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Transcript of Media Briefing by Foreign Secretary on upcoming visit of Prime Minister to Maldives and Sri Lanka (June 06, 2019)

June 07, 2019

Official Spokesperson, Shri Raveesh Kumar: Good afternoon friends and welcome to this special briefing by the Foreign Secretary on Prime Minister’s visit to Maldives and Sri Lanka. After Foreign Secretary’s initial remarks we will open the floor to questions and answers. Sir, the floor is yours.

Foreign Secretary, Shri Vijay Gokhale: Thank you Raveesh. Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. I will do the briefing today for Prime Minister’s visit to Maldives and Sri Lanka on 8-9 June.

These are the first foreign visits that the Prime Minister is undertaking after the general elections and the choice of two neighboring countries, Maldives and Sri Lanka, underlines the continued emphasis that the government lays on the Neighborhood First policy.

He is going to be given a State Visit to the Maldives. This is usually reserved only for the Heads of States and therefore it is a mark of respect to India and to the Prime Minister that he is going to be given the treatment and welcome that is normal given to a Head of State.

This is the first visit of our Prime Minister to the Maldives since 2011. The last visit was by Dr. Manmohan Singh in 2011 that was for the SAARC Summit followed by a bilateral meeting and before that it was Prime Minister Vajpayee in 2002. So we have Prime Minister visiting Maldives after more than 8 years.

The Prime Minister’s visit continues the tradition of regular top level exchanges and I want to recall that after the election of current government in Maldives we have had a visit by the Foreign Minister Abdullah Shahid in November 2018, we had the visit of President Solih in 2018, we have had the visit of the Defence Minister Mariya Didi in January 2019, we have had the visit of the formal External Affairs Minister in March 2019 and now the forthcoming visit of the Prime Minister. So in the course of about 8 months we have had intensive exchanges at the highest level and at the ministerial level.

I just want to dwell on some of the program elements. Obviously after the welcome ceremony there will be a meeting with President Solih, the two leaders will jointly inaugurate remotely two of the completed projects that we have done and I will come to it a little later. There will be meetings with the Vice President Mr. Naseem, the Speaker Mr. Nasheed and leaders of the some of the political parties and as you know Prime Minister has been invited by the Majlis to address the Majlis which he will also be doing on June 8.

Ladies & gentlemen, there has been a significant progress in the bilateral relationship since President Solih was elected in November 2018 and I Just wanted to touch upon some of the positive developments that have taken place since then.

We have signed a visa facilitation agreement which has come into force in March which is important because it addresses a number of issues which the government of Maldives had in terms of visas particularly for their students and for those who come for their medical treatments and from our perspectives it has given us a number of benefits particularly for Indian businessmen traveling to the Maldives.

We pledged budgetary support to the Government of the Maldives of close to US$200 million. US$50 million has been given as a cash support for budgetary purposes and the rest of it will be in terms of Treasury Bills, an ongoing process, as and when their Central Bank issues these treasury bills. We are in the process of finalizing the currency swap agreement which is under SAARC. They have requested for an enhancement of the amount as well as extension of the roll over period and that is close to finalization.

As I mentioned the Prime Minister and President will jointly inaugurate two projects remotely. One is the Coastal Surveillance Radar System and the other is the Composite Training Center of the Maldives National Defence Forces. These are two important projects, total value is approximately Rs. 180 crores and these will be remotely inaugurated by the two leaders.

We also had offered the Maldives a Line of Credit of about US$800 million and I am happy to inform you that three important project have already been identified and the project report preparation is underway. One is water supply and sewerage for 36 of the islands which are inhabited. Another one is the Addu urban development center. Addu is an important town in the southern part of the Maldives chain and the third project is an SME development financing project. So these three projects, we have already received the initial proposal and we are preparing a project report. Of course there are other projects in the pipe line but these are still being examined.

