India – Sri Lanka Relationship

Three years after objecting to a Chinese energy project in northern Sri Lanka, barely 50 km off Tamil Nadu’s coast, India is set to implement a hybrid power project in three islands off Jaffna peninsula with a $11-million grant.

Historical Background

  • India and Sri Lanka, bound by a proximity that stretches across the Palk Strait, share a relationship rich in cultural tapestry, economic interdependence, and strategic significance. This article delves into the complexities and strengths that define their enduring ties.
  • The relationship between the two nations boasts a staggering antiquity, exceeding 2,500 years. Buddhism, which originated in India, found fertile ground in Sri Lanka, shaping its religious identity.
  • Throughout history, cultural and intellectual exchanges flourished, leaving an indelible mark on both societies. Languages like Tamil and Sinhala bear testament to these deep-rooted connections.

Post-Independence Era

  • Following their respective independence from British rule, India and Sri Lanka established diplomatic relations in 1947. The early years were marked by cooperative efforts in international forums and a shared commitment to regional stability.
  • However, the relationship witnessed challenges, particularly during the 1980s, when the Tamil ethnic conflict strained ties between the two nations.

Economic Collaboration:

  • Economic cooperation forms a crucial pillar of the India-Sri Lanka relationship. Both countries have engaged in trade, investment, and development projects to enhance their economic ties.
  • India has been a significant trading partner for Sri Lanka, and initiatives such as the India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (ISFTA) have facilitated increased bilateral trade.
  • Additionally, Indian investments in Sri Lanka, particularly in sectors like infrastructure and technology, have contributed to economic growth in both nations.

Strategic Partnership

  • The strategic dimensions of the India-Sri Lanka relationship have gained prominence in recent years. Both countries recognize the importance of fostering regional stability and security.
  • India has been actively involved in supporting Sri Lanka’s efforts to counter terrorism and promote maritime security. The geographical proximity of the two nations makes their collaboration essential for the stability of the Indian Ocean region.

Development Cooperation:

  • Sri Lanka is one of India’s major development partners and this partnership has been an important pillar of bilateral ties between the two countries over the years. With grants alone amounting to around USD 570 million, the overall commitment by GOI is to the tune of more than USD 3.5 billion. Grant projects cut across sectors such as education, health, livelihood, housing, industrial development etc.
  • The Indian Housing Project, with an initial commitment to build 50,000 houses in war affected areas and estate workers in the plantation areas, is Government of India (GoI)’s flagship grant project in Sri Lanka.
  • The country-wide 1990 Emergency Ambulance Service is another flagship project. The Service which was initially launched in July 2016 in Western and Southern Provinces of Sri Lanka was later expanded to all the Provinces in the next phase. Launch of the second phase was held on 21 July 2018 in Jaffna wherein Prime Minister Narendra Modi joined the then Prime of Sri Lanka Ranil Wickremesinghe virtually from New Delhi. 
  • Some of other notable grant projects which have been completed are the 150-bed Dickoya hospital, livelihood assistance to nearly 70,000 people from fishing and farming community in Hambantota, supply of medical equipment to Vavuniya Hospital and 150 Boats and Fishing gear for Mullaithivu fishermen. A modern 1500 – seat auditorium named after Rabindranath Tagore in Ruhuna University, Matara, is the largest in any University in Sri Lanka.
  • There are another 20 ongoing grant projects across diverse spheres. This includes the iconic Jaffna Cultural Center, construction of 153 houses and infrastructure facilities in  Shobitha Thero Village in Anuradhapura; Upgradation of Saraswathy Central College in Pusselawa, Kandy; Construction of 600 houses under Model Village Housing Project in 25 districts of Sri Lanka; 5000 MT temperature-controlled warehouse in Dambulla;  Kandian Dancing School at Pallekelle/Dalada Maligawa Cultural Heritage project, Kandy;  144 transit housing units in Madhu Shrine, Mannar etc. 

Cultural and People-to-People Ties:

  • Cultural exchange and people-to-people ties have played a vital role in strengthening the India-Sri Lanka relationship. Numerous cultural festivals, academic exchanges, and tourism initiatives have fostered a deeper understanding between the citizens of both nations. The rich cultural heritage shared by India and Sri Lanka continues to be a unifying force that transcends political and economic considerations.

