When Tan Binh 99, the Panama-registered general cargo vessel left Chennai at 8.28 a.m. on May 19 with 9,000 tons of rice, 200 tons of milk powder, and 24 tons of essential medicines, it marked a first of sorts: A province in a developing country extending its assistance to another country.
Tamil Nadu decided to extend humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka in the form of rice and other essential commodities, taking into consideration the plight of the people following the economic deterioration of the island nation. This is a marked shift in the stand of political parties in Tamil Nadu, which has in the past demanded a separate Tamil nation in Sri Lanka. It also sets the stage for enhanced interaction between the people of the two regions.
Chief Minister M.K. Stalin flagged off the process of loading the cargo onto the vessel on May 18. At a function held at West Quay in Chennai Port on May 18, Stalin symbolically handed over a sample pouch of the material to D. Venkateshwaran, Sri Lankan Deputy High Commissioner in Southern India.. The cargo vessel is expected to cover the distance of just over 400 nautical miles in about two days.
The total aid promised by the Tamil Nadu government is worth Rs.123 crore and consists of 40,000 tons of rice, 100-plus life-saving drugs and 500 tons of milk powder. This is just the first consignment and is being sent with the consent of the Government of India. The State government has appealed to the people to contribute generously to the relief efforts in Sri Lanka.
How it all began
In a Legislative Assembly resolution, all the political parties represented in the Tamil Nadu State Assembly had expressed their anxiety over the rising prices of essential commodities in Sri Lanka and the implications for India if the situation did not improve.
Tamil Nadu had extensive trade, cultural, and cricketing ties with Sri Lanka, but the relationship came to a standstill after the crushing defeat of the the Liberation Tamils of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009. In fact, Tamil nationalist groups and fringe elements in the State had agitated against the training given to Sri Lankan officers in defence facilities located in the State and had protested the presence of Sri Lankan cricketers in the Chennai franchise of the Indian Premier League. On its part, the Sri Lankan government stipulated that no Sri Lankan government official could enter Tamil Nadu or transit via the Chennai airport given the security situation.
Tamil Nadu took the first step on March 31, when Chief Minister M.K. Stalin raised the issue of helping Sri Lankan Tamils with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a trickle of refugees began arriving in the State from Sri Lanka when the economic situation in Sri Lanka worsened. The first set of refugees—technically economic refugees since there was no war in Sri Lanka—arrived in the State on March 8. By April 25, the number of refugees swelled to 75. “Many more would have crossed over but for the Sri Lankan Navy arresting or sending back Sri Lankan Tamils,” a senior Tamil Nadu officer told Frontline.
Reaction to assistance
Tamil Nadu’s offer was welcomed by the Tamil political parties in Sri Lanka. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest umbrella alliance of Tamil political parties in Sri Lanka, welcomed the move. But, after a few days, given the new-found bonhomie between all sections of the people in Sri Lanka, the TNA requested the Tamil Nadu government to include all Sri Lankans in the proposed material aid package.
There was a lull soon after, with the Indian government not taking a decision on Tamil Nadu’s request. On April 15, Stalin wrote to the External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, reiterating the Tamil Nadu government’s commitment to “ship essential supplies including food grain, vegetables, and medicines from Thoothukudi Port to the Sri Lankan Tamils living in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka, as well as those working in the plantations”. He had earlier raised the issue in a telephone conversation with him on April 7.
Making a statement in the Assembly ahead of a resolution helping all Sri Lankans, Stalin said that he did not want to dwell into how Sri Lanka ended up in a situation of this nature. At the same time, the hardship faced by the people of Sri Lanka had saddened everyone in Tamil Nadu. Even life-saving medicines were hard to find. The price of all essential items had gone up beyond reach of the common man. “We cannot merely carry on with our lives thinking that this is the problem of a neighbouring country. This is not the time to be drawn into details of who is in power and what kind of people they are,” he said in a reference to the fact that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the Defence Secretary and the current Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa was the President when LTTE chief V. Prabhakaran was killed and thousands of Tamils were murdered as the Eelam war came to a close.
“We have to help in whatever way we can. As soon as we began getting news of the problems there, I had announced that we will help Eelam Tamils in all the ways that we can…. Some Tamil organisations in Sri Lanka requested me not to send relief only for Tamils, but to send it to all Sri Lankans. ‘Please do not view people by their ethnic identities. All of us are facing the same problems,’ they informed us. When I heard this, I become emotional…. This is Tamil culture. This goes to show that Sri Lankan Tamils are living to the maxim ‘the good heart will bless even the enemy.’” (This is a line penned by poet Subramaniya Bharati—pagaivanukkum arulvai nannenje.)
On April 29, the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly passed a revised resolution, altering its earlier stance and saying that it was willing to provide humanitarian assistance to all Sri Lankan people. The same day, in a letter addressed to Narendra Modi, Stalin said: “Reports of untold sufferings and unrest in our neighbourhood has been pouring in every day. Considering this critical situation, the august House of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly has unanimously passed a resolution today, urging the Government of India to positively consider our request to immediately despatch the much needed supplies.”
TNA leader M.A. Sumanthiran welcomed the statement and conveyed his “heartfelt thanks to the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister for heeding to our request and providing assistance to all Sri Lankans”. Mano Ganesan, Tamil Progressive Alliance leader and Colombo MP, tweeted on April 29: “Thank you CM Stalin of TN for the bighearted decision to send a shipload donation of food and medicine to the value of nearly LKR 6000 million to all the people of Sri Lanka. We now foresee the consents of the Government of India to this aid mission of Government of Tamil Nadu.”
After refusing to respond Stalin’s March 31 demand, the Union government finally agreed to allow the request of the Tamil Nadu government. On May 1, Jaishankar wrote to Stalin saying that Sri Lanka was willing to accept “inclusive aid on a Government-to-Government basis”. “The matter could, therefore, be coordinated by our High Commission, supplementing assistance already underway,” he said and added that the Tamil Nadu Chief Secretary could coordinate with Government of India for the supply and distribution of humanitarian relief.
On May 4, the then Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa wrote to Stalin, thanking him for the initiative: “I wish to thank you and the Tamil Nadu government on behalf of the people of Sri Lanka, for viewing the country’s crisis from a humanitarian standpoint, rather than as a problem concerning another country.”
While Tamil Nadu’s actions stem from the fact that the problem in Sri Lanka affects the Tamil-speaking people, the Government of India views it from the angle of controlling refugee inflows and improving relations between India and Sri Lanka using Tamil Nadu.
The trade and other connections between the people of the two countries, predominantly between Colombo and Chennai, had wound down after 2009. During the war years and earlier, the two countries were connected by two ferry services, one between Rameswaram (the southern-most point of Indian mainland) and Mannar (the nearest point in Sri Lanka), and the other between Thoothukudi and Colombo.
Though the Thoothukudi-Colombo service was revived in 2011, the service had to be withdrawn for lack of patronage. With the possible increase in people-to-people ties, New Delhi hopes to revive the traditional trade routes as well as the traditional links between the Tamil-speaking people of both countries.
But all these hinge on the kind of economic recovery in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Central Bank said on May 19 that economic activity is expected to be “affected considerably” because of the fuel shortage and supply issues. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe announced in Parliament that only essential service staff had to report for work on May 20. All other employees have been asked to stay away because of the fuel crisis.
The Prime Minister also informed Parliament that petrol and diesel required up to mid-June has already been procured. It appears that there will be as many ups as downs in the road ahead.