We have started the work on high impact community development projects. If you recall when the former External Affairs Minister had visited the Maldives in March we had announced that we would support this initiative of India by giving a grant of Rs. 50 crore. 14 projects have now been identified in various areas including connectivity between islands, drug rehabilitation centers and so on and so forth.

We have already begun the process of disbursing of 1000 ITEC scholarships that we will be giving Maldives over the next five years.

Some agreements will be signed during the visit. During this stage I would not go into the details but we certainly expect that among them are agreements relating to customs, to white shipping and also on training of civil servants. One of the focus areas is the P2P relations areas, strengthening people to people relationship.

If you recall in April we had invited President Solih who is a very keen cricketer to come and watch the IPL match in Bengaluru and subsequent to that he had expressed an interest in developing a cricket team in the Maldives and seeking India’s assistance in training this team and bringing them up to the requisite standards.

So among his requests which are under positive consideration our cricket stadium which we also expect to build under the Line of Credit that we will give and we are also working with the BCCI. A team from the BCCI had earlier visited the Maldives in May for training of Maldivian cricketers, coaching programs, supply of kits and so on.

In addition to that we are looking at upgradation of important cultural sites and a team from the Archaeological Survey of India led by the Culture Secretary had also visited the Maldives, that report is under submission and we expect that there will be a number of projects there.

Earlier this year we had also supported the Climate Change initiative of the Maldives by gifting 2 lakh LED lights for the street lighting of Male city. So these are some of the initiatives we have undertaken in this regard.

To sum up I think Prime Minister’s visit is essentially focused on three objectives. Firstly, it is to maintain contacts at the highest level between close neighbors. Secondly, we want to assist the Maldives as a development partner in the revival and development of their economy and thirdly is to strengthen the people to people relations that we have with the Maldives.

On the 9th of June, Prime Minister will also make a short but very packed visit to Sri Lanka. This, I might remind you, is the first visit by a foreign leader to Sri Lanka after the tragic events of 21st April when several bomb blasts resulted in huge casualties is Sri Lanka. It is a very special gesture and it is a very clear message of solidarity that the people and government of India stand firmly with the people and government of Sri Lanka at this tragic time.

We of course have a traditional friendship with Sri Lanka, this has been significantly strengthened in the first term of the Prime Minister and Prime Minister’s visit so early on in his second term is intended to very clearly signal that we intend to not only continue this engagement but enhance our commitment in terms of the relationship with Sri Lanka.

Despite the very short visit he will be given the full honors including an official welcome ceremony. He will have talks with President Sirisena, with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. He will meet the leader of the opposition Mahinda Rajapaksa and he will also have meeting with Mr. Sampanthan who heads the TNA, the Tamil parties.

Obviously although the visit will be short there will be review of the relationship and identification of how we move ahead. Once again I just want to highlight that since the last visit of the Prime Minister which was in May 2017, roughly two years ago, I just want to highlight some of the areas in which we have made progress on the ground.

Prime Minister had announced at that time that we would be giving 14 thousand houses to up country Tamils i.e. the Indian origins Tamils up-country. The first tranche of houses, about 1500 were handed over in August 2018 and we are in the process of actually completing the rest of the housing which will be handed over later this year and in the first half of next year.

We have also handed over the Ruhuna University Auditorium, this is the largest auditorium which we have built in any university in Sri Lanka in October 2018. Several high impact community development projects roughly valued at about 250 crores are in various stages of implementation. This includes hospital equipment for Vavuniya hospital, the engineering and architectural facilities at Jaffna University and the livelihood project at Hambantota.

One of the big achievements and certainly one which has caught popular imagination is the free emergency ambulance services. This is an initiative of India to provide over 280 ambulances which will respond nationwide, island wide to any emergencies and it is now operative in 8 out of 9 provinces and it is very deeply appreciated not just by the government but by the public as well.

We have already commenced delivery of railway rolling stock under an earlier Line of Credit of about Rs. 2800 crores. These supplies include diesel engines, it includes other rolling stock from December 2018, this started going to Sri Lanka and there is of course a new Line of Credit in the railway sector also which we are currently examining and which in under discussion inter-ministerially.