Support during COVID-19 and Sri Lankan economic crisis

  • In the face of the acute financial and economic crisis of Sri Lanka, India has extended help worth USD 3.8 billion to help Sri Lanka. In line with India’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy, this includes an agreement to supply 700 million USD worth of petroleum through a Line of credit.
  • India’s EXIM Bank and State Bank of India extended export credit facilities of 1.5 billion USD for the import of essential commodities. India also signed a 400 million USD agreement to help present Sri Lanka’s Foreign exchange reserves. India also supplied 500 buses to the Sri Lankan Transport Department.
  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, India sent 500,000 vaccines to Sri Lanka under grant assistance. India also sent 150 tonnes of oxygen to Sri Lanka to help combat the third wave of the pandemic.
  • In July 2023, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India where they outlined vision for an economic partnership to strengthen the maritime, air, energy, and interpersonal networks between them as well as to accelerate mutual cooperation in the tourism, power, trade, higher education, and skill development sectors.
  • They said they would also work to connect their electricity grids and to examine the feasibility of building a petroleum pipeline and a land bridge. In addition, they said they would restart negotiations on a more expansive trade deal known as the Economic and Technological Trade Agreement.
  • India has conveyed a resolute endorsement of Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring proposal to the international lending institution, as Sri Lanka’s debt to its immediate neighbor amounts to approximately $1 billion.

Challenges and Opportunities:

  • While the India-Sri Lanka relationship has witnessed substantial progress, it has not been without challenges. Issues related to fishermen disputes, regional geopolitics, and occasional political differences have tested the resilience of the partnership. However, both nations remain committed to addressing these challenges through diplomatic dialogue.

Other Specific issues between India – Sri Lanka

13th Amendment

13th Amendment

  • It is an outcome of the Indo-Lanka Accord of July 1987, signed by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President J.R. Jayawardene, in an attempt to resolve Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict that had aggravated into a full-fledged civil war, between the armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which led the struggle for Tamils’ self-determination and sought a separate state.
  • The 13th Amendment led to the creation of Provincial Councils and assured a power sharing arrangement to enable all nine provinces in the country, including Sinhala majority areas, to self-govern.
  • Subjects such as education, health, agriculture, housing, land and police are devolved to the provincial administrations, but because of restrictions on financial powers and overriding powers given to the President, the provincial administrations have not made much headway.
  • The provisions relating to police and land have never been implemented.
  • Initially, the north and eastern provinces were merged and had a North-Eastern Provincial Council, but the two were de-merged in 2007 following a Supreme Court verdict.

Why is it contentious?

  • The 13th Amendment carries considerable baggage from the country’s civil war years.
  • It was opposed vociferously by both Sinhala nationalist parties and the LTTE. The former thought it was too much power to share, while the Tigers deemed it too little.
  • A large section of the Sinhala polity, including the leftist-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which led an armed insurrection opposing it, saw the Accord and the consequent legislation as an imprint of Indian intervention.
  • Though signed by the powerful President Jayawardene, it was widely perceived as an imposition by a neighbour wielding hegemonic influence.
  • The Tamil polity, especially its dominant nationalist strain, does not find the 13th Amendment sufficient in its ambit or substance.
  • On the other hand, Tamils have said that not enough power had been devolved to the provincial councils to make them meaningful.

Why is the 13th Amendment significant?

  • Till date, the 13th Amendment represents the only constitutional provision on the settlement of the long-pending Tamil question.
  • It is considered part of the few significant gains since the 1980s, in the face of growing Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism from the time Sri Lanka became independent in 1948.

How Has India Pursued The Issue With Sri Lanka?

  • Ever since the signing of the accord, India has stressed the importance of the implementation of the 13th amendment besides giving attention to the requirements of the Indian-origin Tamil community;
  • India has underscored that to create an united Sri Lanka, devolution of powers to the Tamil regions was necessary for long-term reconciliation of the issue between the ethnic communities.
  • India considered the full implementation of the 13th amendment in Sri Lanka “critical” for achieving reconciliation with the minority Tamil community.
  • India had urged Sri Lanka to implement the 13th amendment at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session at Geneva.


