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Indo-Lanka talks: Trinco issue, foreign reserve crisis on agenda



Prof. Peiris with Indian FS Harsh Vardhan Shringla (Pic courtesy FM)

Why was the Minister tasked by Prez to settle the ‘oil tank farm’ problem not involved …

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris says that although the further development of Trincomalee oil tank farm was on the agenda during the recently concluded three-day visit undertaken by Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, it has not been decided how to proceed with the project.

Declaring that India hadn’t pressured the government over the issue at hand, Prof. Peiris said a consensus could be reached on the Trincomalee project in a way beneficial to both countries.

The Minister said so when The Island sought his response to the growing criticism of the incumbent government’s handling of the controversial Trincomalee oil tanks project and recent heated exchanges in Parliament between Energy Minister Attorney-at-Law Udaya Gammanpila and members of the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB).

Shringla, who last served as India’s top diplomat in Washington, recently succeeded Vijay Keshav Gokhale.

Referring to a series of meetings, Shringla had with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa and himself during the Oct 2-5 period, Prof. Peiris emphasised that the Trincomalee oil tank farm was subject to two agreements finalised in the 80’s during President JRJ’s tenure and in 2003.

Shringla also met Foreign Secretary Admiral (retd). Prof. Jayanath Colombage and Defence Secretary General (retd.) G.D.H. Kamal Gunaratne.

Prof. Peiris had served the UNP Cabinet at the time the then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe’s administration entered into the second agreement. Prof. Peiris stressed that the further development of the project would be discussed taking into consideration two existing agreements.

Eldos Mathew Punnoose, Head – Press, Information and Development Cooperation at the Indian High Commission in Colombo, dealt with a range of issues taken up during the high profile visit. Referring to Shringla’s visits to Kandy, Trincomalee and Jaffna, signifying their cultural, economic and historical importance, respectively, the Indian HC spokesperson said: “In Kandy, the visiting Foreign Secretary offered prayers at Sri Dalada Maligawa. In Trincomalee, the Foreign Secretary visited the Oil Tank Farms, a symbol of the potential and strong energy partnership between the two countries, where LIOC briefed him about the development undertaken by it at the Lower Tank Farms and its advantages to Sri Lanka’s economy. During his visit to Jaffna, the Foreign Secretary inspected the Jaffna Cultural Centre and interacted with the Governor of the Northern Province, several Members of Parliament, academicians and business leaders.”

Prof. Peiris said that various interested parties deceived the public as regards newly appointed Indian Foreign Secretary’s visit to Colombo. The FM strongly denied accusations that the visit was meant to finalise a deal on the Trincomalee oil tank farm. “Instead, the entire gamut of issues was taken up,” Prof. Peiris said, asserting the possible amendments to existing agreements.

Reference was made to such amendments when Prof. Peiris addressed the media at the SLPP office, Battaramulla early this week.

Prof. Peiris, who succeeded SLPP’s first Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, on Aug 16, declared that the recently concluded talks dealt with a range of issues, including strengthening of Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves. Prof. Peiris said that the matter received special attention with various alternatives discussed in line with overall objectives.

He was of the opinion that India was ready to make major investments here, with the primary focus on producing medicine and the computer industry.

The Indian HC spokesperson said that at the meeting with the Finance Minister both sides agreed to proceed with joint projects, including those under the loan and grant assistance extended by India.

“The Foreign Secretary held wide-ranging and comprehensive discussions with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and his counterpart on all areas of mutual interest, including on the need to face the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic together to mitigate its economic impact,” the spokesperson said.

Prof. Peiris said that Indian Ocean security, counter-terrorism and training for Sri Lankan armed forces, too, had been on the agenda. Interestingly, a statement issued by the President’s Media Division (PMD), following President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s meet with Shringla referred to two issues that hadn’t been touched by the Foreign Ministry here and the Indian High Commission, in its press release issued on Oct 5.

The PMD quoted President Rajapaksa as having told Shringla that Sri Lanka wouldn’t allow the use of its territory in any way that threatened India’s security. The assurance has been given having explained the country’s relationship with China.

The PMD also quoted President Rajapaksa as having said that the responsibility for resolving the Trincomalee oil tank farm issue had been given to the Minister in charge of the subject.

However, Shringla hadn’t met Minister Gammanpila during his three day stay here. The Energy Minister on a number of occasions said that efforts were meant to address the issue at hand in a way not inimical to Sri Lanka.

A trade union grouping has declared what it has termed a sellout, an accusation strongly countered by Foreign Minister Prof. Peiris. Those who had been opposed to foreign investment in vital sectors continue to hinder the much required progress on the economic front, Prof. Peiris said, urging the critics to be mindful of politically motivated campaigns.

Prof. Peiris, who had been present when Shringla met Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa on Oct 4 at Temple Trees, said that the relations with India would be further strengthened with the signing of an inter-governmental MoU for the USD 15 mn ‘Buddhism grant.’

Prof. Peiris said that India also agreed to support the maintenance of the India built Jaffna Cultural Centre. Foreign Minister Peiris described the inaugural flight on Oct 20 from Sri Lanka to Kushinagar which would further bolster cultural links between the two countries a significant. Shringla also held political talks with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) delegation led by Member of Parliament and Leader of TNA R. Sampanthan; Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) delegation led by Member of Parliament Mano Ganesan and Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) delegation led by State Minister for Estate Housing and Community Infrastructure Jeevan Thondaman.

The Indian spokesperson quoted Foreign Secretary as having reiterated India’s longstanding support for the reconciliation that addresses aspirations of the Tamil community for equality, justice, peace and dignity within a united Sri Lanka and in accordance with the 13th Amendment.

Prof. Peiris also appreciated the inauguration/handing over of four development cooperation projects implemented by India. The projects had been implemented at the Vadamaradchi Central Ladies College and Saraswathi Central College in Pussellwa, Kandy, handing over of 1235 houses built under Indian Housing Project Phase III and handing over of houses built under the Model Village Housing Project in Vavuniya District.

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