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India to rebuild tsunami-hit rail line in Lanka

Colombo-Galle-Matara line will get a facelift, reports PK Balachandran.
By PK Balachandran | PTI, Colombo
UPDATED ON DEC 22, 2005 05:01 PM IST

India is actively considering a Sri Lankan government request for help to rebuild and modernize the tsunami-hit Colombo-Galle-Matara railway line running along the island's western coast, according to diplomatic sources.

The rail line had hit the headlines all over the world on December 26, 2004, when the vicious waves of the tsunami hit a packed passenger train at Peraliya, killing 1,500 men, women and children.

The money for upgrading the line will be taken from the $100 million credit line extended by India to Sri Lanka. The matter is being discussed at the inter-ministerial level in New Delhi and officials from the Indian Railways' consultancy organization RITES are expected to visit Sri Lanka in this connection shortly. An official had already had a look at the line soon after the tsunami.

Sri Lanka's railways have not been upgraded and expanded in any significant way since independence in 1948, but the country's transport requirements have burgeoned in the last 50 years.

As part of its $23 million post-tsunami assistance to Sri Lanka, India will also be building base hospitals in Point Pedro in the northern Jaffna peninsula, Trincomalee in the East and Humbantota in the South.

India's development assistance is now getting oriented towards small scale; grass roots level projects with short gestation periods, so that the common man derives benefits quickly.

Burgeoning private investment

Private Indian investment in Sri Lanka is growing by leaps and bounds, with the total figure now touching $400 million. The annual India-Sri Lanka bilateral trade now totals $ 1.8 billion, with the Sri Lankan component standing at $381 million, and growing faster than the Indian component.

The trade balance has come down from 15:1 to 3.5:1. India imports from Sri Lanka copper, copper wire, computer software, furniture and pepper. India sells chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and vehicles both light and heavy. India has 50 per cent of the island's pharmaceutical market, 80 per cent of the heavy vehicle and three-wheeler market and 40 per cent of the new small passenger car market (Maruti Udyog).

Sri Lankan firms are now investing in India. With Ceylon Biscuits buying off Bakeman's in Punjab, it has become the third largest biscuit maker in India. Ceylinco Consolidated has entered the real estate market. Damro is making a name for itself in the wooden furniture market.

Brandix, a major name in garments in Sri Lanka, has set up a manufacturing unit for export in Vishakapatnam. Sri Lanka's Board of Investment has opened an office in Bangalore to attract Indian investors.

India is entering the higher education field in Sri Lanka. The Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow is setting up a top-grade management school at Kelaniya University near Colombo.

The air traffic between India and Sri Lanka is growing fast. Sri Lankan Airlines runs now has a weekly frequency of 109 in the Indian sector. Last year 105,000 Indian visited Sri Lanka.

Visas on arrival in India are not on the cards, even though Indians get visas on arrival in Sri Lanka. However, there is no difficulty in getting visas for India now, as the High Commission in Colombo has streamlined the procedure to give visas on the same day in 99.5 per cent of the cases.

The Colombo-Kochi ferry service, which was mooted some time ago, is not being considered now because it is not economically viable. With so many flights to various Indian destinations from Colombo, it will not be worthwhile using the ferry, which will take 22 hours to do the Colombo-Kochi run.

India's attitude to peace process

India is absolutely firm about its commitment to the unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka. It stands for a peaceful and negotiated settlement of the conflict, a settlement that will meet the aspirations of all the communities of Sri Lanka's pluralistic society. India is not for a return to violence and conflict.

Brokering peace is not easy

There is no possibility of India replacing Norway as the facilitator in the peace process, though Norwegian facilitation is highly criticized in Sri Lanka. India's stand is that facilitation by the Norwegians is on, and it has attained a certain momentum.

However, India is carefully monitoring the Norwegian facilitation. India is kept in the picture and it dialogues with the Norwegians. India is not in renunciation. It has a certain presence in Sri Lanka by virtue of the fact that it is, in a sense, Sri Lanka's only neighbour, and there are close historical, cultural, religious and linguistic ties between the two countries.
 
India is aware that brokering peace is not easy. It feels that in the blame game that is now going on, the peace process should not be lost sight of. The fog of criticism should not blind one to the need for the peace process. Visits to the war-affected areas of the Sri Lanka in the North and East, will show that there is a "crying need" for peace and development.

On the controversial Joint Mechanism between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, certain provisions of which had been stayed by the island's Supreme Court, it is noted that the ruling has not questioned the government's right to enter into such a deal.

India supported the Sri Lankan President's efforts to set up such a mechanism. All it wanted was that the mechanism should recognize the pluralistic nature of Sri Lankan society and see that the humanitarian issues were not lost sight of.

On the question whether the establishment of the Joint Mechanism was a condition for giving foreign aid for North East rehabilitation, India's view is that a careful reading of the Kandy Declaration by the international donors will show that it was not a condition.

India's assistance will, as always, be routed through the government of Sri Lanka.

India will not undertake reconstruction work in the LTTE controlled areas because the LTTE is a banned organization in India. But it will be working in other areas of the North East, which are quite large. The LTTE controls only two districts, Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi.

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