Katchatheevu issue

  • Katchatheevu issue arises in pre-independence India and continues to create a rift in the relationship between India and Sri Lanka. The island has its own history and international mutual agreements have also been questioned by the state of Tamil Nadu government.  
  • Island Gifted to SriLanka– In 1974, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi did treaties with her counterpart Srimavo Bandaranaike, Sri Lankan President, and ceded Katchatheevu Island to Sri Lanka.
  • In 1991, a resolution was adopted by the Tamil Nadu Assembly. The retrieval of Katchatheevu island was demanded through the resolution.
  • Considering the move flawed in law, in 2008, then chief minister Jayalalithaa dragged the centre to the Supreme Court and appealed to nullify the Katchatheevu agreements. She stated that two treaties between the countries that gifted Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka are unconstitutional.

What is Katchatheevu?

  • Katchatheevu is an uninhabited off-shore island in the Palk Strait. It was formed due to volcanic eruptions in the 14th century. The 285-acre land was jointly administered by India and Sri Lanka during British rule.
  • The Raja of Ramnad (present-day Ramanathapuram, Tamil Nadu) owned Katchatheevu island and later became part of the Madras Presidency.
  • In 1921, both Sri Lanka and India claimed this piece of land for fishing and the dispute remained unsettled. After Indian independence, the country initiated to resolve the pre-independence territory dispute between Ceylon and the British.

How did the conflict arise?

  • Fishermen of both countries have been fishing in each other’s waters without conflict for a very long time. The issue emerged when both the countries signed four Maritime Boundary Agreements between 1974-76. The agreement marked the international maritime boundary of India and Sri Lanka
  • The agreement aimed to facilitate resource management and law enforcement in the Palk Strait. Now, Indian fishermen were only allowed to use the island for resting, net drying and the annual St. Anthony’s festival. They are not permitted to use the island for fishing. However, Indian fishermen continued trespassing the Sri Lankan water boundary, searching for better catch in the area.  
  • The next few decades went well but the problem turned serious when fish and aquatic life in the Indian continental shelf depleted, which resulted in an increased number of Indian fishermen in the region. They are also using modern fishing trolleys which harm marine life and the ecosystem.

LTTE era and restrictions on movement

  • During the LTTE (LiberationTigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist group in Sri Lanka) era, the  Sri Lankan government restricted the easy movement of Sri Lankan fishermen in waters raising military operations issues. The Indian fishermen considered this as an opportunity.
  • In 2009, Sri Lanka started heavily guarding its maritime boundary in the Palk Strait. It was done to reduce the possibility of the return of Tamil insurgents in the country. With the end of the war in 2010, Sri Lankan fishermen again started their movement in Palk Bay and reclaimed their lost legitimate territory.

Humanitarian and Livelihood Concern

  • About 10 miles northeast of Rameshwaram, the island is used by Indian fishermen to dry their nets, catch fish and rest. Frequent arrests on the border have increased and Sri Lankan authorities said that they are protecting their maritime boundaries against poaching, and securing the livelihood of Sri Lankan fishermen. Both sides ensure to not use force under any circumstances. However, the violent situation remains the same.

Indian Government’s stand

  • According to a statement available on the website of the Ministry of External Affairs, the government concluded maritime boundary agreements with Sri Lanka in 1974 and 1976. According to the agreement, the Island lies on the Sri Lankan side of the India-Sri Lanka International Maritime Boundary Line. The matter is still sub-judice in the Supreme Court of India.
  • The government has raised the issue at the highest political level with Sri Lanka. According to agreements, the issue was bilaterally resolved and has allowed Indians to visit the island for the pilgrimage without any requirement of a visa.

Palkbay Dispute

About the Issue

  • Foreign Minister Ali Sabry told Parliament that authorities were looking into possibly issuing licences to Indian fishermen, as part of Sri Lanka’s efforts to find a solution to the long-persisting fisheries conflict, through “cordial” bilateral talks. “This was discussed with Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar
  • India has proposed this licensing system as a solution, and are holding discussions on it, adding that such a system would help Indian authorities better regulate their fishermen, and will also bring in money that could be used for Sri Lankan fishermen’s betterment. About “2,000 to 3,000come to our seas every day and our Navy is unable to control that
  • The Minister’s remarks have sparked serious concern among northern fishermena they frl that it will be a serious setback to struggle for the last 15 years to stop Indian trawlers from entering our seas.

