New Delhi: Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will be back in Delhi in the last week of April, with an agenda to wrap up strategic deals ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s scheduled visit in May and to take forward economic cooperation.
Wickremesinghe’s trip – his third since the general elections in 2015 – will take place just a couple of weeks before Modi goes to Colombo on his second official visit.
Sources told The Wire that the visit will take place in the last week of April, though the dates were still being finalised. The Sri Lankan prime minister was earlier in India in September 2015 and returned last year in October.
A part of the agenda for his visit will be to finalise the memorandum of understanding (MoU), which will be like a umbrella deal for a number of major infrastructure projects.
The MoU for “economic engagement,” as it being dubbed, will include plans for joint development of Trincomalee Port, which will include setting up a petroleum refinery.
More importantly, it will also include a land lease agreement for Lankan Indian oil Corporation to develop storage oil tank farms – a project that India has been particularly keen to develop in the strategically located port.
Due to its sheltered location, Britain built 101 oil storage tanks in Trincomalee, out of which 99 are still in good condition. Indian Oil Corporation’s Lankan subsidiary already has 15 in the lower tank farm. The new agreement relates to the remaining 84, which has been a source of contention between New Delhi and Colombo since the original pact in 2003.
Last week, Sri Lankan petroleum minister Chandima Weerakkody said that a new joint venture will be set up to run 73 of the oil tanks, while Sri Lanka will have ten. India will get long lease on 14 of these, PTI reported.
India will also get the chance to develop a petroleum refinery, with a feasibility study included in the MoU.
Demonstrating the importance of Trincomalee, both countries have also listed two major road infrastructure projects from the port city of Trincomalee to Dambulla and Mannar.
According to Sri Lankan media, the cabinet has already given its approval for the MoU.
The Sri Lankan newspaper The Sunday Times had reported that Wickremesinghe had told his cabinet colleagues that the MoU was necessary to allay Indian fears over China’s role due to its mega investment in Hambantaota and Colombo port city.
Sources told The Wire that there was still discussions going on to give a final shape to the MoU, which will be signed during Modi’s visit. There was also a strong hint from New Delhi that he would only visit Sri Lanka if the strategic deals were in place to be inked. Modi had previously visited Sri Lanka in March 2015 – a month after new Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena chose Delhi as his first foreign destination after elections.
Wickremesinghe’s trip will take place around the fourth round of negotiations for the Economic and Technology Co-operation Agreement (ETCA), which is facing strong opposition from former Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his allies. During his visit last October, Wickremesinghe had said optimistically that the ETCA will be finalised by 2016-end.
But officials have said it is unlikely that the economic pact will be ready in time for the Modi’s visit next month.