Edited excerpts from the weekly media briefing by official spokesperson of the External Affairs Ministry, Syed Akbaruddin, in New Delhi on April 3:
Question: My question is related to Sri Lanka. There has been Chinese-Sri Lankan collaboration going on in the area of space, and they are going to launch a communications satellite among other things. India’s National Security Council called on March 25 for an inter-ministerial consultation to decide on possible approaches to protect Indian interests in the neighbourhood. I was just wondering, because it has been about a week since that consultation, whether you had any feedback on the consultation and what was discussed.
Official Spokesperson of the External Affairs Ministry, Syed Akbaruddin: I think we follow a norm here. I do not respond on inter-ministerial issues of a nature which we have not conducted. If you say this is conducted by the National Security Council, I would direct you to please contact the National Security Council Secretariat and get a response from it on this matter.
I have said previously, inter-ministerial discussions are normal in any country, in any democracy, in any system. If you would like us to expose our entrails and indicate that this is what somebody wrote on a note and this is what the reply was, I am afraid I am not the right person. You ask me for an explanation of any foreign policy stance and any such related question, I am more than willing to respond.
Question: There are reports that Indian projects in Sri Lanka have slowed down. Could you tell us about these projects and give us an update on them? And there is also growing clamour that the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting should be shifted out of Sri Lanka, and two Union ministers have in fact joined this clamour. Could you please give us your comments on that?
Akbaruddin: As I said, I never answer on intramural issues. So, on this clamour within India, if there is a decision taken, I will want to explain but let me try and provide you some information in terms of our projects, especially focussed on the Tamil-speaking people in Sri Lanka.
Our major flagship project is the housing project. On October 2, we launched what is called the second phase of that project after completing the first phase. In the first phase, 1,000 houses were constructed and handed over. In the second phase, construction of 43,000 accommodations was initiated. Now, we are following what is for us a new system of conducting our development partnership.
That system involves direct cash transfers to beneficiaries. These are owner-driven projects in a sense. We select the owner through a very transparent process. If any of you would like to know who the owners of these 43,000 dwelling units in Sri Lanka are, you just have to go to the website of the High Commission of India in Colombo and get information about every owner that is available.
Next, we then have audit at the community level, so that if anybody has a grievance, if anybody has an issue, those are sorted out there. Finally, we do not construct these houses but we do direct transfer of funds to banks. This is for us a unique and first of its kind development partnership project where we have started these direct transfers. We have these reputed implementing agencies, which are UN Habitat, International Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity. These are our implementing partners. They go and check whether that phase is complete. Once that phase is complete, the money is released for the next phase and that is how it goes on.
If I try and see the information that is available, in this phase by the end of the financial year in March 2013, we had hoped that 10,000 dwelling units would have started. This was our plan. I am happy to tell you that we are ahead of that. We have, in fact, 11,379 beneficiaries who have begun work on that. Of these, 3,488 have also availed their second instalment, about 700 have availed the third instalment, and almost 500 have completed their houses.
The point that I would like to make is in terms of our flagship project in Sri Lanka, which is focused on rehabilitation of internally displaced persons primarily of Tamil ethnicity, we are way ahead of schedule for this project. If you would like information on, for example, the two rail lines, and this is the other major project we are doing in those areas, these rail lines are based on an $800 million line of credit.
If I am not mistaken, one is in Kankesanthurai and the other is in Thalaimannar. In both cases, we are ahead of schedule. We hope to complete these projects well ahead of schedule, perhaps by the end of the year. So, let me tell you, in terms of implementation of projects in Sri Lanka we are doing very well.
Question: Is India worried about growing Chinese engagement in Sri Lanka, and growing investment, and growing cooperation which now includes satellite technology?
Akbaruddin: Let me give you some facts. India is the largest trade partner of Sri Lanka. India is the largest investor in Sri Lanka. India is also the destination of the largest number of Sri Lankan tourists travelling outside Sri Lanka. We also have a large number of Indians travelling there. There are large amounts of Sri Lankan investments coming into India.
We are on the cusp of working on the next phase of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. We are now already starting to work on that. As far as we see our relationship with Sri Lanka, we do not see it in competitive terms. We see it as a win-win situation both for India and for Sri Lanka, and we are quite comfortable with that situation.
Question: I just want to ask you what steps the Government of India is taking for the return of the 19 Indian fishermen whose remand was extended I think yesterday?
Akbaruddin: We are in active touch with the Sri Lankans on this and we have raised this both here in Delhi previously and in Sri Lanka. Our consulate is working with legal officials on this. We hope that this will be amicably resolved. As has been the case with all other fishermen, who have from time to time strayed into Sri Lankan waters, we hope this too would be amicably resolved.
Image: Syed Akbaruddin