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India ups Lanka aid to offset China presence

Nov 24, 2010 11:43:07 PM- transcurrents.com

by Indrani Bagchi

NEW DELHI: Days after Sri Lanka president Mahinda Rajapaksa opened the Chinese-built port in Hambantota for business, India will be opening its consulate in the southern Lankan city. Foreign minister S M Krishna will be in Sri Lanka over the weekend to do a couple of things — open consulates not just in Hambantota but in Jaffna as well — and send a message that with India's expanding presence in the island nation, it's not playing second fiddle to the Chinese.

With two massive infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, Hambantota and Colombo port, China had posed a direct challenge to India's influence in its strategic backyard. But with the Lanka conflict behind them, India is trying to regain its act in the island nation. Most importantly, India is reviving talks on a defence agreement with Sri Lanka, an agreement that was essentially in limbo when the conflict was underway. In July, the Indian Navy chief Admiral Nirmal Verma was in Sri Lanka and his counterpart returned the visit recently, a sign senior officials interpreted to mean as reviving the defence ties.

It's unlikely India will be able to match the scale and efficiency of the infrastructure projects that China can execute — for unlike China, India cannot command its companies to undertake "strategic interest" projects in foreign countries, and the public sector does not have the capability. Nevertheless, India is financing the construction of the northern railway in Sri Lanka from Omanthai to Palali and from Medawachchiya to Mannar through Medu, as well as developing the port of Kankesanthurai.

But India's footprint is more in the reconstruction effort in northern Sri Lanka. It's in helping to demine acres and acres of thickly forested land in Mullaitivu, which helps the internally displaced people (IDPs) (seven teams are at work there), helping them rebuild their lives with seeds, tractors, agri implements, housing materials — basically, all the elements needed to restart lives in the erstwhile LTTE strongholds, now recovering from the war. However, LTTE remains on the banned list of the Indian government. In a sign that India continues to consider it a threat, the home ministry recently renewed its ban in the country. ~ courtesy: Times of India ~