Background of the Dispute

  • Palk Bay is a semi-enclosed shallow water body between the southeast coast of India and Sri Lanka, with a water depth maximum of 13 m.
  • Fishermen of both countries have been fishing in each other’s waters without conflict for a very long time. The issue emerged when India-Sri Lanka signed maritime boundary agreements. The agreements marked the international maritime boundary of India and Sri Lanka.
  • The agreement aimed to facilitate resource management and law enforcement in the Palk Strait. Now, Indian fishermen were only allowed to use the island for resting, net drying and the annual St. Anthony’s festival. They are not permitted to use the island for fishing. However, Indian fishermen continued trespassing the Sri Lankan water boundary, searching for a better catch in the area.
  • The next few decades went well but the problem turned serious when fish and aquatic life in the Indian continental shelf depleted, which resulted in an increased number of Indian fishermen in the region using modern fishing trolleys
  • Several rounds of bilateral negotiations between the two governments and talks between fishing community leaders from both sides have been held over the years, but a solution remains elusive.

What is the conflict, and between whom?

  • The main contention between the fishermen on either side is not so much about territorial rights, as historically both sides have amicably shared marine resources in the stretch. It is more to do with the use of “bottom trawling”, the fishing method used by fishermen from Tamil Nadu.
  • A group of daily-wage fishermen set out on mechanised boats, owned by other affluent fishermen, and drag large fishing nets through the seabed. While they primarily target fish species and shrimps, the practice of bottom trawling scoops out eggs, young fishes, and other marine organisms that eventually die and are thrown back into the sea.
  • The primary conflict here is between the Tamil Nadu trawler owners and the northern Sri Lankan fishermen, who are trying to rebuild their livelihoods after Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in 2009. Until then, they were denied access to the sea at different points and displaced from their homes.
  • It is in the post-war decade that the Sri Lankan fishermen started voicing concern about depleting catches, owing to incessant trawling by the Indian fishermen. With the Indian side of the IMBL already ravaged by decades of high profit-yielding bottom trawling, they flock to the Sri Lankan side, with relatively less damage and therefore, more marine resources.
  • The clash now is essentially over competing livelihoods of two Tamil-speaking fisher communities, with a glaring asymmetry in power and resources. The Tamil Nadu fishing community, especially the trawler owners, are not only wealthier but also very politically influential. The northern Sri Lankan fishermen, on the other hand, are coming out of a brutal war, braving enormous losses and destruction. They use modest boats to practice traditional fishing and get little state support to resurrect their livelihoods.

Why is it yet to be resolved?

  • India has urged Sri Lanka to adopt a humanitarian approach when it deters Indian fishermen. However, when fishermen deaths occur, apart from customary condemnations and denials, there is little effort from authorities on either side to ensure investigations are completed and perpetrators brought to book.
  • Secondly, New Delhi tried diverting Tamil Nadu fishermen to deep sea fishing methods to wean them away from bottom trawling in the Palk Strait. But the initiative did not take off as planned , and the fishermen still resort to trawling, and often get caught by Sri Lankan authorities.
  • Thirdly, Tamil Nadu is yet to agree to the chief demand of northern Tamil fishermen — to stop bottom trawling to restore trust between the fishermen on both sides, and provide a real opportunity to re-commence talks, which they prefer over confrontation.
  • The northern Tamil fishermen repeatedly acknowledge Tamil Nadu’s solidarity and support extended to Sri Lankan Tamils during the years of war and later. But they also remind their brothers across the Palk Strait that solidarity does not justify exploitation of resources on which their lives and livelihoods depend

Future Trajectory:

  • The future trajectory of the India-Sri Lanka relationship holds immense potential for further collaboration and mutual benefit. As both nations continue to evolve in the global landscape, sustained efforts in economic, political, and strategic domains will contribute to the consolidation of their partnership. People-to-people interactions, cultural exchanges, and joint initiatives in areas like technology and innovation will likely play a pivotal role in shaping the future contours of this bilateral relationship.


  • The India-Sri Lanka relationship stands as a testament to the enduring bonds between neighboring nations with shared historical, cultural, and economic ties. As both countries navigate the complexities of the modern world, their commitment to collaboration, understanding, and mutual respect remains the foundation for a robust and dynamic partnership. The evolving dynamics of this relationship are poised to shape the geopolitical landscape of South Asia, making the India-Sri Lanka partnership a key player in regional and global affairs.

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