I want to draw your attention to two trilateral MoUs which we have signed. India, Japan and Sri Lanka. One in April which is for the LNG Terminal, one just earlier this month which was for the development of the East Container Terminal. These are important and we have also completed Exim Bank’s buyer’s credit of about $60 million in water supply project in Greater Dambulla.

So on a number of commitments that Prime Minister made when he went in May 17, we have seen significant progress and we hope that when the Prime Minister goes this time, not only we will review those but we will actually look at some new projects.

Certainly therefore I would sum up this visit to Sri Lanka as firstly, showing solidarity with the people and the government in the wake of the tragic events of the 21st April and expressing our confidence in the government of Sri Lanka in overcoming this national tragedy. Secondly Prime Minister will very clearly signal his commitment and the intention of the government at the highest level to build a strong relationship based on mutual trust and mutual sensitivity to each other’s concern in the coming five years. And thirdly of course to discuss ways to enhance development partnership.

I will stop here and I will take a few questions. Thank you.

Official Spokesperson, Shri Raveesh Kumar: Thank you sir. We now open the floor to questions. Please introduce yourselves, your name and your organization when you ask the question.

Question from CNBC: Today Mr. Jaishankar outlined his vision for India’s foreign policy for the next few years. Then he focused on connectivity in South Asia and economic integration as well. So on both these fronts when it comes to connectivity and furthering closer economic ties with the Maldives what are we expecting in the talks and what could be the takeaway?

Question from Wion: The question is on the two projects which will be remotely launched, can you just give us a brief about both the projects i.e. the coastal surveillance and the other project?

Question from News Nation: Jaisa ki aapne kaha ki Sri Lanka visit solidarity ke liye bhi hai aur khas taur par sambandhon ko behtar banaane ke liye hai. Main ye jaanana chaahta hoon aatankwad ke mudde par khas taur par kya koi baatcheet hone wali hai, kya aatankwaad se jo peedit Sri Lanka hai usko lekar hum koi assistance dene wale hain, khas taur par agar hum information sharing ki baat karein ya technical sharing ki baat karein, to kya kuch aisa bhi hone wala hai?

(As you said that the visit to Sri Lanka is both for expressing our solidarity and to improve our bilateral relations also. I would like to know if there are any talks planned on the issue of terrorism, are we going to offer any assistance to Sri Lanka which is a victim of terrorism especially with regards to sharing of information or technical things?)

Foreign Secretary, Shri Vijay Gokhale: Thank you. As far as connectivity is concerned this of course is a priority with all our neighbors and with Maldives in any case we already have a number of such projects both in terms of connecting India to the Maldives as well as in terms of connecting Maldives, the island themselves. Now one of the areas which we are exploring and we hope to have a concrete outcome is actually the commencement of a ferry service from Kochi to the Maldives.

This is still something which is very much under examination but we believe this will significantly enhance connectivity between the two countries. As far as inter-island connectivity is concerned, as I said, one of the project we are looking at, the high impact community development projects is in fact island connectivity providing speedboats, particularly to students, to move from one island to another. So this is certainly an area which we would like to develop further with the government of the Maldives and for that matter the government of Sri Lanka, as I mentioned several of the LoCs actually deal with railway projects and for us that is also important.

These two projects have been committed by government earlier. The composite training center is the center for training the Maldives national Defence Forces and this is a center which was requested by the government of the Maldives to provide a central training facility. This facility is now complete we have done both the building itself and the so called software. So it is going to be an official launch of that center and this is something which will enhance the capabilities of the Maldives National Defence Forces.

The Coastal Surveillance Radar System is a system that we have shared with a number of other countries in our region as well. The idea is to monitor white shipping and to help that country to preserve its sovereignty in its EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) and this is in addition to Maldives a number of other nations have also been given the coastal surveillance radar system. So that also will be inaugurated remotely when the two leaders meet.

