India is yet to receive any formal request from the Sri Lankan government for emergency humanitarian assistance for beleaguered Jaffna, according to well placed sources in the Government of India.
Reports quoting the Sri Lankan government defence spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwella, had said on Saturday, that Indian assistance had been sought and that India would help.
The Sri Lankan government has been unable to supply Jaffna with essential goods because land, sea or air links with the rest of the country had snapped due to the fighting between the government forces and the LTTE since August 11.
Sources in New Delhi told Hindustan Times on Sunday, India would respond positively if a formal request was made, but there were formidable hurdles to be overcome.
Firstly, India would have to be mindful of the security aspect. There should be guarantees from the LTTE in this regard. The LTTE has kept Jaffna under siege and the northern sea is not safe for navigation.
The LTTE may have reservations because the Indian relief vessels will have to come with naval escort.
As in the case of the emergency assistance to Sri Lanka during the tsunami, the Indian operation would have to be entrusted to the armed forces.
Secondly, India will have difficulty in supplying dhal, which is in short supply in India itself.
There is, in fact, a ban on the export of dhal and sugar from India.
Thirdly, there is political sensitivity in Sinhala-speaking South Sri Lanka regarding Indian food aid to Tamil-speaking Jaffna in the North.
The majority Sinhalas never tire of harking back to 1987 when Indian Air Force planes intruded into Sri Lankan airspace over Jaffna and dropped food packets and other essential commodities for the benefit of the beleaguered Tamils of Jaffna, then facing the Sri Lankan army's stepped up operations code named "Operation Liberation.'
The 1987 episode is referred to as the "infamous parippu (dhal) drop" and a "brazen violation of Sri Lanka's sovereignty".
India does not want Indian aid to be interpreted in the same way now.
The way out
However, India may find a way out of these difficulties if a formal request for help comes from the Sri Lankan government.
The Ministry of Commerce will have to waive the ban on the export of dhal and sugar.
The government of India may get the UN agencies and ICRC to do the ferrying rather than do the job itself and face a multitude of problems.
Or it may allow private trade and shipping to do the run. Private traders do use the Tamil-Nadu-Point Pedro route, routinely.
And it is just possible that Indian help may not be necessary after all.
The Sri Lankan government is trying to send over 3,000 mt of relief material worth over SLRs.250 million to Jaffna. A ship is now being loaded in Colombo.
But the government has to get the ICRC to escort the vessel. The ICRC will provide the escort only if there are no arms and armed personnel on board and if the LTTE gives its clearance also.