The relative lull over the debate on the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) with India was broken with the two-day visit of India’s Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to discuss it.
The visit preceded an interactive session between the local stakeholders and the Development Strategies and International Trade Ministry. Primarily exporters doing business with India put forth their views.
According to what has transpired during discussions and debates with all concerned from both sides so far, two factors, one supportive of the ETCA and the other running counter to it, have surfaced to the public domain.
All agreed in principle that greater access should be sought to the vast Indian market with a population of 1.5 billion. That is accepted by everyone without any dispute. Yet, is the ETCA the gateway for it? That is the question asked by many.
Already, the India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (FTA) has been in operation for more than 15 years. The bilateral trade volume has grown exponentially, but Sri Lanka appears to be a loser with the trade balance growing highly in favour of India. This is a point raised by many voicing against signing a broader agreement named ETCA before sorting out issues arising from the FTA.
Statistics important, not impressionistic views in trading - Sitharaman
A question was directed at Ms. Sitharaman during a press conference after the conclusion of her visit. Her Sri Lankan counterpart Malik Samarawickrama and Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr. Harsha de Silva, Industry and Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen and a few others were also present.
She called it a wrong media impression, and she tried to correct it saying, “I would like to correct your impression on this matter. If I go by broadly given data, over 90% of exports originating from Sri Lanka happens through the benefit of FTA”.
Then, Minister Samarawickrama snapped in and said the amount was only 70%. The Indian Minister stood corrected.
“If there is a correction, I will accept it. But from India, 90% comes outside the FTA. The impression here is that Sri Lanka is not benefiting. Impressionistic views are important. But, matters of trade, matters of balance of payment are based on statistics rather than impressions,” she said.
Sitharaman asks SL media to give correct picture
She asked the Sri Lankan media to give the correct impression comparing and contrasting statistics even provided by the Sri Lankan authorities.
Her viewpoints were asserted by Malik Samarawickrama and Dr. Harsha de Silva. Dr. de Silva even remarked to the media endorsing what the Indian Minister said.
“If not for the FTA, we would have an even reduced export volume to India,” he said.
Exporters highlight grievances in trading with India
However, practical difficulties involved in trading in goods with India have been raised by exporters. At a meeting that preceded the visit, the Spice Council brought to the notice non-tariff barriers blocking Sri Lanka’s exports to the Indian market even under the channels announced in
Issues related to standards of exports are always raised.
Its Chairman Nanda Kohonna said quality reports on exports obtained from Sri Lanka’s laboratories should be accepted by the Indian provided they had international accreditation.
The removal of the cap on Black Pepper whole berries of 2,500 tonnes for export per year, is yet another request by the Sri Lankan side. Asserting the need for transparent import requirements, he said they should be consistent with global standards.
“Sri Lanka needs a competent monitoring mechanism on the FTAs. This monitoring mechanism should be ready to challenge any arbitrary restrictions/barriers imposed by the other side, if necessary using legal mechanisms.This body must maintain contact vigilance. Exporters must be constantly supported at the highest levels .The diplomatic missions must be equipped to respond at short notice,” he said.
SL pepper, the best for oil extraction
Besides, the Spice Council is opposed to a proposal to evolve a common standard for spices of the countries in the SAARC region.
Sri Lankan pepper is considered best in the world for oil extraction, and in the event of a common standard for all, the country would be at the receiving end.
“No patents of Spices are to be done even if so, without the permission of relevant authorities. Imports should not be arbitrary or whimsical,” he said.
He said, “It is very important that we should be allowed to export on what we are strong in such as the Agricultural products or any food products.
“There should not be any restrictions for this. They should be allowed under free trade products. Since Sri Lanka does not export vehicles or machinery of any nature –free trade for these products will only be one sided, not beneficial to Sri Lanka,” Mr. Kohona said.
Malik admits FTA not realized fully by SL
At Tuesday’s joint press conference, Minister Samarawickrama also accepted that Sri Lanka had been unable to realize the full potential of FTA. Yet, he said it was not India’s fault.
He stressed the need for diversification of Sri Lanka’s manufacturing base to supply products needed by India only.
