Sri Lanka's fears

Print edition : July 29, 2005
V.S. SAMBANDAN in Colombo

THE Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project (SSCP), which has always been on the periphery of Sri Lankan politics, came centre-stage on July 7 when the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a political party of Buddhist monks, raised the issue in Parliament. In a detailed reply to a question by JHU Member of Parliament Athuraliya Rathana Thero, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar expressed the hope that New Delhi "would agree" to a "joint monitoring and assessment of any adverse implication" of the project. The call for a joint monitoring and assessment mechanism is against the backdrop of apprehensions on a range of issues related to environment, maritime trade and defence. Sri Lanka's opposition to the project has, over a period of time, been largely directed by a fear of the unknown.

Ever since the move by the Indian government to give a thrust to the project was first made, there has been some trepidation in the island-nation. However, it was ultimately politics in the run-up to a possible election that brought the issue centre-stage.

The MP specifically wanted to know if his Ministry would take steps to go before an international court if there was environmental destruction. In his written reply, Kadirgamar described the question as "premature" and one that "remains in the realm of possibility". However, he kept Sri Lanka's options open when he said it could be a "measure of last resort".

Pointing out that international conventions reflected concerns such as the impact of cross-border pollution and that some countries had "taken similar matters to international fora", he said: "This is obviously a measure of last resort in the event of failure to resolve any issue through bilateral consultation and friendly cooperation".

In a seven-page reply, Kadirgamar said Sri Lanka "will take all the necessary steps to safeguard the well-being and the interests of our people and our country." This, he said, would be in a "calibrated and graduated manner, opting first for a cooperative and consultative approach". As Colombo was currently engaged in such an exercise, "we will consider further action thereafter if and when necessary", he said.

After Sri Lanka raised its concerns relating to the SSCP's "likely transfrontier impact on Sri Lanka, specially in environment and livelihood areas", it was agreed that India would "facilitate continuing Indo-Sri Lanka consultations", including at the "expert technical level", to arrive at a "common understanding on the environmental concerns", the Minister said.

The Sri Lankan initiative was to "build a mechanism for exchange of information and jointly assess risks through a common base of information". Such a mechanism, the Minister said, would be "based on well-recognised principles of international law relating to the duty to have due regard to the rights of other States and to ensure that activities under the jurisdiction or control of a State are so conducted as not to cause damage by pollution to other States and their environment." Expressing the hope that India "would agree" to a mechanism for joint monitoring of any adverse fallout from the canal project, Kadirgamar said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had "very clearly stated" that the island-nation's "environmental concerns and possible adverse implications are receiving India's serious attention as well".

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