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PERSPECTIVE: India-Sri Lanka Relations

18th August, 2023

SANSAD TV| PERSPECTIVE: India-Sri Lanka Relations

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  • India and Sri Lanka adopted a ‘vision document’ for a deeper economic partnership after talks between Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.



  • India is Sri Lanka's closest neighbour. The relationship between the two countries is more than 2,500 years old and both sides have built upon a legacy of intellectual, cultural, religious and linguistic interaction.
  • In recent years, the relationship has been marked by close contacts at the highest political level, growing trade and investment, cooperation in the fields of development, education, culture and defense, as well as a broad understanding of major issues of international interest.
  • Bilateral exchanges at various levels over the past year and significant progress in the implementation of developmental assistance projects for the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and disadvantaged sections of the population in Sri Lanka have helped further cement the bonds of friendship between the two countries.

Historical relations:

  • The relationship between India and Sri Lanka is more than 2,500 years old
  • Both countries have a legacy of intellectual, ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic interaction
  • In recent years, bilateral relations and cooperation in the fields of development, trade, investment, education, culture and defence have grown.

Diplomatic Cooperation:

  • Diplomatic relations between India and Sri Lanka involve high-level visits and notable events such as the Indian Prime Minister’s address to the Sri Lankan parliament in 2015.
  • The India-Sri Lanka Joint Commission, established in 1992, facilitates discussions on bilateral affairs.
  • Additionally, a civilian nuclear energy deal was signed in 2015 to explore nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

Fishermen Issue:

  • The ongoing issue of fishermen between India and Sri Lanka has resulted in disputes, with Indian fishermen being picked up by the Sri Lankan Navy.
  • To address this, both countries have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to provide support and necessary equipment to fishermen, aiming for peaceful trade.
  • Sri Lanka has also emphasized the use of sustainable fishing methods to protect fish yields.

Economic Cooperation:

  • The India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement, signed in 2010, has strengthened economic ties, with India being Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner.
  • India has also made significant foreign direct investments in Sri Lanka, while Sri Lanka presents opportunities for foreign investment in India.

Defense and Security Cooperation:

  • Colombo and New Delhi have a long history of security cooperation, including increased military-to-military relationships. A joint military and naval exercises are conducted, and India provides defense training to Sri Lankan forces.
  • A trilateral maritime security cooperation agreement involving India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives aims to enhance surveillance, combat piracy, and reduce maritime pollution in the Indian Ocean Region.

Development Assistance:

  • Following the end of the armed conflict between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE in 2009, India provided immediate war relief measures, including food and medicine.
  • Long-term measures included the reconstruction of 50,000 houses for internally displaced people.
  • India has also been a significant provider of development credit for Sri Lanka’s infrastructure development and has supported healthcare by providing medical equipment and ambulances.

Cultural and Educational Cooperation:

  • Cultural cooperation between India and Sri Lanka dates back to 1977, with the signing of a cultural cooperation agreement.
  • The India Sri Lanka Foundation, established in 1998, promotes technical, scientific, cultural, and educational cooperation through civil society engagement.
  • Tourism is also an important area of cooperation, with Sri Lankan tourists being among the top ten visitors to India.
  • Sri Lanka is a partner in India’s Nalanda University project. Additionally, people of Indian origin residing in Sri Lanka contribute to various business ventures.

Developments in Sri Lanka:

  • Sri Lanka has made progress in the health sector, successfully eradicating malaria. The country has also shown improvement in social development indicators, such as literacy and health.

Significance of Sri Lanka for India:

  • Sri Lanka is India's closest maritime neighbour and is strategically located in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal.
  • As per its ‘Neighbourhood-First Policy’ and the ‘SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) Doctrine’, India attaches great importance to Sri Lanka “to keep the Indian Ocean region peaceful and secure”.
  • 70% of Indian cargo comes through the Colombo port, which is the largest trans-shipment port in South-Asia.

About the present relationship

Political Relations:

  • In May 1991, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated and it forced New Delhi to adopt a “hands-off approach” towards Colombo till the final phase of the civil war.
  • Finally in May 2009, after 25 years of violence, the Tamil militant separatism ended and India came forward to reconstruct the war-torn areas and to rehabilitate war-affected people.
  • Although the pro-LTTE government in Tamil Nadu posed obstruction in extending humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka
  • India-Sri Lanka relations hit a new rock bottom when in 2009, 2012 and 2013 India voted against Sri Lanka at a UNHRC resolution to investigate human rights violations and war crimes by the state government against Tamil rebels.
  • Since 2014, Political relations between the two countries have been marked by high-level exchanges of visits at regular intervals
  • Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe visited India in September 2015, his first overseas visit after being appointed as Prime Minister.
  • In 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his first foreign visit to Sri Lanka after his sweeping victory in the general election. He was also the first foreign leader to visit Colombo after the heinous Easter Sunday terror attacks.

