Today is particularly special to me as, this is my first Republic Day reception as High Commissioner here. I have had the privilege of serving as an Indian diplomat in Sri Lanka some years ago. More importantly, on a personal note, Sri Lanka is special to my family. The most important person in my family is a Sri Lankan by birth. My daughter was born in Colombo’s Joseph Fraser Hospital in 2001. I count many of you here tonight as old friends. I look forward to making new friendships and above all, I look forward, to working to bring, our two countries even closer.
More than two millennia of shared civilizational, religious, cultural and ethnic bonds, underpin the close bilateral relations that our two countries enjoy today. These ties have seen, a renewed momentum, after the assumption of office by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May 2014 in India, and H.E. President Maithripala Sirisena and Hon. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in January 2015 in Sri Lanka.
I take this opportunity to congratulate, the national unity government of Sri Lanka, on completing two years in office. These two years have been marked by, high level engagement, between our two countries. H.E. President Sirisena and Hon. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe chose India, as the destination of their first overseas visits, after assuming office, while Prime Minister Modi undertook a historic visit to Sri Lanka, in March 2015, the first stand-alone bilateral visit, to Sri Lanka by an Indian Prime Minister since 1987.
We were honoured that President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have made a number of official visits to India last year. In addition, Speaker of Parliament, Hon. Karu Jayasuriya, and numerous other dignitaries, also visited India. From our side too, there have been a number of visits, including by External Affairs Minister last February for the Joint Commission Meeting, Commerce and Industry Minister in September 2016 and by Minister of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare earlier this month. Further visits from both sides at various levels are expected in the months to come.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi, the Indian economy is witnessing a resurgence, in economic growth despite a global economic slowdown. We are today, the fastest growing major economy, of the world, and is being seen as an engine of global growth. Over the last two and a half years, Foreign Direct Investment inflows, have touched US$ 130 billion, while India’s ranking on parameters, such as global competitiveness, global innovation and ease of doing business have moved up. Numerous legislative and regulatory reform measures, are being implemented, including an historic Goods and Services Tax that will truly make India, a common market. The demonetization initiative, will yield numerous long-term benefits. Reform of regulatory measures, have been initiated, and special initiatives have been launched, such as Make in India, Digital India, Smart Cities, Skill India, Housing for All and Start Up India. These have set India, on the path to being an efficient economy, focused on industry, innovation and entrepreneurship.
India has made enormous strides in various fields, particularly in high technology and innovation. The Indian Space Research Organization, having successfully reached Mars and also launched 20 satellites on a single rocket, and is now targeting launch of more than 100 satellites at one go, a feat not achieved by any country so far. We are also developing, a reusable space shuttle. We are part of global efforts in fundamental research, through projects, like study of gravitational waves, and development of a 30 metre telescope. Our renewable energy expansion programme, is the largest in the world. The world’s largest solar power plant was recently unveiled in India. India’s internet base is now the second largest in the world. We are using biometric technology, to better target government assistance, to the needy, with more than a billion Aadhaar cards issued.
I would encourage Sri Lankan business leaders to take advantage India’s growth story and technology strength. This also fits in, with our “neighbourhood first” policy, in which Sri Lanka has a special place, and which recognizes that India’s growth is linked to the prosperity of its neighbourhood. Our bilateral trade and investment links are robust, and the India – Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement has played an important role in this. Nearly 60% of Sri Lankan exports, now take advantage of the concessions, under this Agreement. Investments, from both sides, are increasing. I also look forward to the implementation of numerous projects, by Indian companies in Sri Lanka this year, particularly in the energy and infrastructure sectors. Negotiations are underway, to conclude an Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement to take the FTA to the next level. I want to emphasize, that we will move at a pace, that Sri Lanka is comfortable with.
I am happy that our development partnership projects are progressing well, particularly the flagship Indian Housing Project,under which more than 45,000 houses, have been constructed on grant basis. We are now focusing on Central and Uva Provinces, where an innovative community-driven approach is being adopted. Overall, India has committed over US$ 2.6 billion in development assistance to Sri Lanka, with over US$ 435 million as outright grants. Numerous Indian-assisted projects are underway in various sectors, including the emergency ambulance service in the Southern and Western Provinces. The high level attention in India to such projects, was manifested, in President Sirisena jointly inaugurating, with Prime Minister Modi, the renovated Duraiappah Stadium in Jaffna last year. I would like to stress, that India will continue to extend, whatever assistance we can, to support Sri Lanka’s development efforts.
Our cultural and people to people, relations remain strong. I am happy that we were able to present, before you today a cultural item performed by renowned artists from India. India remains the largest source of tourists to Sri Lanka, with over 350,000 arrivals last year utilizing the more than 150 flights a week between eight Indian destinations and Colombo. I am also delighted, at the response to the large number of scholarships that we provide for education as well as short term training opportunities, both in Sri Lanka and in India.
Our defence partnership is strong, characterized by regular high level exchanges of visits, joint training and exercises, as well as ship visits. We were privileged to welcome President Sirisena and other dignitaries onboard our aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, last year at Colombo port, on its maiden overseas port call. Both India and Sri Lanka also share similar perspectives against terrorism.
India has an abiding interest, in the security of Sri Lanka,and remains committed to Sri Lanka’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity. We have always supported efforts, to preserve Sri Lanka’s character as a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious society in which all citizens can live in equality, safety and harmony, and prosper and fulfill their aspirations. India will continue to remain engaged with Sri Lanka, and offer our support in a spirit of partnership and cooperation. We hope that ongoing efforts for constitutional reform and reconciliation are successful.