India’s foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has stepped in offer help to a Sri Lankan hospital. The minister, currently on a visit to the island nation reacted to news that all surgeries in the country’s premier Peradeniya hospital have come to a stop, thanks to the scarcity of medicines. Jaishankar tweeted, "Disturbed to see this news. Am asking high commissioner Baglay to contact and discuss how India can help@IndiainSL.’’ He was reacting to the tweet that said, "Scheduled surgeries at the Peradeniya Hospital were suspended due to a shortage of medicines. Only emergency surgeries are taking place-NewsFirst#LKA#Srilanka#Economic Crisis."
This is exactly the kind of thing that wins the hearts and minds of people in distress. Sri Lanka, facing a near melt-down of its economy, will remember the countries that extended a helping hand in its hour of crisis. The hope is that the essential lifesaving drugs and other medical equipment reach Colombo without the bureaucratic red tape in New Delhi that often leads to unnecessary delays. Delivering on the ground quickly is as important as promising to step in.
The efficacy of India’s neighbours' first policy is a test to ensure that deadlines are maintained and to prove that New Delhi as a rising power is able to deal with every kind of emergency in its neighbourhood. Jaishankar said as much while speaking at the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) summit in Colombo.
"In conclusion, may I underline that with respect to BIMSTEC, India will bring to bear all relevant policies and approaches – one, as Neighbourhood First, give it the utmost priority; two, in consonance with our SAGAR outlook, realize its full maritime potential; and three, as a first responder, be it on HADR situations, Covid or economic recovery, be there at critical times for all of us," the minister said.
Jaishankar is familiar with Sri Lanka having served there as a young diplomat at the critical time when the Indian Peace Keeping Force was deployed in the north and south of the island. He knows political leaders across the spectrum including leaders of the Tamil minorities and had in the past been involved finding a solution to the ethnic problem. He is liked and respected by the Tamil political leaders of Sri Lanka. On Monday Jaishankar held bilateral talks with his Lankan counterpart G.L. Peiris and paid a courtesy call on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He discussed the economic crisis with finance minister Basil Rajapaksa.
New Delhi has already extended a billion dollars line of credit to Sri Lanka, and there are indications that Colombo wants another tranche and though no announcements have come from either side. But discussions are on for another billion in credit line. Earlier, in January India had allowed a $400 million currency swap and offered $500 million credit for the purchase of petroleum products, as the foreign exchange reserves of the island nation had dwindled drastically. The covid lockdown had played havoc with the island’s tourism industry which fetched billions of dollars of foreign exchange. Its agriculture had floundered thanks to the President’s decision last year to switch overnight to organic farming. With 70 per cent of the people engaged in agriculture, that hasty over wiped out production not only of staples but led to a dwindling of traditional exports like tea and rubber, reliant on chemical fertilisers. These factors finally forced the President to withdraw the announcement on organic farming for now. There is widespread unrest in the country as people are facing shortages of just about everything. Anti-Rajapaksa protests, unthinkable in the past are now a daily occurrence.
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term as president saw a shift in Lankan foreign policy with a tilt towards China. In fact, Chinese submarines were allowed to dock in Colombo twice in 2014, ringing alarm bells in South Block.
However, the Rajapaksas have since made up with India, and New Delhi with an eye on China’s overwhelming presence on the island has reciprocated. When Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidential elections in 2019, Jaishankar was there within a few days in Colombo, offering a hand of friendship. Colombo had also reassured New Delhi by declaring that it will adopt an "India first foreign policy,” meaning India’s security concerns will not be overlooked. As of now, relations are excellent though China’s presence continues to loom large.
China had also extended credit and allowed a currency swap to Sri Lanka. Colombo has asked China for a fresh $2.5 billion to firm up its dwindling finances. Talks are on but the Chinese ambassador in Colombo had said that the loan would be in "competitive terms" meaning no credit concessions. For the moment, India appears ahead in the competition between the two Asian powers, as Colombo has scrapped a power project which was earlier given to China and awarded it to New Delhi. This was one of the power projects signed during Jaishankar’s meeting with Peiris. India had earlier expressed concerns as the power plant was to be built in the northern province barely 30-km from the Tamil Nadu coast.