As far as terrorism is concerned, as you know the government of India is ready to assist any country in whatever manner we can to combat terrorism. This is a common scourge and we are ready to help develop capacity, share information, share intelligence, there are certain mechanism that we already have. Obviously I cannot go into the details of that but suffice to say that when we stand with the people and government of Sri Lanka, we also stand ready to assist them in any manner that they wish and we will respond to whatever they will desire in terms of dealing with this problem.

Question: Is India speaking with Sri Lanka about not letting in aggressive military vessels like submarines into their harbors?

Question from ABP News: Since Prime Minister invited BIMSTEC leaders in his swearing in ceremony and therefore two countries he chose for his first bilateral visits are a member of BIMSTEC. Is India planning to build a consensus among these BIMSTEC countries to have a more counter-terrorism architecture because he is going to Sri Lanka to express the solidarity on security issues, is there any idea to build a consensus on a regional counter-terrorism or security sharing mechanism under the umbrella of BIMSTEC?

Question: Last year Sri Lanka had offered one of its airport near Hambantota to India for operating the airport. So, is India interested in managing that airport, what is the status now?

Foreign Secretary, Shri Vijay Gokhale: With a number of countries we discuss a number of areas of mutual interests. I would not like to go into details of what we discuss with those countries.

Further, I will not answer questions on BIMSTEC as this briefing is exclusively on the visit of Prime Minister to Maldives and Sri Lanka, I do want to point out that Maldives is not a member of BIMSTEC but the visit to Maldives is important because it is neighbor and the Prime Minister is making a point that Neighborhood First remains a priority in his second term as well.

As far as this airport in Hambantota is concerned, there are a number of projects in which we are interested and which we are talking to the Sri Lankan side. As you recall an MoU was signed for economic development cooperation in 2017. As and when those projects mature, if there is a bilateral understanding we will be informing the public about it. As of now on a number of projects discussions are underway.

Question from News24: World cup chal raha hai aur aise mein aap khabar de rahe hain ki Bharat Maldives ko ek cricket team banaane mein madad karega. Kis tarah ki ye madad hogi, kya hum kisi player vishesh ko wahan bhej rahe hain aur kya BCCI hi sab kuch karega, kis tarah ki aur jaankaari hai jo aap hamse share karna chaahengen?

(Cricket World Cup is under way right now and during this time you have informed that India will be helping Maldives in setting up a cricket team. What kind of help it would be, is there any particular player which will be sent there and is BCCI going to do everything there, what kind of information you would like to share with us on this?)

Question from The Print: If you can say something on if there will be any discussion on the action plan for Defence Cooperation between India and Maldives and also there are reports that India is building the Colombo port along with Japan, if you shed some light on that please?

Question SNI: Now the Prime Minister is going to two countries, Sri Lanka and Maldives, where the influence of ISIS is growing. How is India looking at the situation in both the countries?

Foreign Secretary, Shri Vijay Gokhale: As far as cricket cooperation is concerned, as I explained, a team from BCCI visited the Maldives earlier this month. There are a whole range of ways in which we can assist as I said one of them is to build a cricket stadium under a Line of Credit or some other means of financial assistance which we are ready to do. They have requested for some coaching programs in India of young Maldivian players that includes both men and women and we are again ready to look at that possibility and assist the Maldives in that. They would like us to do some training programs in the Maldives which we are also willing to do and we have actually already given them some cricket kits and training kits, these have been actually given by the government of India not by the BCCI but we would hope that the BCCI takes on additional responsibilities in this regard.

Again they want to have training in coaches, in umpires, scorers, match referees, so across the board to the extent we can assist the government of the Maldives to build up a national cricket team or to bring cricket to a national level, government of India is ready and willing to assist them. We see this as an important people to people relationship building exercise in the same way that we did for Afghanistan, if you recall, a few years ago.

