COLOMBO: The Opposition and sections of professional organisations in Sri Lanka have kicked up a storm over the proposed Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement between India and the island nation.
Calling the pact a fresh variant of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which was aborted earlier, the Joint Opposition, a coalition of seven parties and groups owing allegiance to former President Mahinda Rajapakasa, said the deal had to be abandoned due to “lack of public support.”
Professional bodies representing doctors, engineers and lawyers cane under the banner of the United Professionals Movement (UPM) and took out a rally against the proposed pact a few weeks back.
Critics have said the deal would pave the way for Indian professionals and semi-skilled and unskilled persons to “flood” Sri Lanka’s labour market.
“Besides, we want a national policy on international trade agreements and there has to be consistency on the part of the government on issues such as opening up of the service sector” said H.M.N.P. Herath, Secretary of the Government Medical Officers’ Association, a key constituent of the UPM.
The Joint Opposition in a release contended that the existing Free Trade Agreement with India had not benefited Sri Lanka to the extent it should have. While it also stood for “more trade with India,” the group called for the removal of “bureaucratic blocks and complications” that prevented the growth of Sri Lankan exports.
The government’s response has also been forceful. A week back, President Maithripala Sirisena said the ruling dispensation’s rivals were spreading “false rumours” and making “baseless allegations.” He said his government would not enter into any agreement which would “endanger the local economy and the culture of the country.”
As in the recent past, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Saturday said at Hambantota that his government was not for the reintroduction of the CEPA and the services sector would not be thrown open. At the same time, he accused the critics of seeking to sabotage employment opportunities for young Sri Lankans, by opposing the latest initiative. He recalled his party’s main poll promise — creation of one million jobs and signing trade and investment pacts with the United States, China, Singapore, and India, apart from the reinstatement of the GSP Plus. The Prime Minister announced that a demonstration would be held in Colombo in support of the pact.
One of the points adduced by the government is that India is being regarded internationally as a fast-growing large economy and Sri Lanka should capitalise its proximity to it.
Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Harsha De Silva told The Hindu on Sunday that “what we are discussing [with India] is about the framework for a bilateral cooperation. Only after reaching an understanding on this matter, we will take up the content of the agreement.” This week, the draft text of the proposed framework pact would be shown to the professional bodies.
Lucien Rajakarunanayke, political commentator, said that while the government should address the professionals’ genuine concerns, many organisations representing them did not protest this way during the Rajapaksa regime’s time.