India Assistance To Sri Lanka For Rehabilitation And Reconstruction – Analysis


By V. Suryanarayan and Ashik Bonofer

Students of contemporary South Asian history are aware of the fact that the Government of India has responded favourably and spontaneously to any appeal for assistance by the Sri Lankan Government to tackle its domestic problems. Two illustrations are in order.

Faced with the internal security threat posed by the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) in April 1971 Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike asked for external assistance from India, United Kingdom, United States, Yugoslavia, Soviet Union and Pakistan. India was the first to respond sending five frigates to seal off approaches to Colombo. In addition, Indian assistance included military equipment for 5,000 troops, six helicopters with pilots for non-combat duties and 150 Indian troops to guard Katunayake airport. The revolt was crushed and the first long spell of emergency was proclaimed in Sri Lanka. The question may be legitimately asked, how did Colombo respond to Indian assistance? During the East Pakistani crisis, the Government of Sri Lanka provided refueling facilities for Pakistani air crafts on their way to East Pakistan to carry on savage reprisals against the Bangladeshi nationalists. It may be recalled that in February 1971, India withdrew landing and over flying facilities to the Pakistani International Airlines (PIA). To the shock and dismay of Indian observers, Sri Lanka granted these rights to the PIA. In March 1971, 16 east bound and 15 west bound Pakistani Air Force planes landed at Katunayake airport. Indian writers, especially Late K Subrahmaniam, India’s foremost defence analyst, has maintained that these flights involved Pakistani soldiers and war materials. The incident illustrated complicity between Sri Lanka and Pakistan against India.

India - Sri Lanka Relations
India - Sri Lanka Relations

When the Tsunami struck Sri Lanka in December 2004, the Indian response was spontaneous. Though a victim of Tsunami itself, the Government of India immediately mobilized its resources and extended timely help to its maritime neighbours – Sri Lanka, Maldives, Thailand and Indonesia. India was the first country to send assistance to Sri Lanka – within hours – after the tsunami, which claimed over 30,000 lives in the coastal districts spread across northern, eastern, southwestern and southern parts of the island. Indian relief workers were involved in a range of operations, including emergency medical aid, setting up of relief camps, restoring ports and reconstructing damaged bridges. The magnificent role played by the Indian Navy is one of the golden chapters in recent diplomatic history. It included the mapping of the bed of Colombo harbour, which was completed very effectively and swiftly. One difference between the Sri Lankan and Indonesian experience should be highlighted. The tsunami also brought havoc to Indonesia, but it triggered off a series of initiatives which paved the way for a settlement of the Achenese separatist problem. Hopes entertained by the Indian observers that a similar denouement will take place in Sri Lanka did not materialize due to the intransigence of both sides – the Sri Lankan Government and the Tigers. As a result Indian assistance extended to Sri Lanka did not reach the Tamils in the north and the east to the extent that we would have liked.

It is not our major focus in this essay to describe India-Sri Lanka co-operation during the Fourth Eelam War, but few points are in order. The Sri Lankan Government was deeply sensitive to the fact that if the war had to be pursued to its logical end, the Government of India should be on its side. In an address to the John Kotelawala Defence University few days ago, Prof. GL Peiris claimed that the conduct of international relations was done with “great finesse” with particular reference to India-Sri Lanka relations. It did not require much persuasion to convince New Delhi about the “justness of war against terrorism”. Colombo used to point out that in fighting the terrorist Tigers, Sri Lanka was, in many ways, fighting India’s battle against terrorism. But what New Delhi did not appreciate was the fact that the war against the Tigers was degenerating into a war against Tamil civilians. Thus a major change in India’s Sri Lanka policy took place. Unlike the pre-1987 period when New Delhi was determined not to permit a “military solution” to the ethnic problem, during the Fourth Eelam War India not only endorsed the war, but also provided assistance to Colombo in several ways.

It is well known that the Indian intelligence agencies provided vital information regarding the movement of Sea Tigers and the Sri Lankan Air Force was able to destroy the LTTE ships bringing arms supplies to the LTTE controlled areas. It may be recalled that when the Fourth Eelam War began, the Sea Tigers were in complete control of the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Bay, except the island of Mannar and the outer islands in the Jaffna peninsula. From 2006, the Sri Lankn armed forces began to extend its control from Mannar to Jaffna. One consequence was the umbilical cord which united the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka with Tamil Nadu was cut. Refugees could not escape from army atrocities and escape to Tamil Nadu as they used to do before. What is more, the Indian Coast Guard also extended a helping hand to Sri Lanka by undertaking co-ordinated patrolling in the Indian seas.

Because of pressure from Tamil Nadu, New Delhi understandably could not supply war materials to Sri Lanka, but it continued to supply non-lethal weapons. India gave vital radar equipments to the Sri Lankan defence forces and also undertook the modernization of the Palaly airport. The training of the Sri Lankan military personnel in the Indian military establishments continued unabated. According to the Annual Report of the Ministry of Defence, 2005, a total of 201 officers and 130 sailors from friendly countries were undergoing training in Indian naval establishments, of which147 officers and 102 sailors were from Sri Lanka. We have not been able to get the latest statistics, but it is unlikely there is any major change in the overall situation. In other words, if we go by 2005 statistics, India provides training to more Sri Lankan naval personnel than all other countries put together.

