SLPP parliamentary group member Sarath Weerasekera yesterday (11) took exception to a government decision to finalise technical level talks on the proposed Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) with India before the end of March this year.
The issue hadn’t been taken up at a government parliamentary group at any level or discussed in Parliament, the former Public Security Minister told The Island. The government parliamentary group consists of SLPP, three MEP MPs, including Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, one UNP MP, one TMVP MP, two EPDP MPs and two CWC MPs.
Referring to a recent statement attributed to Cabinet spokesman Bandula Gunawardena, regarding the status of ETCA negotiations, the Colombo District MP said that such a far reaching agreement couldn’t be finalised without proper consultations.
The ruling SLPP should state its position on ETCA without delay, MP Weerasekera said, urging President Ranil Wickremesinghe not to exploit the continuing political, economic and social crisis to advance his agenda.
Responding to The Island queries, the SLPP MP said that the two countries suspended talks on ETCA in 2018 following a spate of protests here. Negotiations commenced in 2016, between Modi’s India and the Yahapalana government, a year after Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat at the 2015 presidential election.
The then President Maithripala Sirisena in late March 2016 strongly defended ETCA, alleging protests against the move were politically motivated.
Lawmaker Weerasekera said that Sri Lanka deeply appreciated unprecedented Indian support during the 2022 economic crisis but it wouldn’t be fair to take advantage of a hapless country.
MP Weerasekera said that the two governments resumed talks on ETCA soon after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster in July 2022. The former Navy Chief of Staff declared that the UNP leader, elected by Parliament to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term, shouldn’t have resumed talks on ETCA under any circumstances.
Commenting on MP Weerasekera’s sudden criticism directed at ETCA, sources pointed out that during the 2016-2018 period there had been altogether 11 rounds of talks. The 12th round of talks was held in Colombo from Oct 30, 2023 to Nov 1, sources said, adding that the Cabinet spokesman briefed the media in the first week of Dec 2023 in this regard.
According to Minister Gunawardena, the Cabinet approved President Wickremesinghe’s proposal regarding ETCA meant to boost Sri Lanka’s efforts to achieve export-led economic recovery.
Sri Lanka and India signed a Free Trade Agreement on Dec 28, 1998 during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s tenure as the President. The FTA came into operation on March 1, 2000.
Sources said after the conclusion of the 12th round of talks in Colombo, both parties announced details. According to media statements issued in the first week of Nov 2023, discussions covered various chapters including Trade in Goods, Technical Barriers to Trade, Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, Trade in Services, Custom Procedure & Trade Facilitation, Rules of Origin, Trade Remedies, Economic & Technology Cooperation and Dispute Settlement. Sources emphasized that negotiations were held in an open and transparent manner.
The Sri Lankan delegation was led by K J Weerasinghe, Chief Negotiator, and the Indian delegation was led by Shri Anant Swarup, Joint Secretary in the Department of Commerce, Government & Chief Negotiator.
The Indian Ministry of Commerce and Industry said in a statement that during 12th round of talks both sides reviewed the progress on implementation and decided to drop nine issues as being resolved. Issues such as the quota on apparel and pepper and the procurement of pharmaceuticals were also discussed and both sides decided to continue the discussion and explore new options for resolution of the matter, the Indian Ministry said.
MP Weerasekera said that the SLPP couldn’t keep quiet over a fresh move on ETCA after having vigorously opposed the agreement during the Yahapalana administration. The MP acknowledged that the SLPP was experiencing a catch 22 situation.