Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, welcomes Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe in New Delhi on July 21. © Reuters
NEW DELHI -- India and Sri Lanka will conduct feasibility studies on laying a petroleum pipeline between them as well as a land bridge, their leaders announced on Friday, as Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe visited New Delhi.
Wickremesinghe, who arrived Thursday evening on a two-day trip, was visiting India for the first time since he assumed office exactly a year ago -- following the resignation of his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the wake of massive protests over dire economic conditions.
"A stable, secure and prosperous Sri Lanka is not only beneficial for India but for the whole of the Indian Ocean region," Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at a joint news conference, assuring his counterpart that Indians stand with the Sri Lankan people. As Sri Lanka sank into an economic crisis that forced it to default on foreign debt last year, India provided around $4 billion worth of emergency assistance.
Wickremesinghe's government has been working to dig the country out of its financial hole. In March, the island nation secured a nearly $3 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund. While thanking India for its support, he stressed that he has set Sri Lanka firmly on a path of economic reform and that it "is already witnessing the stabilizing outcomes of these measures," pointing to a "revival of confidence internally and externally in the progress of the country."
The Sri Lankan president told reporters that he and Modi agreed on a "joint vision" of a future India-Sri Lanka economic
partnership through enhanced connectivity. Wickremesinghe said that they believe the construction of a "multiproject petroleum pipeline from the southern part of India to Sri Lanka will ensure an affordable and reliable supply of energy resources" for Sri Lanka, which has struggled to import fuel due to a lack of foreign currency reserves.
Besides the pipeline, Modi said that "a decision has also been taken to assess the feasibility of a land bridge." The details of this remain to be seen. The idea of constructing a 23km bridge across the Palk Strait has been tossed around for years -- Wickremesinghe reportedly floated it during an earlier stint as prime minister in 2002 -- but such a project has yet to get off the ground.
Regardless of whether the bridge happens, India appears keen to deepen ties with its neighbor, where China has also gained influence through infrastructure projects. The two powers' rivalry has proven awkward for Colombo at times, as seen last year when a controversy erupted over a Chinese surveillance vessel's visit to the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota, which is controlled by China under a 99-year lease.
"Today, we adopted a vision document for our economic partnership," Modi said, speaking in Hindi. "This is a vision to strengthen maritime, air, energy and people-to-people connectivity; to speed up bilateral cooperation in tourism, power, trade, higher education and skill development; and [to demonstrate] India's long-term commitment toward Sri Lanka."
The prime minister said they also decided to soon start discussions on an economic and technological cooperation agreement.
Wickremesinghe, meanwhile, said he conveyed to Modi and the people of India "our profound appreciation for the solidarity and support rendered to Sri Lanka in what was undoubtedly the most challenging period in our modern history."
Briefing reporters on Wickremesinghe's visit, Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra said that the two sides finalized a series of important documents covering crucial areas of economic cooperation, including renewable energy and fintech connectivity to "ease up payment flow mechanisms" within the next few months.
On the possible land connection, Kwatra said that "the idea was proposed by the Sri Lankan president [and] both leaders agreed to take this forward."
Referring to Modi's statement on the initial feasibility study for the bridge, Kwatra said advancing the project would "help to bring about economic prosperity to both our societies and also help in regional cohesion."
Earlier, on Thursday, Arindam Bagchi, spokesperson for India's Ministry of External Affairs, told reporters that Sri Lanka had already made the Indian rupee a designated foreign currency -- a move aimed at easing the settlement of trade transactions.
"I think utilization of that, of course, depends on our private sector and people who engage in the trade sector," Bagchi said. "We would like to, of course, deepen this kind of financial and economic [connection]."