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Engineers call for transparency, professional negotiations before CEPA signing 






By Chandeepa Wettasinghe
Sri Lankan engineers called for transparent and nationally advantageous negotiations before signing the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with India in the backdrop of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s state visit to the Northern neighbour.

“All the information we have right now is what we have heard from others. They’re fragmentary and they may be right or wrong. All we are asking for are transparent and professionally conducted negotiations which benefit the country,” Engineer Gamini Nanda Gunawardana said at a recent event organised by the Sri Lankan Engineers’ Association tiled ‘CEPA for whose benefit’.

An expansion of the Indo-Lanka Free Trade Agreement (FTA), the CEPA addresses the trade in services, investments and human capital, which the EASL members said would allow Indians to reap all the benefits a Sri Lankan enjoys here.

“The only activities exclusive for Sri Lankans are pawnbroking, coastal fishing and small and medium enterprises,” Gunawardana said.

He quoted Indian newspapers which had reported Indian engineers and doctors as being under qualified and said such individuals may enter Sri Lanka freely to render subpar services.

With Sri Lanka’s per capita gross national income being twice as that of India, the EASL members said that Indians across the social spectrum would attempt to enter Sri Lanka.

When Gunawardana said that the CEPA is based on a negative list—which allows free movement of humans except for those in the list—Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva, who was in the audience, opposed the claim.

“That is wrong. What was forwarded was a positive list. So it would have only allowed the movement of people on a one-by-one basis. There were mutual recognition agreements to be signed between professional bodies to decide on what professionals, specialists and qualifications will be allowed to move,” he said.

However, Dr. de Silva admitted that this is based on information received from India, as almost no one in Sri Lanka had seen the finalized CEPA agreement, which was not signed in 2008 due to protest from local industrialists.

Sri Lankan officials who had engaged in the negotiations from 2005-2008 have said that the final draft may have had amendments not seen or considered by them. Officials and politicians have said that Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had ordered the agreement be locked away in a safe at the Commerce Department.

Gunawardana stressed that fundamental problems existing in the current FTA must be addressed before expanding the scope.

“Sri Lanka’s exports to India, which stood at US $ 58 million in 2000 when the FTA was signed, increased to only US $ 625 million in 2014, while Sri Lanka’s exports to the rest of the world increased from US $ 5.56 billion to US $ 11.04 billion in the same period,” he said.

He explained that provincial-level tariffs, port limitations, one-sided quotas, one-sided standards and a long and hard bureaucratic process in India have limited trade in favour of India.

From 2000-2014, imports from India increased from US $ 600 million to US $ 4 billion.

KIK (Pvt.) Ltd Chairman Lalith Kahatapitiya said that most Sri Lankan exports to India fall outside the FTA and therefore, Sri Lankan industrialists require neither the FTA no CEPA.

In the past, Kahatapitiya had placed on record that he had been instrumental in dislodging the CEPA negotiations and that he would not hesitate to do the same in the future.

Curiously, university students were also in attendance at the SLEA forum, which was conducted in Sinhala.

Gunawardana charged that the national dialogue on the CEPA has mostly been conducted in English, leaving out the Sinhala speaking masses.

During Premier Wickremesinghe’s visit, his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi had agreed to finalize negotiations of an ‘economic pact’ by end-2015 and sign by mid-2016.

Modi, during his visit here in March, had urged for the CEPA agreement to be expedited.

However, finalizing negotiations on any economic pact in three months would be foolhardy, as the global practice has been to negotiate pacts in scrutinizing detail over a number of years. For example, the Korea-Australia FTA negotiations took over eight years.

Basing negotiations off the old CEPA document may be damaging, as economic and social contexts in both India and Sri Lanka have changed since 2008.
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