Indian assistance and the attached strings
Sri Lanka Air Force has expanded
rapidly in recent times
By Raisa Wickrematunge
has been receiving some attention in the news recently.
Last week, in a move cementing relations between two
neighbouring countries, India reportedly made a payment
of Rs. 117 million to the Sri Lankan Government, for
runway rehabilitation at Palaly.
appears, however, that this project has been in the
works for quite some time.
Secretary of Defence, Austin Fernando, reveals in his
book My Belly Is White, that the runway rehabilitation
was considered essential by the SLAF Commander, even
during Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s
Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) noticed that, especially
after the introduction of heavier aircraft into the
Palaly airstrip, many vital aircraft components were
damaged. This posed serious flight safety risks, and
replacing the parts was expensive. Private operators,
flying after the ceasefire agreement came into effect,
reported similar problems. The SLAF Commander had asked
for assistance to more or less redo the air base,
according to Fernando.
Lack of funding
However, as Fernando observed, there was a severe lack
of funding to get this project off the ground. The cost
of this project would be around USD 5 million, hardly
small change. He petitioned the Treasury, and when this
failed, turned to the idea of foreign assistance.
arrangement at the time was for a company under the
Ministry of Highways to do the work, Fernando revealed.
This company would be supervised jointly by the SLAF and
a local consultant attached to the Road Development
Authority (RDA). Quality control would be the
responsibility of the Project Management Group of the
Indian Air Force (IAF).
parties involved hoped to finish the entire job within
11 months. It was to be in two phases. The first phase
constituted resurfacing the runway, constructing drains
and replacing the airfield lighting systems. The second
would be resurfacing the other taxi tracks and aprons.
suggested that the Indian Government finance this
project as a grant to the Sri Lankan Government.
Money with conditions
However it was at this point that Captain M. Gopinath,
Defence Attaché of the Indian High Commission of
Colombo, approached Fernando.
appeared that the money India was willing to provide
came with certain conditions.
first request was that any further work on the runway
should first be entrusted to
before considering any other country for assistance.
This was not an unreasonable requirement. In fact
Fernando wrote that considering the dire need for
funding, he thought the government would be happy to
comply with this request.
second was that no other country be allowed to carry out
a military operation from the Palaly runway, and the
be allowed to use the runway upon request.
had legitimate security concerns in mind preventing
countries such as, say, Pakistan from using the runway.
However, what this effectively amounted to was that no
other country could use the runway without
first agreeing to it. That in turn could mean that
might only have India to depend on in the event of an
air attack on
It was a tug-of-war between the need for sovereignty and
the need to maintain good diplomatic ties with India.
soft intervention by a Gulliver could be heavy for a
Lilliputian!” wrote Fernando on this dilemma. It
appeared that others agreed with him. After discussions
Fernando was told by Former Defence Minister Tilak
Marapone that the Prime Minister at that time, Ranil
Wickremesinghe, had decided that if India continued to
insist on these conditions, they would use Sri Lankan
funds instead. Wickremesinghe thought the money came at
too high a price.
Series of letters
a series of letters between the Indian Prime Minister
Rajiv Gandhi and President J. R. Jayewardene that saved
the day. A letter written by Jayewardene pledged that
foreign military and intelligence personnel would not be
employed in a manner prejudicial to Indo-Sri Lankan
relations. It also said that no ports would be made
available for military use by any other country in a
manner prejudicial to Indian interests. There was hope
that the Indo-Lanka treaty would be enough to satisfy
the Indian Government, and Marapone intimated that
Former Minister Milinda Moragoda would speak to the
Indian High Commissioner to finalise the agreement.
However, before this was finalised, Former President
Chandrika Kumaratunga “grabbed the Ministry of Defence
on constitutional grounds,” as Fernando puts it, and he
was relieved of his post.
India was satisfied with the Indo-Lanka Treaty or not is
unknown, though Fernando wrote that from what
information he had, the arrangement followed the terms
Wickremesinghe had sought.
India did indeed agree to forward a total of USD 5
million for runway rehabilitation, it would be a huge
step in improving relations between the two countries.
One can only hope that this time, there were no strings