India’s High Commissioner Y.K. Sinha has taken on former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Joint Opposition, an informal coalition of pro-Rajapaksa parties and groups, over the proposed Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) between India and Sri Lanka.
Referring to reported observations of the former President and members of the Joint Opposition against the ETCA, Mr. Sinha, who did not mention the name of any Sri Lankan leader opposing the pact, told members of the Sri Lanka-India Society on Friday that he was “surprised” to come across Mr. Rajapaksa’s statements in sections of the local press on the issue.
Recalls CEPA talks
It was Mr. Rajapaksa’s government that held negotiations with India over the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which had included “trade in services.” He described as “quite amusing” the statements of members of the Joint Opposition, some of whom were Ministers during the Rajapaksa regime, when the CEPA, he said, was negotiated.
Mr Sinha’s response was in the context of views expressed in certain quarters that the proposed ETCA would deprive job opportunities for Sri Lankans in a host of fields including information technology and the Free Trade Agreement, effective since March 2000, had not been beneficial to Sri Lanka.
“Constrained to join the debate”
Qualifying his rebuttal, the diplomat said “I hesitate to get into the political controversy” but he felt “constrained” to join the debate because “I do not think we should let naysayers take all the public space on this issue without anyone else trying to put the facts.”
Emphasising that he had not seen any draft text of the ETCA, he said what he received “two days ago” was a draft text of the framework agreement, which might form the basis for further negotiations. He hastened to add that the draft framework agreement “is not necessarily an indication” of the nature and coverage of the discussions to be held in future.
Says 2005-2008 talks “almost concluded”
Giving an account of the CEPA negotiations during 2005-2008 (when Mr. Rajapaksa was President), he said the CEPA, “which is [now] a dirty word here,” was “almost concluded.” Sixteen rounds of negotiations were held, many of which were “detailed.”
Even the two countries had “tentatively” agreed on a draft. “At the last minute, the Government of Sri Lanka indicated its inability to sign that agreement,” which was subsequently “shelved.”
Opening two sectors against India’s 80
As part of the now-aborted agreement, under Mode 4 [of the General Agreement on Trade in Services] which pertained to “movement of natural persons,” Sri Lanka had agreed to open up two sectors — marine ship building and information technology (IT)/ IT-Enabled Services, both of which were “very limited fields,” while India would throw open nearly 80 sectors.
Even in the respect of the two fields of the services sector, it was sought to be done at the request of the government of Sri Lanka, which felt that India could help it immensely. “We do not know what the ETCA will do because serious negotiations have not begun,” Mr. Sinha pointed out.
How the pact began
Tracing the genesis of the proposed pact, the High Commissioner said Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, during his visit to New Delhi in September, had set “very ambitious timelines,” according to which the framework agreement should be concluded by 2015 end or 2016 early and the final agreement by June 2016.
The diplomat expressed the hope that there would be an understanding over the framework of the ETCA soon.
Indian investment since 2003
On the rationale behind the fresh pact, he said there was no formal agreement in place to regularise “investment and services” even though India invested $one billion since 2003 and another $1.5 billion to 2 billion was in the pipeline, apart from the existence of three modes of trade in services and the issue of 350-400 employment visas by Indian High Commission to Sri Lankan nationals last year.
Terming “absurd” the argument that the 16-year-old FTA had not been beneficial to Sri Lanka, he said that in 1999, the value of Sri Lankan exports to India was $49 million and this went up to $645 million in 2015. Noting that there had not been much increase in the value of Sri Lankan exports since 2005, he raised the question whether this was due to “limited” base of the exports. He added that that the regulatory framework in India was “non-discriminatory.”
‘Ambulance service not linked to ETCA’
The Emergency Ambulance Health Protection Service, modelled on the lines of the “108 Emergency Response Services” of India and being implemented with Indian government’s grant of $ 7.55 million, has nothing to do with the proposed Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA), Mr. Sinha has said.
Expressing dismay over the controversy on the launch of the scheme, Mr. Sinha said the service was in response to a “specific request” made by Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to his counterpart Narendra Modi during the latter’s visit here last year.
“We were not that keen”
Admitting that originally, the Indian side was not “that keen” when the request was made, the High Commissioner said this was because India had already extended its portfolio and it was providing assistance of over $2.6 billion (grants and loans combined). But, the service eventually came through as Mr. Wickremesinghe had followed up the matter with a formal letter and some Sri Lankan Ministers had visited India to study how the service was working.
He clarified that ambulances would be registered in the name of the Ministry of Health and Indigenous Medicine in the government of Sri Lanka and not that of GVKEMRI of India, the implementing agency in the initial phase. The service would be offered free of charge as long as the Indian government was funding it, he added. (The Hindu)