CEPA: Festina lente!
The metamorphosis of the Indo Sri-Lanka Free Trade Agreement (ISLFTA) into the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) has been problematic. It has run into stiff resistance from a sizeable section of the Sri Lankan entrepreneurs who fear that CEPA will trigger an economic tsunami across the Palk Strait and sweep them out of business.
While President Mahinda Rajapaksa was having talks with the Indian leaders in New Delhi on bilateral issues, his confidante and coalition partner, National Freedom Front Leader and Minister Wimal Weerawansa, fired the opening salvo against CEPA from the government camp. He was quoted by this newspaper yesterday as having said that the government had buckled under Indian pressure and become amenable to the CEPA, which, he said, was detrimental to Sri Lanka's economic interests.
However, the proponents of CEPA are of the view that Sri Lanka has stood to gain from the ISLFTA as her exports to India has increased several times as compared to 2000, a claim disputed by the opponents of CEPA as argued by Prof. A. D. V. de S. Indraratne in his critical analysis of the agreement on this page yesterday. Some of the critics of CEPA have gone so far as to predict that it would pave the way for even an influx of Indian barbers into this country in addition to Indian doctors and other professionals.
The Sri Lankan government finds itself in a bind. It is for CEPA and at the same time it is not for CEPA! President Rajapaksa being President Rajapaksa has cleverly played it safe, so to speak, by remaining noncommittal. He says he will not sign any agreement which is unfavourable to Sri Lanka. He is capable of doing a Houdini and wriggling out of difficult situations, flashing a mega watt smile and playing his patriotism card.
However, it is heartening that the two countries have not yet made a final decision on CEPA. The Indo-Lanka Joint Declaration signed by President Rajapaksa and Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh on Wednesday, has a wishy-washy reference, which is indicative of their flexibility as regards CEPA: "Recognising the considerable benefits from greater economic co-operation between the two countries, the two Leaders noted the progress achieved under the India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement. They agreed that it would be timely to build on this achievement through a more comprehensive framework of economic cooperation, best suited to the two countries. In this context, they directed the concerned officers of the two countries to hold intensive consultations towards developing a framework for sustainable economic partnership between the two countries and addressing outstanding issues."
What characterises CEPA is lack of transparency and that has helped its opponents to make a political issue out of it. An Opposition MP even wrote a well publicised open letter to the Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka recently requesting a copy of CEPA! The Opposition has called for a parliamentary debate on CEPA and there is no reason why the government should not comply with that request if it has nothing to hide. There should also be enough discussions on CEPA at various fora. The public has a right to know what it really is and what kind of fallout its implementations would have on the national economy. Their fears and apprehensions must be allayed before the government makes any commitment on CEPA. No fait accompli must be forced on them.
Let the bottom line be that CEPA or the framework thereof should not be signed in a hurry. Festina lente or make haste slowly! The price we have paid for plunging feet first into agreements––such as the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord and the Norwegian-crafted CFA––is enormous. The government must take all stakeholders, especially the local businessmen who feel threatened, into confidence and ensure that their views and concerns are heeded and accommodated.