In a move that has come to characterise his visits overseas, Prime minister Narendra Modi will connect with Indian-origin tea workers in Sri Lanka when he travels there on May 12. Modi will be chief guest for the UN Vesak Day celebrations in Sri Lanka, one of the ways India is trying to reclaim its Buddhist heritage and part of the larger plan of using Buddhism to build linkages within Asia.
India has built a hospital for the use of these tea workers in Dickoya, where Modi will address these workers while handing over the hospital.
Alarmed at China’s growing presence in the island nation, which has deepened since the Sirisena government came in, largely because of the debt trap Sri Lanka finds itself in, India is planning to step in with a larger footprint. India is disadvantaged in different ways – China’s exploitative financing mechanisms draw less popular criticism than India’s much more generous schemes. It was only this week that Mahinda Rajapakse, former president and architect of Sri Lanka’s China tilt called for black flags when Modi visits, in opposition to the India-Lanka deal to develop oil tank farms in Trincomalee.
The oil tank farms are the source of some contention in Sri Lanka. India says its good faith is demonstrated by the fact that despite LIOC having exclusive rights, India wants to go in for a joint venture with Sri Lanka. India says it has nursed the petrol tanks in the lower farms since 2003 for better utilisation of fuel. As a source said, “Since taking over the facilities at Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm in 2003, LIOC has invested heavily in the refurbishment of tankages, pipelines & jetty… LIOC has spent approx LKR 7000 million in the country on its various facilities.” In addition, LIOC pays the Sri Lankan government $100,000 per year for the facility since 2003.
India wants to extend the lease on the oil tank farms because it wants to set up a joint venture to develop the first 10 upper tank farms.
India and Sri Lanka will not sign major agreements during the visit, but the big framework MOU on economic projects signed during the recent visit by Lankan PM Ranil Wickremasinghe would cover a vast range of developmental projects that India plans to get into in Sri Lanka. The text of the MOU was not made public, in deference to the sensitivities in Sri Lanka – one of the obstacles Indian policymakers have to negotiate since Lanka never tires of asking for greater Indian involvement, but worries about loss of sovereignty to India.