And above all, the centre-state political dynamics in India worked to Sri Lanka’s advantage. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which was in power in Tamil Nadu, was more interested in fostering its political equation with the Central Government than in demanding that New Delhi should immediately take steps to halt the ongoing war. Because of the competitive nature of Tamil Nadu politics, Chief Minister Karunanidhi had to indulge in certain “political gimmicks”, like the famous hunger strike, which started after breakfast and concluded before lunch, so that he gave the impression that he continued to be the “saviour” of the Tamils. The Central Government understood the rationale behind these gimmicks and allowed the Chief Minister considerable leverage to pursue his political goals. The end result was that Tamil Nadu could not bring about any change in New Delhi’s Sri Lanka policy. A perceptive Sinhalese academic told Prof. Suryanarayan few months ago that Sri Lanka would remain eternally grateful to New Delhi for “checkmating” the DMK.

When a deep humanitarian crisis engulfed Sri Lanka at the end of the Fourth Eelam War, with nearly 300,000 Tamils herded in relief centres as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), India established an emergency medical unit in the IDP camps, which treated about 50,000 IDPs and carried out about 3000 surgeries. Medicines worth Indian rupees 9.2 crores were provided. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced an immediate grant of Indian Rupees 5 billion for relief and rehabilitation of the Tamils.

Since land mines were a major problem confronting the IDPs in returning to their original homes, India dispatched seven defining teams; they did commendable work in various parts of Sri Lanka. India also provided shelter assistance by way of supplying 10,400 tons of galvanized iron sheets for constructing temporary housing for the IDPs. In addition, 70,000 starter packs of agricultural implements have been supplied. The Government of India also supplied 400,000 bags of cement to assist IDPs rebuild their shelters.

One tragic dimension of the IDP situation in Vavuniya unfortunately has not attracted the attention of New Delhi and Colombo. When Prof. Suryanarayan did field work in Vavuniya in 2004 he found that majority of the IDPs in Poomthottam were people of Indian origin. These people were encouraged to migrate to the northern parts as agricultural labour following the ethnic riots in the plantation areas after 1977 elections. NGO’s like the Gandhiyam were in the forefront championing integrated living between the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Estate Tamils. What is more, more and more land was being brought under the plough by Tamil landlords in Vavuniya area. Since the Sri Lankan Tamil middle class were unaccustomed to hard physical work, the Indian Tamil labourers filled the void. Whatever might have been the intentions of the NGO’s like Gandhiyam the Indian Tamils soon became the cannon fodder in the fratricidal conflict between the Sinhalese Lions and the Tamil Tigers. Finally, after several trials and tribulations, they landed in Poomthottam camp as IDPs. In the course of Prof. Suryanarayan’s conversation with them it became apparent that they did not have any roots in the hill country, therefore, the question of returning to the central province did not arise; they were also not keen to go back to Kilinochi and other places because they had no land to cultivate. Prof. Suryanarayan brought the tragic plight of these people to the attention of the leaders of the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), but they did not evince any interest in the subject. We feel that two remedial steps could be immediately initiated; first, the Government could start vegetable farms on a big scale and these people could be employed as labourers. Second, the Government should undertake a study of manpower requirements necessary for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the north and the east, and after that these people could be provided with necessary skilled training and employed meaningfully. These unfortunate people deserve greater understanding and sympathetic attention from the Indian High Commission and the Government of India. A silver lining in the situation is that Amb. Ranjan Mathai, Foreign Secretary, having worked in Sri Lanka in the early 1980’s, is not only familiar with their problems, but is also committed to their welfare. These people could be employed as labourers when construction of houses, to which the Government of India is committed, begins. The Indian High Commission should also impress upon the Sri Lankan Government the necessity to give citizenship papers and identity cards to those who do not have them.

The unfortunate side of the story is that many Indian projects, which were wholeheartedly welcomed by the Sri Lankan Tamils, have not been implemented due to bureaucratic bungling, red tapism and callous attitude of the concerned Sri Lankan authorities. In order o facilitate the resumption of agricultural operations, the Government of India gifted 95,000 agricultural starter packs, seeds and 500 tractors. The TNA members of Parliament have alleged that most of the tractors have not been sent to the Tamil areas, but to the southern parts for the benefit of Sinhalese farmers. The same holds true of 50,000 houses which the Government of India promised to construct for the benefit of the Tamil people. The land for the construction of the houses has not yet been allotted by the Government and the whole programme is proceeding at a snail’s pace. Recently a parliamentary panel of the Ministry of External Affairs has criticized the delay in the utilization of the allotted funds and has suggested the drawing of a time table for its speedy implementation. The same holds true of the of the railway line from Vavuniya to Jaffna and the development of the Kankesenthurai harbour. The joint venture project to produce coal powered electricity between the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and the Government owned Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) also ran into difficulties. At long last the clearance was issued and an Agreement was signed few days ago.

The blame game that India is dragging its feet in the development of Sri Lanka goes on and the critics compare the “tardy” Indian performance with the speedy progress of the projects undertaken by the Chinese Government. Whether it is the development of the Hambantota Port or the highway between Colombo and Kandy, the work sanctioned to China, according to them, gets completed swiftly and smoothly. They ignore the fact that the development of the Hambantota port was undertaken without proper environmental audit. In hindsight it could be said that if a proper study was undertaken the rock formations which act as a hindrance to the passage of ships to the port could have been detected. According to media reports, these rocks can be removed only by basting them. Will blasting the rocks pose ecological hazards to the southern province in general and Hambantota port in particular?

(Dr. V. Suryanarayan is Senior Professor and Director (Retd), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. He was a former member of the National Security Advisory Board, Government of India. His e mail address:[email protected] and Ashik Bonofer has specialised in South Asian Studies and is associated with the Center for Asia Studies as a Research Fellow. His e mail address:[email protected])


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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