The writer got the opportunity of visiting yet another South Asian capital, Colombo. I have had the good fortune of visiting 3 others– Islamabad (Pakistan), Dhaka (Bangladesh) and Kathmandu (Nepal) and off course reside in one of them – New Delhi!
A few things struck me right away about the Sri Lankan capital.First, Colombo is reasonably clean, and well organized, perhaps much more than New Delhi. One does not see as much garbage and filth on the roads, and the traffic is reasonably civil –especially when you compare it to the Indian capital!
Second, the Emerald Island is extremely tourist friendly, and possesses reasonably good infrastructure. In fact, even the interior parts seem to be on the right trajectory as far as economic investments and infrastructural development is concerned.
Third, the country is extremely safe for women. This is something where it definitely scores over India, because not only does one see women involved in various walks of life, but they roam around freely.
Fifth, the number of foreign investors keen to pump in money is quite high. This includes not just Chinese and Japanese, but also Europeans. Investors from outside are especially keen to make heavy economic investments in infrastructure, in fact as soon as one lands in Colombo, this dawns on you, when you see Bandaranaike airport — whose expansion has been aided by a Japanese loan. In addition to this, the Chinese are investing heavily not just in infrastructural projects, but also an auditorium. Newspapers are also full of news stories of foreign investors keen to make forays into the country. One can also notice the presence of a large number of international tourists from China, Japan and the Western World, apart from off course those from India.
One thing which satisfied my as an Indian was the point, that while the Chinese may be entering Sri Lanka in a big way, it is tough to ignore the presence of Indian Companies in the Emerald Island. They include, Lanka IOC, ICICI Bank, Ashok Leyland, NANO, not to forget Barista and the big Indian designer tags. It would be pertinent to mention here, that perhaps one sees more Tata NANOs in Colombo, than many Indian cities. In the realm of hospitality too, the Taj group has a strong presence in the country. It also heartening to note, that in spite of the massive investments by the Chinese, and their increasing presence in Sri Lanka, there is also a growing realization amongst significant sections of the population – especially some members within the strategic community — that Indian engagement with Sri Lanka, is very different from Chinese involvement in their country. While, Chinese engagement with Sri Lanka is clearly propelled by strategic and economic goals, India approaches things from a long term. This argument is strongly reiterated by the point, that all the projects which India is involved in such as the Jaffna-Colombo railway link and the airport in the Northern part of Sri Lanka are grants, while the Chinese are only providing loans for projects, which they are undertaking.
The civilizational linkages, cultural affinity and geography have thus not been obliterated in relations between both countries. This in spite of the fact, that India voted against Sri Lanka at the United Nations twice — 2012 and 2013.Cassandras of doom in India who believe, that India has lost out in the neighborhood, would perhaps do well to notice the good will which exists for India, in spite of the goof ups by successive governments. Similarly, those who are skeptical about how countries in the neighborhood perceive India, also need to remove their blinkers.Yet all is not hunky dory and certain issues do need to be addressed. What is needed for India to is to rectify the short comings in our approach not only to Sri Lanka, but other countries in the neighbourhood.
For starters, India’s government would do well to make gestures like liberalizing visa regimes and most important, to not be patronizing towards smaller countries in the neighborhood. While Dr Manmohan Singh has attempted to do so, many of his initiatives have been sabotaged by hawks in the establishment, and the political set up — including some of his party colleagues and in certain cases by the short sightedness of power hungry regional satraps.
Apart from this, educational institutions — schools and colleges — should encourage more exchange programs with other South Asian countries and more students from India should intern in the neighbourhood, and vice-versa.
India certainly scores over China, when it comes to soft power – especially in the neighborhood. Yet, it has never been able to exploit this advantage due to slow decision making and the short sightedness of sections of our establishment. It is thus time, that rather than being obsessed by Chinese forays in the neighborhood, we genuinely utilize this goodwill and affinity. Apart from this, our neighbourhood policy needs to be proactive and not reactive, as has been the case hitherto.