SLAAS Auditorium at Vidya Mawatha, Colombo 7: The crowd is sparse at the auditorium of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science on Wednesday evening but the speeches – some fiery – emanating from a panel discussion on a controversial topic – the Economic and Technol ogy Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) -, are explosive. You [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Heat over ETCA


SLAAS Auditorium at Vidya Mawatha, Colombo 7: The crowd is sparse at the auditorium of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science on Wednesday evening but the speeches – some fiery – emanating from a panel discussion on a controversial topic – the Economic and Technol ogy Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) -, are explosive. You could feel the vibes, hot air and some tension flowing across the audience as speaker after speaker digs deep into different theories and arguments, some buttressed with facts, to back their opposition to the proposed economic plan. But one element, a crucial one at that, is missing: The other side (counter point) is not there and it’s just like playing ‘Hamlet’ without the Prince!

Some of the organisers had either misread the ‘credentials’ of the speakers or totally miscalculated. Sumanasiri Liyanage, a senior professor in political economics at the University of Peradeniya and Nalaka Jayaweera, architect, were pro-ETCA, so the organisers thought. It turned out the other way as they followed the flow of the trend of other speakers; criticising the proposed agreement citing facts and espousing theories. In the light of the controversies and expectations of a balanced discussion, the debate was one-sided with an interested member in the audience, former Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris – one time supporter of the also explosive Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) which was eventually abandoned-, nodding his head to the ETCA sentiments being expressed.

No one moved out of the hall though it was well past 7 pm, almost three hours after it started (normally a long time for a panel discussion) signifying the interest, and another opportunity missed by the government to provide the ‘other side of the story’. However trying to argue and counter the points raised by professionals from different disciplines and in Wednesday’s case – IT, economics, medicine, architecture – would have been a lost cause with some well-known members also in the audience known for their opposition to ETCA.

The points raised by the speakers – economists Prof. Sumanasiri Liyanage and Dr. Lalithasiri Gunaruwan; architect Nalaka Jayaweera, IT professional Lasantha Wickremasinghe and medical specialist Dr. Anuruddha Padeniya (more details of the discussion are reported on Page 4) dealt with secrecy surrounding the plan, that Sri Lanka’s human resource skills particularly medical services and IT are far superior to that of India, and a need to undertake an urgent review of the 16-year-old Indo-Lanka Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

Looking back, the debate and opposition to the now-abandoned CEPA came after details of the proposals were known, and, again interestingly, the most vociferous opponents were Sri Lankan manufacturers and industrialists. Today, in the forefront of the opposition to the ETCA plan are professionals with the powerful Organisation of Professional Associations (OPA) lending its voice to the chorus of protests. And, this is happening even without a proper dialogue has begun between the two countries except for a draft framework on the negotiation process which has been circulated to various professional bodies, chambers and individuals sans the media.

So why all the rumpus over a negotiating process that is yet to get underway and on a track that nobody is sure about except for occasional comments by the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues in parliament? Wickremasinghe from the Society of IT Professionals, eluded to the ‘nobody knows’ theory at Wednesday’s discussion. “Why did they select the IT industry,” he asked, and responding himself, said, “Nobody knows”. The argument was however unclear as sectors are yet to be named and would be only known after the negotiation process begins.

As of now, ETCA is at the stage where a draft Indo-Lanka Economic & Technology Cooperation Framework Agreement (ETCAFA) proposed by Sri Lanka is in the public domain. The Indian draft of this process is yet to be seen or circulated or not known whether it is ready. With expectations that an agreement would be signed by the middle of the year (June or August perhaps), there is agitation and uneasiness in professional circles because of the ‘fear of the unknown based on past experiences’ malady.

Most Sri Lankans don’t have pleasant experiences of Sri Lankan government dealings with the Indian government in the past and cite major flaws in the FTA as one of the reasons why one needs to tread with caution in trade and services’ negotiations. Speakers at the Wednesday forum suggested the need for a ‘win India’ strategy and whether Sri Lanka was blindly jumping into an agreement without such a strategy. Furthermore the importance of reviewing the FTA which is not in Sri Lanka’s favour though Indian authorities disagree, was also stressed.

A ‘Handbook on the India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement’ issued by the Indian High Commission issued in March 2013, in 2011-12, says India’s imports from Sri Lanka went up by almost 45 per cent to cross US$ 720 million, a huge jump from $45 million imports in 2000-01.Meanwhile a February 2014 paper published in an ADB journal by economist Dr. Saman Kelegama, showed that Indian exports to Sri Lanka rose to $3,640 million in 2012 from $600 million in 2012 while Sri Lankan exports to India rose to $567 million from $58 million, respectively. “The paper shows that the FTA has worked in favour of Sri Lanka but its full potential has not yet been realized due to market access problems in India, and the lack of supply capacity for some products in Sri Lanka,” he wrote.

As the Business Times stated in an earlier editorial on this issue, it is the fear of the unknown that is provoking professionals, who rightly are urging a comprehensive and unbiased review of the FTA before stepping into the ETCA.
While the same editorial suggested publishing a white paper on the process, the government must re-think its public communication strategy on controversial topics like this which seem to be failing. For the moment ETCA opponents dominate the discussion platform which ideally should be equally shared and balanced for the public to get an unbiased perspective.

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.