Authors: Srimal Fernando and Harini Jayaraman*
Kanyakumari ,situated in Tamil Nadu which is the Southernmost point in India is where the waters of the Bay of Bengal and Arabian sea merge. In fact, Sri Lanka lies only twety two nautical miles away from India. Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka’s historical ties go back centuries and include all areas of contemporary relevance. The nature of these relations have had mixed results as they have been marked by prosperity and disheartening periods due to numerous reasons. Looking back on the corridors of history, the age old bonds between the Indian southern state constituting of 72 million and the 20 million inhabited island nation of Sri Lanka go beyond official diplomatic relations. It might be worth mentioning that the economic and cultural integration between the island and the state have reached new heights.
One of the major reasons that can be attributed for Tamil Nadu state to have close relations with Sri Lanka is due to its vital geographical position and the other being 1.6 million Indian origin Tamils living in Sri Lanka contributing to Sri Lanka’s tea industry which brings an annual revenue of US$1.5 billion. It is noteworthy to mention opening a new Indian Ocean foreign policy chapter in the mid 70s,the International Maritime boundary line(IMBL) agreement demarcating the Palk Strait waters marked a significant milestone between the Southern Indian state and the South Asian island nation. Hence, the South Indian Ocean Fisheries Agreement signed in 2006 contributed further into securing the fishing resources between the state and the island. In fact there is no doubt this significant agreement might have enhanced India’s fisheries output where India exports over US$ 5.7 billion worth of sea foods annually. Another important focal point is the Tuticorin and Colombo ports that handle a major volumes of cargo between the Southern state of India and the island nation. The recent figures show that Colombo port handles more than 70% of trans-shipment containers of Indian origin(Asian Development Bank,2016).
As neighbours, Sri Lanka is one of the largest tourism markets for Tamil Nadu travellers. With respect to tourism, India is the largest market for Sri Lankan tourism. As per the recent figures released by the Tourism authorities each year over 4,00,000 Indians visit the Island nation as tourists. A significant portion of Indians travellers are from Tamil Nadu. To suit the interests of the tourists 126 flights fly from Sri Lanka to 14 different Indian cities every week. Hence, for tourism purposes both nations have simplified fast track procedures for processing visa applications. The connection between the state and the island are also strengthened on the basis of culture. In fact, Sri Lanka Buddhist Center located in Chennai is a symbolically important landmark that bridges the age old friendly ties. Since yester years, Sri Lankans are known for their love for Tamil films. In addition to that, Tamil delicacies are savoured by the islanders.
However, successful exchanges between these two places does not imply that Tamil Nadu state ties with Sri Lanka was always free of trouble. During the Island Nation’s internal crisis during the 80s and 90s the economic diplomacy experienced a downfall which hurt economies of both places. Nonetheless, the neighbours did not let the trouble period break their trade bonds and they recovered from the losses in the coming years.
Over the years the Southern Indian state and Sri Lanka experimented in changing the face of the economic landscape. In this context, the India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement(ISFTA) signed in 1998 turning a new page in foreign relations. Therefore, the FTA led to more scope for the Southern Indian state and the island nation to have tariff free access to certain consumer products and gain an upper hand as suppliers. In analysing the two way trade statistics, in 2000 the trade figures which was at US$ 658 million had risen to over US$ 3 billion by the end of 2010(Handbook on ISFTA,2013). In the recent past, Sri Lanka was India’s second largest trading partner among South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation(SAARC), (Economic Times,2018). As per the recent statistics in 2018,the two way trade between India and Sri Lanka crossed US$5 billion. Looking through the lens of economic diplomacy it is still too early to determine how this deep rooted Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka’s relations is expected to grow at a rapid pace in all sectors. On the more microscopic level, resolving the f issues relating to fisheries near the IMBL is clearly one of the most urgent requirement to resolve. From a purely foreign policy stand point addressing of specificities of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka obviously alters India’s foreign relations with the island nation. For Sri Lanka’s relations with India to flourish finding common grounds and integrating economic diplomacy with Tamil Nadu can be a new basis for opening a new page in Indo-Lanka ties.
*Harini Jayaraman, a scholar of Masters in Diplomacy, Law, Business at Jindal School of International Affairs, India and has attained a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology from University of Madras.