So far as the action plan on Defence Cooperation is concerned, as you know there are a few issues which we have already resolved which is, if you recall, there were some issues which we had with the previous regime to ALH that we have stationed for search and rescue operations, that matter has been resolved to mutual satisfaction. By the way the Coastal Surveillance Radar System and the CTC are also under this action plan on Defence Cooperation. We have recently refurbished one of their coastguard vessels, the Maldives ship Huravi and that has been refitted and returned back to the government of the Maldives and we will also continue to maintain that for them. So a number of action points are already ongoing. One some other which are bigger projects, obviously bilateral discussions will continue and as and when they mature we will let you know.

As far as ISIS influence is concerned, of course this is a matter of concern for us. We have seen reports of alleged activity in many parts of South Asia. As I said we are ready to cooperate with those governments and any other government which wishes to cooperate. Naturally the demand and the kind of cooperation that they desire has to come from them and on receipt of that information, as I said, our government will be happy to cooperate with them on that.

Further, you know this is a trilateral arrangement that India, Japan and Sri Lanka will do in the East container terminal of the Colombo port. So we have reached an initial agreement what is called a Memorandum of Intent for a trilateral arrangement under which the Sri Lankan Port Authority which is the PSU under the government of Sri Lanka will hold the majority share and the remaining share will be held between entities of Japan and India.

The exact shareholding pattern and so on still has to be worked out but the intention now is that with the memorandum of intent having been signed, and that is a significant achievement, we will now go into discussion about the scope of the port, the manner of the financing, the time line and so on. So we are in the start of a process but for us this is an important achievement and the fact that we are partnering with Japan is also, in a sense, not something just of bilateral significance but also shows that we are willing to partner with other countries in developing infrastructure in our region.

Question from Zee News: Aapne kaha ki Maldives ke pichhale regime ke kuch mudde solve ho gaye hain. Pichhale regime ke waqt ye bhi aa raha tha ki jo wahan par Bharatiya rah rahe hain unko muskilein ho rahi thi, unke mudde they, to kya wo sab solve ho gaye hain ya is yatra ke dauran wo masale uthengen?

(You said that some of the issue of previous regime have been solved. During the last regime it was seen that Indians living in Maldives are facing certain issues, so have they been solved now and are those issues expected to be brought in this visit?)

Question from The Tribune: Once upon a time we were very high up on energy security with Sri Lanka, there was talk of Cauvery basin, Mannar basin exploration, Trincomalee farm tonks, are those still in discussions?

Question from Reuters: Is this a strategy of India to partner with Japan to counter the rising influence of China in Sri Lanka or maybe are we going to our neighborhood to address that issue with Maldives as well?

Foreign Secretary, Shri Vijay Gokhale: As far as first question is concerned, this is an important subject and this is something which we have taken up both with the previous government and the current government. I am happy to inform you we have very positive information on this from the current government. A number of work permit related issues which were held up, if you remember, a number of Indians who had to renew their work permits were unable to renew during the previous regime.

Our understanding is that this has been wholly or almost wholly addressed. We are also in discussion in ensuring that the future work permit process is smoothened out. So this is certainly a priority for us and we are in constant discussion with them. It may not necessarily figure at the highest level because we have a good working understanding between the foreign ministries of the two countries on this issue.

On the issue of energy security, I would have to revert to you. This is an area which I do not think we will be discussing when the Prime Minister goes but allow me to revert to you on this.

As far as the last question is concerned, I don’t think we should see our cooperation with any country in our region as necessarily having some ulterior motive or being directed against another country or being part of some grand strategy. I think our objective is that infrastructure development in our region benefits our economy and the economy of that country. We recognize that we have limited capabilities, within those capabilities we are making all efforts bilaterally but when major foreign investors like Japan are also willing to join projects which are of our national interest, we have no objection in doing it with them. This is a model I can say you will see not just in Sri Lanka but in the coming days in a couple of other neighboring countries as well.

Official Spokesperson, Shri Raveesh Kumar: Thank you sir. With this we conclude this special briefing on Prime Minister’s visit to Maldives and Sri Lanka. Thank you all for joining.

(Concludes)

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