tagore came to Sri Lanka. He stayed with my great grandmother and my mother among others had the opportunity of speaking with Rabindranath Tagore. And that’s the description that is worth thinking of. So we’ve been influenced by many of those who came from India, and we have now become one part of the continent joined together.
The irony is that some of those in South India sort of find Colombo more common to them than many parts of North India. So how do we carry on? Whatever we are doing culturally, I don’t think, a government can promote. It will happen automatically. But what is significant is that the Prime Minister of India comes and worships in the Temple of the Tooth and the President of Sri Lanka goes to Tirupati.
I don’t think you can see such a change happening in any other part of the world or any other country. I think we should leave the culture to the people, and leave the arts to the people. They’ll decide what they want and what they don’t want.
But I must thank Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, for the gift of Rs 2 billion that has been given to us to promote Buddhist relations between India and Sri Lanka. We will come across some new ideas and new projects which will make people aware of the connections between our two countries. Then where is the area where we can expand. That is in the area of trade and commerce. Actually, many religions have more than one paradise. The Indian and Sri Lankan economies have two paradises, one is barriers to investment, other is non-tariff barriers to trade. Now both our countries have to gradually wean ourselves out of it. Especially in Sri Lanka Indo economic relations. We are working for it because in this age, we do see integration taking place in South-east Asia and East Asia. When they are getting together, what do we do in South Asia? At least our view is that India and neighbouring countries Nepal, Sri Lanka Bangladesh should integrate. We look forward to that. We look forward to trade integration in many areas with the RCEP with the EU, but the cornerstone of this is to achieve trade integration with India. And how do we go ahead? We have to give our emphasis.
What do you want to be in 2048, 2047? Prosperous societies without poverty where our per capita income is sufficient to be classified as an upper middle income economy or a prosperous, developed economy. Then that depends on trade and in exploiting competition.
I think the future relations of India with its neighbours will be determined by trade integration. Trade integration gives an economic base. Common economic base is a prerequisite for a better national security and better political relations. So, keeping this in mind, we are taking two major steps.
First one is we will revive and upgrade the Free Trade Agreement into a comprehensive economic and technological partnership. We started that in 2018 and 2019. Then I found recently that it has been stuck somewhere in the department of Commerce with a large number of committees. I didn’t know why it was necessary. At that time, I asked the then minister, Mr. Malik Samarawickrama to negotiate it, and we didn’t have very many things. So I abolished all the committees and I said, I want to see this done quickly at the highest political level. But I also think if Sri Lanka wants to develop its international trade, we have to think differently. So I have decided to establish an international trade office which will deal with all the international trade negotiations. As I spoke with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, first under the Ministry of Finance to set it up and when it is restructured, we will go in the future to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
So this is the first step that will pave the way. It also means that we had to remove the red tape. We are looking at restructuring our institutions and looking at a separate ministry which will deal with ease of doing business competitiveness at the same time, to look forward to the different trade agreements that we will come to. So there is scope for Sri Lanka and India to get together and look at their different areas for instance, logistics, renewable energy, tourism, trade, I.T. There are many, many areas in which we can work together and we should work together for the benefit of our two countries.
Secondly, we are looking at all the projects which India and Sri Lanka had agreed to, but unfortunately it had got delayed at the Sri Lankan end. So I have asked my chief of staff who is here to work on it, and I saw him today surrounded by different officials explaining why they couldn’t do it. So I presume after some time we come to the stage, they will tell us that we will do it. But amongst it we have our agreements on the Indian rupee being used here, which finally will enable Indian tourists to come in here and help Tourism.
But of the projects, I will only talk of two areas.
One is the long term energy solution, the power grid connection between India and Sri Lanka, offshore wind energy, solar power plant at Sampur and the renewable energy projects on three islands of Jaffna.
We have a tremendous scope of potential renewable energy, and India has stepped in first. There’ll be others. But what is from Puttalam to Mullaitivu, if we exploit renewable energy and go in for green hydrogen and also provide power to India, you will see the upliftment of the Northern economy, which had not happened earlier. The big impact on the northern economy and the implementation. Then we come to promoting Indian higher education institutes to come into Sri Lanka, especially Jaffna is one area we have identified, again another development.
And we had the Trincomalee development, the Trincomalee tank farm development, the development of the upper tank farm, the development of the Trincomalee Port and the investment zones which we are working out. Fortunately, Surbana Jurong has given us a plan for the layout of the Trincomalee areas. So this gives big potential. The potential is such that you will find, as far as North is concerned, on its western side will be renewable energy and its eastern side a port. So that will contribute to the development of the north. But that is not only the area we are looking at. We are developing logistics because of the fact that we are one of the main ports for India and Bangladesh. So together with India, Adani Group has already taken over part of the West terminal of the south port. We will be further developing the logistics in Sri Lanka. Similarly, in many other fields even of the area of privatisation. And now I am glad that the LIOC has decided to buy more filling stations from the CPC. Those are good signs for most of you while looking for a better supply of petroleum. But these will all lay the foundation for the area for closer economic cooperation between India and Sri Lanka. There will be new investments here. I am proud that Sri Lankans have gone out to India. Damro Company is one such example. We should allow Sri Lankans to go to India just as we call for Indians to come here.
But let us treat this as one big market with potential because we have now to think of the future. Of the past, yes, we can be satisfied. In the future, yes, we have to plan it down. Let’s do this now and don’t look back. Look forward to it. Go ahead. We know what our goals have to be for the next 25 years.
So I don’t want to take any more of your time, but I would like to bring a toast to the friendship between the people of Sri Lanka and the people of India.
First Lady Senior Professor Maithree Wickremesinghe, Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Sabry, High Commissioner of India to Sri Lanka H. E. Gopal Baglay, SLIS President Kishore Reddy, Chief of Staff to the President and Senior Advisor to the President on National Security Sagala Rathnayake also participated in the event.