In the immediate aftermath of Ms. Sitharaman’s visit, a Sri Lankan delegation is slated to tour in India for talks on the ETCA at official level. In this instance, there is fear whether the government is trying to strike the agreement within a short span of time though the Indian Minister herself said there should not be any pressure on the timeline.
Normally, bilateral and transnational trade negotiations take a long time. It took seven years for Australia and Japan to conclude the agreement.
Sitharaman dodges question on service sector opening
Opening up of the service sector is another matter concern raised here. It was asked how it was intended to cover the service sector under the ETCA. Ms. Sitharaman sought to stay away from answering that question saying it would be better for the Sri Lankan side to respond.
Minister Samarawickrama said discussions were going on it, and agreement could be reached later.
US backing Govt PPPs approach for loss making State ventures
Privatization is not a popular theme in Sri Lanka in the political front. The successive governments used different technical jargon to proceed with privatization as a result. The present government has sought to introduce the Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) for the operation of loss making government ventures including the national career.
Now, the government is getting support from the United States for the implementation of this model.
The US, through its development arm, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), organized a conference PPPs recently. Addressing the function, US Ambassador Athul Keshap said, “It has become evident that an important trend in economic and social development is taking place in countries around the world. The private sector is increasingly taking on what had previously been considered inherently governmental functions.
Recognizing this change, governments around the world have developed significant partnerships with local and global private sector organizations to address issues as varied as environmental protection, infrastructure needs, small and medium enterprise development, and education, technology, and youth unemployment.
This innovative public-private partnership model combines the assets and experience of strategic partners, by leveraging their capital and investments, creativity and access to markets, to solve complex problems faced by governments, businesses, and communities around the world. This model, no doubt, is contributing to long-term, economic and social growth in
In order for it to have a large impact in the developing world, the U.S. Government through its development arm - USAID - has helped countries to adopt this model.”
The conference took place at a time when the government was looking for private partners to develop vital state institutions including
Section of Bar Association against revision of Singarasa case
The Joint Opposition (JO) or the Mahinda Rajapaksa faction of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) is now in contact with a section of Sri Lanka Bar Association (BASL) to pre-empt the move for revoking the Singarasa Judgment using parliamentary power.
The Supreme Court ruled invalidating Sri Lanka’s accession to the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Singarasa petitioned the UN Human Rights Committee by virtue of the right given to him by the Optional Protocol to the ICCPR entered into by Sri Lanka.
As for the background, the High Court convicted Singaharasa and sentenced him to 50 years Rigorous Imprisonment way back. Singarasa appealed to the Court of Appeal against it. It reduced his sentence to 35 years. Singarasa then sought special leave to appeal from the Judgment of the Court of Appeal.
In 2001, Singarasa petitioned the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva.
The Human Rights Committee in Geneva held in favour of the petitioner. Then, his lawyers filed an application in the Supreme Court following the Human Rights Commission’s ruling.
However, the Supreme Court held that the Human Rights Committee’s ruling had no
binding on state.
More than a decade later, BASL is now trying to file an application seeking a revision of this court ruling. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also made a similar request to the Speaker to rule over this in Parliament.
However, sources close to the JO said a section of the BASL was against the move to seek a revision. These lawyers are now in touch with the JO.
Meanwhile, former External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, who is active in the JO, said the Singarasa case served as a solid form of protection for soldiers against international judicial action.
“Now, the Office of Missing Persons is to be established. Anonymous complaints can be lodged with it against army personnel. It can conduct investigations and refer the findings to a prosecuting authority. Then, the prosecution process is set in motion. Then, who is going to give judgments?” he asked.
He said the Singarasa case was a wall of protection against Foreign Judges, and the government seemed to be trying to do away with it.
JO questions need for new Constitution
Also, he questioned the necessity for a new constitution at this hour. “If the government is concerned about the abolition of executive presidency and introduction of electoral reforms, these things can be done as separate amendments to the present Constitution,” he said.
Background work completed for new party, but public announcement later
It is learnt that the background work has been completed now for the formation of a new political party by the JO to face future elections. However, the public announcement will be done later when the time comes for it only.
The formation of this party preceded a survey conducted in the country sampling people at different levels and of age groups. Altogether, 10,000 samples were taken in for survey conducted with the assistance of university teachers supportive of the Joint Opposition.