Commercial Relations:

  • India is one of the largest investors in Sri Lanka with cumulative investments of around USD 1.2 billion.
  • Sri Lanka is one of India's largest trading partners in SAARC. Trade between the two countries grew rapidly after India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement of 2000.
  • Indian Chambers have signed MOUs with Sri Lankan Chambers to promote trade, economic relations and investments.

Defence and Security Cooperation:

  • Capacity building and training of armed forces and police personnel of Sri Lanka has been the core area of cooperation between the two countries.
  • Since 2012, India participates in Indo-Sri Lankan Defence Dialogue, this platform helps to review the security and defence cooperation issues between the two countries.
  • To ensure maritime security
  • India-Sri Lanka conducted 'SLINEX’ a joint naval exercise
  • India, Sri Lanka and Maldives conduct “DOSTI” a trilateral naval exercise
  • India and Sri Lanka hold annual joint military drill 'Mitra Shakti’ to boost counter-terror cooperation.

Cultural relations:

  • Cultural Cooperation Agreement signed in 1977 forms the basis for periodic Cultural Exchange Programmes between the two countries.
  • Indian Cultural Centre in Colombo actively promotes awareness of Indian culture by offering classes in Indian music, dance, and Hindi. It also organises an International yoga day event annually.
  • India-Sri Lanka Foundation was set up to enhance scientific, technical, educational and cultural cooperation through civil society exchanges

Human resource development:

  • Under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Scheme and the Colombo Plan, India offers short and medium-term training courses in technical and professional disciplines.
  • From the academic session 2017-18, Sri Lankan students were allowed to appear for the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) and IIT JEE (Advanced) entrance examinations.

Concerns related to the relations

Pro-China tilt:

  • Sri Lanka is a member of China’s Belt and Road Initiative(BRI)
  • China is developing Colombo Port City and Hambantota Port, which are slated to play an important role in the BRI.
  • Hambantota port has been handed over to China on a 99-year lease in a controversial $1.2 billion debt-for-equity swap.
  • According to the 2018 annual report of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, imports from China accounted for 18.5%, just a little less than the 19% from India.

Fishermen issue:

  • In 1974, India ceded Katchatheevu, an uninhabited island to Sri Lanka and delimits the maritime boundary in the Palk Bay through the "Kachchateevu island pact” but Tamil Nadu claimed that this island falls under Indian Territory and traditional fishermen have the fish right there.
  • In 1976, both countries mutually agreed to decide on the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) and to delimit boundaries in the Gulf of Mannar and Bay of Bengal by international rules.
  • However, fishermen from both sides have differences in IMBL restrictions and traditional fishing grounds.
  • Indian fishermen are accused of fishing deep into Lankan water and using big mechanised trawlers that are affecting both the economy and ecology of Sri Lanka.
  • Incidents of fishermen facing arrest, boats and trawlers seizure and attack by respective state Navy are hurting the Indo-Lanka relations.

Delays in projects:

  • Proposed by India e.g. not much is known about the status of a project to renovate Kankesanthurai harbour in Northern Province and little progress has been made in developing the Palaly airport.
  • After civil war interventions, the Sri Lanka governments view "big brother” India with suspicion. India’s hand has been suspected in the political machinations that led to the exit of former pro-China President Mahindra Rajapaksa.
  • India urges the devolution of powers based on the 13th Amendment while Sri Lankan government favours a homegrown solution.
  • Indian insistence on going ahead with an Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) by replacing the aborted Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) is also turned down by Sri Lanka.

Way Forward

  • Indian government should refrain from interfering even indirectly in Sri Lankan internal political affairs.
  • Indian government should urge Sri Lanka to focus on the plight of war-affected Tamils. As the Sri Lankan government is backtracking on its commitments to displaced Tamils using the recent terror attacks as an excuse.
  • India should invest more in generating livelihoods for war-affected areas where only agriculture and fisheries are key drivers.
  • India must negotiate with the Lankan leader to get approvals for all pending projects
  • New Delhi should make one more attempt to encourage the voluntary repatriation of nearly 95,000 refugees who live in Tamil Nadu back to Sri Lanka.
  • Ferry services between Talaimannar and Rameswaram should be resumed at the earliest. New ferry services can be set up for connecting Kankesanthurai port in Jaffna with Karaikal and Colombo with Tuticorin to increase trade, tourism, and people-to-people connections.


  • Despite pending issues, the relations between India and Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean region are progressing. Trade has grown rapidly since the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement.
  • India’s plans to develop regions beyond defense assistance are positive steps.
  • There is hope for the resolution of ethnic and fishermen issues shortly, as better relations are on track.