Returning to Jaffna last week after three decades was an emotional experience. My first visit to Jaffna, accompanying the Indian Force Commander Lt-Gen Depinder Singh, was in October 1987. The sound of AK47 rifle fire as our helicopter landed in Jaffna is etched in my memory.

Things were very different now when I landed at Jaffna’s Palaly airport. While the wounds of war will take decades to heal, the manner in which things have changed is impressive. There is an air of expectation as Jaffna town bustles, with children cycling to school and the university looking forward to better times. There is assured supply of electricity and water and even a brand new hotel full of visitors! Happily, there is an Indian Consul General in Jaffna to oversee the comprehensive rehabilitation assistance that India is providing.

Little publicity, big success

India’s development assistance to Sri Lanka and particularly to the war-torn northern and eastern provinces, has been a little publicised success story, which few even in India are aware of. In an imaginatively crafted and financed construction effort, India has assisted around 46,000 Tamil families to move into new homes. Moreover, rehabilitation assistance has also been extended to small businesses across the Northern Province, together with the establishment of an industrial estate in Jaffna. Indian assistance has included the construction and equipping of hospitals, clinics and water supply projects.

Tamil fishermen in the Jaffna peninsula have been supplied boats, fishing nets and cold storage facilities. They make no secret of their anguish at the manner in which fishing trawlers from Tamil Nadu, equipped with lethal wire nets, recklessly denude their resources and deprive them of their livelihood. Jaffna residents speak of Indian fishing trawlers operating within sight. This is a genuinely humanitarian issue on which they expect understanding and support from their brethren in Tamil Nadu.

After clearing up the Kankesanthurai harbour and renovating the Palaly airfield, there are now possibilities of Indian investment to convert Palaly airfield into a hub for tourism across the Palk Straits.

The speed and efficiency of restoration of the railway link to Jaffna from Colombo, with Indian assistance, is impressive. Power shortages could be addressed soon if an expeditious decision is taken in Colombo on the long-pending Sampur power plant in the Eastern Province, to be built in collaboration with NTPC. Moreover, there is need for some imaginative thinking on how India can join in the efforts to make Trincomalee a regional hub, given the fact that it is has an interest and role in the development of petroleum storage facilities in the strategically located port. Petroleum Minister Dharamendra Pradhan is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka. This will, no doubt, be an important item on his agenda.

Unrealistic expectations

Following the provincial elections, the Northern Province has an elected government with a distinguished chief minister, CV Vigneswaran. Predictably, there are complaints about the need for grater devolution of power to the provincial government.

While the government in Colombo is committed to significant political changes, it would be unrealistic for Tamils in the north to expect a merger of the Northern and Eastern Province.

Virtually the entire Tamil Muslim population has fled to the east and has little interest in living with their erstwhile northern neighbours. A call for merger of the north and east will be rejected in any referendum by a combination of Sinhalas and Tamil Muslims in the Eastern Province. In the meantime, Sri Lanka seems headed for major constitutional changes. The new constitution will hopefully address issues that led to ethnic alienation in the past.

The new Sirisena-Wickremesinghe dispensation, which unites the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, came together because people across the political spectrum were alienated by the authoritarian Rajapakse dispensation. It is to their credit that many of the authoritarian excesses of the previous government have been discarded, through steps that have won widespread public support. It is not clear if such a broad coalition will enter the next elections in a similarly united manner.

But the present dispensation has been sensitive to India’s security concerns. This should be acknowledged and reciprocated. While it will be unwise and unaffordable to look at every Chinese initiative in Sri Lanka with suspicion, New Delhi has to ensure that it retains its influence in Trincomalee, while ensuring that China’s presence in Colombo and elsewhere does not pose a security challenge. Sri Lanka has avoided acquiring Chinese-Pakistani JF17 fighter aircraft. It is prepared to look at acquiring the superior Indian Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) instead. No effort should be spared to ensure that Sri Lanka expeditiously receives a sufficient number of Indian LCA.

Trade on the up

Trade and investment ties with Sri Lanka are steadily growing. India is today Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner. Investment ties are growing, or set to grow in areas such as retail, petroleum and petro-chemicals, tyres, cement and infrastructure. There is now an Indian consulate and promising prospects for investments in areas such as sugar refineries even in the former president Mahinda Rajapakse’s constituency, the Chinese-built port of Hambantota.

We should never forget that a vast majority of Sri Lankans are devout Buddhists. India could act much more imaginatively in not only cultivating the Buddhist clergy, but also in focusing on its shared spiritual heritage with countries in the Bay of Bengal rim including Bhutan, Myanmar and Thailand.

The next BIMSTEC summit meeting is to be held in New Delhi later this year. Members of the BIMSTEC — India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand — have a shared Buddhist heritage and developing this entire region as a tourism hub would be of interest to the estimated 535 million Buddhists spread across the world. Heritage tourism is now becoming increasingly popular worldwide. And recent estimates suggest that there are 250 million practising Buddhists in China alone.

Sadly, India has a long way to go before it can be regarded internationally as an attractive tourist destination, especially in comparison to its eastern neighbours.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan