Will help Colombo to deal with economic challenges due to COVID-19, says India's new high commissioner to Lanka

New Delhi Written By: Sidhant SibalUpdated: May 16, 2020, 02:52 PM IST

India'S New High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Gopal Baglay presents his credentials to Sri Lankan president via video conference. Photograph:(WION)

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We are closely working on the repatriation of Sri Lankan nationals and I would like to say, both the countries see every challenge as an opportunity.

India's New High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Gopal Baglay said that New Delhi will help Colombo to deal with the Economic Challenges precipitated by the COVID-19 crisis and this " is going to be one of my very important tasks", he said. Speaking exclusively to our principal diplomatic correspondent Sidhant Sibal from Colombo, Baglay who presented his credentials last week via video conference said, "with vision and commitment Indian diplomacy is more than committed to adequately address the challenges posed" by the COVID-19 situation.

With 1200 Indian nationals registering for repatriation, he also talked about how the mission is reaching out to stranded Indian nationals in the country. This is the first interview of Gopal Baglay to any Indian channel since taking over as the new Indian high commissioner to Sri Lanka.

WION: How are India and Sri Lanka cooperating to deal with the COVID crisis?

Gopal Baglay: India and Sri Lanka are the closest maritime neighbours. They share a very long history, they not only geography but the bonds of civilization. Buddhism is the common spirit we share. Civilizational strength we have, the diversity we have, so it is very natural for us to very closely cooperate especially in matters pertaining to the development and also when it comes to handling the different crisis and calamities. India has been first responders in many occasions in the past as well when natural calamities struck Sri Lanka. I think we are very fortunate to have the leadership in both the countries which is very keen to develop this cooperation and expand this cooperation.

So it is very natural for India to respond to this situation and while we have our challenges and like everyone we are fighting the pandemic, it is very natural for India to come to the assistance of Sri Lanka because that is the mark of true friendship and true cooperation. You must be aware we have sent 4 consignments, in fact, I happen to be on the consignment that came last week and the special flight that brought back 12 and 1/2 tonnes of the consignment. Other than that we have sent 3 consignments earlier, medical material, medicines, essential life saving for fighting COVID as well as the requirement projected by Sri Lankan govt to our govt. We have also arranged special online courses on management of COVID situation under India's ITEC programme which is very old but got a new dimension.

It is a new aspect, to use technology. COVID presents many challenges on of which is not only safe distancing, restrictions on travel and how India is managing its COVID situation that is a very important aspect. The number of interaction between health experts in both countries. It was conducted on the Indian side by our premier institutions. So the use of technology to overcome these challenges again is the vision of our leadership of both countries. You are very well familiar, with the Aarogya Setu app in India, similarly robots in Sri Lanka aiding the fight against COVID.

Use of tech is another area other than supplies of medicines. We are closely working on the repatriation of Sri Lankan nationals and I would like to say, both the countries see every challenge as an opportunity. When I speak about challenges and opportunities, the cooperation so far in fighting the immediate impact of COVID 19, to look after the health aspect is just the tip of the iceberg. there are bigger challenges, that need to be fought when we speak of economic recovery. Both countries are going to cooperate very closely, we are in touch, 2 govt are in touch, this is going to be one of my very important tasks, to work with the leadership of Sri Lanka, to work with Sri Lanka authorities to chart the way forward for cooperation and dealing with the economic challenges posed by COVID 19. We share a common commitment to shared prosperity and peace and security.

WION: How are both cooperating under the SAARC umbrella?

Gopal Baglay: PM Modi had taken the lead in arranging the interaction of SAARC leaders on 15th March, 2 months ago. Important decisions were taken in that interaction. South Asia is not merely a geographical region, we share history, we share a common objective and we have a common destiny, a common future. It is the responsibility of us, our country and our govt are committed to neighbourhood first policy to work in the region, to promote cooperation. Especially, SAARC emergy fund has been established which has been utilised to extend the assistance to various countries in the SAARC. Also, health and trade officials have interacted online. What will be the economic cooperation, on trade and such matters, We are keenly following with all SAARC countries.

WION: Are we planning to repatriate Indian Nationals from Sri Lanka?

Gopal Baglay: COVID 19 has presented a unique situation, and thousands of people are stranded in different countries. So unique situation calls for unprecedented steps and measures. Right now Vande Bharat mission is underway. I am not aware of any similar instance in history were such a massive movement has been coordinated not only by govt in Delhi but state govts in India. Our missions, our embassies in the world are closely involved.

As far as Sri Lanka is concerned we have established a 24*7 control room with a dedicated helpline and we have got stranded Indian nationals to register. Working very closely with the local authorities which have facilitated whatever assistance possible, essential items. This is a difficult situation for anyone who gets stranded even within India.

As you know, this govt for past 5-6 years, has devoted very attention to looking after our nationals abroad, responsiveness, quick thinking and empathy are very important. So we have worked very closely with Indian nationals and Indian community with coordination with local authorities, whatever essential requirement for their supplies and in touch with authorities in Delhi to work out plans for the return of Indian nationals.


WION: How is the mission reaching out to Indian nationals in terms of providing them food or shelter?

Gopal Baglay: The first thing was too establish a helpline, establish contact with these Indians. They have got registered, around 1200 or so. We know exactly where they are and when the situation permits movement, our officers have even gone out of Colombo to the east of the country and other places to personally meet these Indians. So we are keeping in touch with the Indians very regularly. We know exactly who they are, what are the requirements, working very closely with the community, local authorities to facilitate as far as possible essential requirements they have while they remain here. The concerns of stranded Indian nationals uppermost in our minds.


Sidhant Sibal: You present your credentials via video conference... how is Indian diplomacy changing due to COVID?

WION: There has to be a first for everything. I must say Sri Lankan leadership was very very gracious in arranging this ceremony through video conference. It is a new thing and shows the commitment of the leadership in both countries to use technology to overcome challenges and shows innovativeness of diplomacy.

As you know now there will be very little travel, there would be very little travel in months come, the conduct of diplomacy has been all about meetings and interactions, discussion these are being held via video conference. You might have heard, just the other day, EAM had joint commission meet with Denmark through video conference.

So many examples, the ingenuity of humankind, the inventiveness of the human mind to overcome challenges that is how human species have become Homo sapiens, that is how we progressed, that is how civilisations have progressed. This is one more challenge and I am sure with leadership, with vision and commitment Indian diplomacy is more than committed to adequately address the challenges posed by the COVID situation.