Sri Lanka's President, Gotobaya Rajapaksa. (Twitter)
Its economy in shambles, Sri Lanka is in dire straits. The island nation, largely dependent on tourism dollars, has suffered more than most from the two-year slowdown caused by the pandemic. Food and essentials are scarce on supermarket shelves, fuel is getting prohibitively expensive after unprecedented recent price hikes caused by the balance of payments problem leaving the country little wiggle room for importing all its requirements and even medicine is in short supply.
With demonstrators out on the streets of Colombo beginning to demand the resignation of President Gotobaya Rajapaksa for alleged mismanagement of the economy, which is facing a meltdown, the country has had to go back on its resolve not to go to the IMF for bridge loans for fear of being dictated to on its economic management. With the Cabinet deciding to cross the Lakshman Rekha, the country is negotiating with the IMF now.
There is no threat to the government of the Rajapaksa brothers who came back with a thumping majority. But it is time that they buried once for all their ambivalent attitude to India brought about by an over reliance on China as an economic and infrastructure benefactor. In fact, it would make sense for India to offer to bail the island out from its current troubles with fuel, medicines, vaccines, etc. Surely a large bridge loan greater than the adjustments offered recently should be possible.
It would be in India’s geostrategic interests to get Sri Lanka on its side by lending a generous helping hand in this time of acute crisis. There have been pinpricks with regard to operating container terminals for the Colombo Port and other Indian public and private sector projects, including in healthcare and hospital sectors. The time to negotiate past them has come, towards which India may have to convince Sri Lanka that it is not for any blanket ban on Chinese investments.
In the light of the Hambantotta port experience in which there may have been a virtual surrender of sovereignty, Sri Lanka must be well aware of the hazards of accepting Chinese help. India’s aid is far more likely to come without throttling strings attached. Sri Lanka must also clear any residual doubts about its consent to projects in its northeast to China that may affect strategic interests in free flow of maritime traffic and possible eavesdropping from posts close to the Indian mainland.
The view from the capital New Delhi may be different to that of Chennai when it comes to handling the problem of Tamil Nadu fishermen frequently straying into Sri Lankan waters because the catch is better there. It should be possible for India to seek a humanitarian response on the part of the Sri Lankan navy and the setting up of a mechanism by which fishermen and their boats are returned. It may take diplomacy of greater transparency to halt the drift of years but the time is ripe for resetting of India-Sri Lanka ties. India would do well to remember the maxim that a friend in need is a friend indeed.