The many ways of helping Sri Lanka
By T. Ramakrishnan
Recently, Chamal, who drives a battery-operated vehicle in the Peradeniya Botanic Gardens in Kandy, told this journalist that the common man in Sri Lanka greatly values India’s support, especially as it comes during a turbulent phase in the island nation’s economic history.
In Wellawaya, in the Uva Province, a self-effacing Sinhalese farmer was busy harvesting his paddy crop raised during the Yala cultivation season (May to August). He interrupted the translator to say that he has received normal yield this time thanks to “the supply of chemical fertilizers from India.” In the preceding Maha season (September to March), this small-scale farmer had suffered 50% crop loss on account of the Sri Lankan government’s decision to abruptly migrate to organic farming.
Similarly, Nesamalar, who runs a tea shop in Nuwara Eliya of Central Province, said Sri Lankans are aware that India cannot constantly provide generous assistance, but still expect their neighbour to give new loans.
A veteran government official in Colombo pointed out that even “certain fringe groups,” known for their anti-India rhetoric, stayed silent when the rest of Sri Lankan society was “tremendously appreciative” of what India did.
These accounts illustrate how Sri Lankans feel about India’s response to the country’s economic crisis. India has provided assistance of nearly $4 billion to its neighbour. However, there is a strong case for greater Indian engagement with Sri Lanka, which is still struggling to tackle the crisis. Such engagement need not be confined to liberal loans; it could also include sharing technical expertise or knowledge, or helping the country upgrade skills in different areas of economic activity.
According to a cross-section of people in Sri Lanka, agriculture and allied activities are the priority areas where India can make a difference. For instance, Sri Lanka imports a considerable quantity of milk powder. On average, Colombo annually imports dairy products worth $315 million. Even though this accounts for about 1.5% of its total imports, Sri Lanka’s self-sufficiency in dairy production would not only have saved precious foreign exchange, but also reduced despondency among the people during the peak of the crisis. India can help Sri Lanka develop its dairy sector. Given Sri Lanka’s natural conditions, including an average annual rainfall of around 185 cm, its enormous potential in dairy development remains untapped. Leaving the rather unsuccessful joint venture project of about 20 years ago with the National Dairy Development Board of India behind, India and Sri Lanka should start afresh in the sector.
Likewise, the poultry sector, which is also in a state of crisis, deserves special treatment because it is unable to come to terms with rising input costs and shortages in animal and veterinary medicines. The domestic production of maize, which is largely used as the primary ingredient in domestic poultry feed, is still insufficient to fulfil the demand. This has compelled feed producers to fall back on high-cost alternatives. In this area, through its host of agricultural universities, India can share its knowledge on ways to increase both production and productivity. Agricultural machinery is another area where Sri Lanka needs a helping hand.
Considering how the problem on the energy front exploded into a major political crisis in Sri Lanka, India’s participation in energy projects will be desirable. But this can become a reality only if Sri Lanka’s leadership shows the political will to work with India. Even though provisional approvals were recently issued for the Adani Group’s wind power projects of over $500 million in the Northern Province, India would not like the Sampur experience repeated. In 2016, a 500-MW coal-fired power project in Sampur was scuttled even after getting environmental clearance.
Despite providing employment to a large proportion of the population and playing a key role in economic output, Sri Lanka’s Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) have not achieved their potential for various reasons, one of which is the low adoption of technology, according to the 2021 annual report of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. Even though India has to go a long way in digitizing operations of its MSMEs, its programs including the ‘Digital MSME’ and ‘RAMP’ (Raising and Accelerating MSME Performance) can provide leads to the MSME sector.
School education is another area where India’s presence could be more felt. India can expand its scheme of establishing smart classrooms and modern computer labs to cover all those institutions teaching children of hill country Tamils, the most underprivileged section in Sri Lankan society. Indian universities can consider setting up satellite campuses in Sri Lanka. A collaborative project can be conceived for training second and third rung employees of the public sector.
And on the culture front, India can arrange for greater numbers of Buddhist monks to visit places of religious importance here.
Helping is in India’s interest too
The wish list can go on. There is enormous scope for India to engage in a constructive way with its southern neighbour, which is known for performing better than most other economies in Asia. India can ensure that the proposed development program is equitably distributed in coverage. Needless to say, the Northern and Eastern Provinces, where the Tamil and Muslim ethnic minorities live, and which were badly hit by the civil war, should be given special attention as their contribution to Sri Lanka’s GDP is hardly 10%. This ought to be improved.
Sri Lanka’s political class and civil society, which would have observed closely the efficacy of the country’s constructive engagement with India in recent months, should facilitate the success of the program instead of allowing themselves to be carried away by the anti-India rhetoric of a few groups. Given the history of bilateral ties, instances such as the Hambantota controversy are bound to arise. But what should not be glossed over is that a politically and economically stable Sri Lanka will be in India’s interest too.
-Chennai based journalist T. Ramakrishnan visited Sri Lanka in August on the invitation of the Sri Lanka Deputy High Commission in Chennai, together with the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau. This article was originally featured on thehindu.com