Sitharaman cancels visit

ETCAIndian Minister of State for Commerce, Nirmala Sitharaman, who was to come here on August 25 for a short visit at the invitation of the Sri Lankan Minister of International Trade, Malik Samarawickrama, cancelled her visit on account of pressing engagements in New Delhi, reliable sources told Express on Saturday.

It is learnt that she had to present in New Delhi at an important meeting on trade and economic affairs to be addressed by Prime Minister  Narendra Modi, and also to prepare for the Indo-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue in which US Vice President John Kerry is to participate.

Contrary to the impression in Sri Lanka, Sitharaman’s cancelled visit was at no time linked to the on-going negotiations between India and Sri Lanka on the controversial Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA). Her visit was only meant to reciprocate the visits to New Delhi of her Sri Lankan counterpart, Malik Samarawickrama. The Sri Lankan International Trade Minister had invited her to visit his country and she had accepted it. And while in Sri Lankan she had planned to meet President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also.

It is learnt that ETCA was not going to be discussed at her meetings with Sri Lankan leaders. Negotiations on ETCA have just begun, with only one round of meetings having taken place so far and that at the Joint Secretary  level.

Bumpy Road To ETCA

According to reliable sources, the first round on ETCA proved to be bumpy with the Sri Lankan and Indian delegations not being able to see eye to eye on many matters. The Sri Lankan delegation came up with many do’s and don’ts based on the domestic political situation in Sri Lanka which is hostile to ETCA. But the Indian side found the demands too exacting as there is a point beyond which India cannot disregard its own interests.

India’s view is that the Sri Lanka side will have to sort out its problems with local interest groups which are up in arms against the very idea of an ETCA with India. While the general impression in Sri Lanka is that the idea of ETCA emanated in India and that India is trying to thrust it down Sri Lanka’s throat,  the fact is that ETCA was proposed by the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and the Indians just went along as this would be in Sri Lanka’s interest.

In India’s view, ETCA would help solve some of Sri Lanka’s financial problems. Indian investments that ETCA would bring in, could help Sri Lanka get out of the debt trap in which it is now. But India, as such, does not stand to gain much from ETCA given the smallness of the Sri Lanka’s domestic market and its limited export potential.

In the absence of a political consensus on ETCA in Sri Lanka, talks on it are likely to drag on and Colombo may not be able to reach its target of signing it by year end. (New Indian Express)

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