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BIMSTEC Summit: Jaishankar in Sri Lanka for bilateral

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New Delhi, Mar 28: External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar arrived in Colombo on Sunday to hold bilateral talks with Sri Lanka's top leadership and attend the seven-nation BIMSTEC summit.

This is his first visit to the island nation since India extended an economic relief package to bail Sri Lanka out of the current economic crisis, news agency PTI reported.


"Arrived in Colombo for bilateral visit and BIMSTEC meeting. Look forward to my discussions over the next two days," he tweeted.

Jaishankar arrived here after concluding his visit to the Maldives during which he held discussions with the country's top leadership on wide ranging issues related to bilateral cooperation.

The minister's visit to Sri Lanka and the Maldives are part of his five-day two-nation tour to the two key maritime neighbours of India to explore the possibilities of further expansion of bilateral engagements.
Although Jaishankar's Colombo visit is primarily for the BIMSTEC engagements, officials said he would be taking part in all important bilateral talks with the Sri Lankan leaders.

Besides India and Sri Lanka, the BIMSTEC comprises Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan.

The summit is being hosted by Sri Lanka in its capacity as the chair of the grouping BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will attend the virtual summit of the BIMSTEC grouping on March 30, which is expected to focus on expanding economic engagement among its member countries.

The summit comes at a time when Sri Lanka is facing its all-time worst foreign exchange crisis after the pandemic hit the island nation's earnings from tourism and remittances.
India, since mid-January, has provided economic relief in the form of currency swaps, deferred repayments and dedicated credit lines for the purchase of fuel and essential imports.
Jaishankar's visit is taking place at a time when the public outrage over the Lankan government's inefficiency in handling the crisis has come out in the open. People are holding protests and vigils urging immediate solutions to rid them of fuel and gas queues and enduring long hours of power cuts.
Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa saw Jaishankar as a helpful ally in his bid to tackle the issue at a time serious public anger has turned against the government - these come in the form of peaceful demonstrations urging not only President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to stand down but the whole Rajapaksa ruling family to resign for incompetency.
Although both the government and the Opposition leaders as well as economic analysts have by and large appreciated India's assistance, some concerns on India's pre conditions if any for such aid have been raised.
In recent days, the Opposition as well as a section of the government allies have raised concerns over some of the newly-approved Indian projects in the island nation.
Also, there are growing concerns on some of the post economic relief package engagements proposed with India.
The agreement to provide a grant of USD 6 million for the establishment of a Maritime Rescue Coordinating Center in Sri Lanka and agreement for the implementation of the Sri Lanka Unified Digital Identity Framework are two prime examples of allegations of packs with India shrouded in secrecy.
The main Opposition raised these projects in Parliament, questioning their alleged lack of transparency and pressed the government for answers.
The Indian assistance or its economic bailout package included USD 400 million currency swaps, USD 500 million for fuel purchase, USD 1 billion for food and essentials and deferment of Asian Currency Unit payments of over USD 500 million.
The best explanation for India's assistance came from former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
"Indian assistance was because they feared there would be instability in Sri Lanka with civil unrest. India had never helped a country to this extent before," he said during a discussion with an independent think tank, adding that Sri Lanka ought to be thankful to India for the assistance, although this assistance would only be sufficient for two more months.
There is a school of thought that India has got involved with its neighbour not just to provide economic relief.
"What we have is an economic crisis and a political crisis," Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, the head of an independent think tank, said. Interestingly, a politically-influential senior Buddhist monk, Rev Elle Gunawansha, has urged in a letter to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to come out with full details of the "deal with India".
Sri Lanka is facing an acute economic and energy crisis triggered due to shortage of foreign exchange. A sudden rise in prices of key commodities and fuel shortage forced tens of thousands of people to queue for hours outside petrol filling stations. People are also facing long hours of power cuts daily.
All essentials are in short supply due to import restrictions forced by the forex crisis.
India recently announced to extend a USD 1 billion line of credit to Sri Lanka as part of its financial assistance to the country to deal with the economic crisis.
New Delhi had extended a USD 500 million line of credit to Colombo in February to help it purchase petroleum products.

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