Fear of ETCA: Is it Davids fearing to fight Goliaths?

Tuesday, 13 September 2016 00:05 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Small fellows can beat big fellows through proper brain power

Malcolm Gladwell’s 2013 book ‘David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants’ is about how small fellows should fight with big fellows for a decisive win at the end. Big fellows are naturally feared by small fellows. Given a chance, a small fellow would avert confronting a big fellow. If there is no alternative, he would fight a big fellow, but with a shaken mind and trembling limbs. But Gladwell has shown that this need not be the case. He has documented in his book many stories from recent history from all over the world how small fellows had been successful in winning against big fellows in battles. All that is needed, according to Gladwell, for a small fellow to succeed is a good strategy. The human mind could do wonders when physical bodies fail. This was amply elaborated by Sinhala writer Munidasa Kumaratunga in his children’s book ‘Heenseraya’ which every adult in Sri Lanka today would have read when they were in school many years ago. In Heenseraya, the giant elephant is brought to its knees by a small chameleon by using not a big force but a strategically designed trivial force.

Professionals and businessmen up in arms against ETCA in India

A recent discussion on TV1’s Face the Nation on the Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement, commonly known as ETCA, (available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7kMnK5XgtVs&feature=youtu.be ) showed that the professional and business leaders in Sri Lanka have forgotten the subtle message conveyed in Kumaratunga’s Heenseraya, a book which they may have enjoyed as children.

Two professionals, one representing the medical profession and the other the IT area, and a third, an industrialist, announced their objection to signing ETCA with India. One of the reasons given by them is based on the fear that big India will swallow small Sri Lanka though this agreement.

This writer and an economics professor too participated in the discussion as facilitating panelists.

The possibility of medical quacks coming from India

The medical profession was represented by Dr. Anuruddha Padeniya, President of the 18000 member strong Government Medical Officers’ Association or GMOA. Dr. Padeniya, though a firebrand trade union leader to some, presented his case in an unusually calm but an authoritative voice. He said at the outset that he was not anti-Indian. His worry about ETCA was that it would open the gates for Indian medical professionals whose qualifications have not been properly assessed to flood Sri Lanka’s healthcare field. According to him, a nation’s health is too precious to be left in the hands of such quacks. This is a grave situation, according to him, since Sri Lanka has not defined who a medical specialist is.

He said that GMOA is opposed to ETCA because it has been planned and executed by the Government without following proper procedures. Those procedures involved five steps: examining the success or failure of existing trade agreements, having a national policy to protect important sectors before venturing into signing new agreements, introducing a mechanism to assure that no harm is done to the areas which are to be opened for trade under trade agreements, independent assessment of the benefits to be derived from the proposed trade agreements and, finally, making the whole process transparent and assigning the accountability to parties who are involved in designing and implementing trade agreements.

With respect to the existing Indo-Lanka Free Trade Agreement or ILFTA, he said that it is a failure since Sri Lanka’s trade gap with India has risen phenomenally after the operation of the agreement. To support his claim, he submitted raw import and export data published by the Central Bank. 

Dr. Padeniya further said that no medical specialist would choose India for serving his compulsory internship to update knowledge and learn of good medical practices. They would always choose better countries in the West.

The claim that Sri Lanka’s IT specialists are good

It was President of the Society for IT Professionals Kapila Perera who spoke on behalf of the country’s IT professionals. He said that his society opposes ETCA because, as also feared by Dr. Padeniya with regard to medical profession, Indian IT men and women would invade Sri Lanka’s limited IT market if the floodgates are opened through the proposed agreement. In his view, Sri Lanka’s IT professionals are quite good and there is no need for foreign IT men and women to come and challenge them.

Hence, to protect the IT industry from the imminent Indian invasion, ETCA with India should not be signed by the Government. He untitled-127also said that he had no objection, if a trade agreement that covers the services sector as well is signed with a country that stands superior to India. He did not name any country, but the obvious candidates would be Israel or Ireland which are far superior to India with respect to the provision of IT service.

‘ETCA is the first step of long term objectives of Indians’

Industry was represented by the Patron of Ceylon National Chamber of Industries Samantha Kumarasinghe. In his opinion, ETCA is simply the old Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement or CEPA in a new name.

Kumarasinghe did not say so, but ETCA has a long history. Its predecessor, CEPA, was negotiated during 2002-04 after the governments of India and Sri Lanka had found that the existing Indo-Lanka Free Trade Agreement or ILFTA had promoted trade between the two countries significantly. ILFTA had elevated India to Sri Lanka’s No.1 source of imports and to No.4 destination of exports. However, due to protests by certain sections of industry and business, CEPA never saw the lights of the day. Hence, a redesigned ETCA is now being promoted by both the Indian government and the Sri Lankan government in place of the shelved CEPA.

Though the Government had announced that certain sectors would be exempted from ETCA, Kumarasinghe maintained that that would not have any effect. That was because Sri Lanka has already consented to WTO conditions and therefore, any restriction to such conditions through a bilateral trade agreement would not have effect in law. What Kumarasinghe meant was that the claim made by government politicians that protection would be afforded to critical sectors by taking them out of ETCA has no meaning. Hence, ETCA is a dangerous animal and that animal should be caged forever, according to Kumarasinghe.

In a booklet he had published in Sinhala under the title ‘The Future of Sri Lanka in the face of Indian Economic Invasion’ earlier, he has summarised the reasons for his objection to ETCA. He has declared in the booklet that “It is my conviction and firm belief that we should, as true Sri Lankans who love their motherland, preserve the heritage of Sri Lanka dating back to 5000 years for posterity”. He has further opined that when one observes critically the processes which India has been conducting in Sri Lanka, one could clearly see that India’s long term objective has been to paralyse Sri Lanka’s economy and through that strategy, to run the country by establishing a puppet government subservient to Indian interests. In this wider Indian strategy, according to him, ETCA is the first step of doing so.

Fear of Indians is the common bondage of professionals

There is one common link that has bound these and other professionals and industrialists who are opposed to ETCA together. That is, though the majority of them openly maintain that they are not anti-India, the action of all of them amply demonstrates that they fear Indians. Accordingly, they fear Indian physicians, Indian IT men and women, Indian engineers, Indian architects, Indian artistes and so on.

17-001That fear is understandable and they are not the only people who have the fear of others. One has to just listen to the Republican Presidential hopeful in USA, Donald Trump, to understand this. He has simply echoed the common fear of the majority of Americans of everything and everyone foreign: Mexicans, Indians, Chinese, Europeans, etc.

Or else, one should try to understand the sentiments expressed by British voters in the recently held referendum in the UK about whether or not Britain should exit EU, tag-lined Brexit. At this referendum, a little more than a half of the British voters had expressed their fear of Europe by voting for Brexit. That has happened despite the British academia, mainstream media, leading politicians and intellectuals trying to alleviate their fear by putting sound judgmental power into their heads.

Even Indians who are being accused by Sri Lankans of being invaders have shown their fear of other nationals in the neighbouring countries – Nepalese, Bhutanese, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis.

Thus, it appears that the brains of Homo sapiens have been hardwired to fear the unknown and it is not easy for governments or national leaders to erase such fears from their minds.

The real cause of fear comes from virtual professional services

The real fear will come to Sri Lanka’s professionals not from the Indian professionals crossing the border and competing with them in the job market in person. In today’s advanced information and communication technological world, except the low level floor workers, skilled professionals need not be present in person in a country to provide their services to an employer in that country.

Accordingly, an IT man or woman in India can make available his services to an employer in Sri Lanka and vice versa without leaving his home. They need to make physical presence at their employer occasionally only when periodical review of their work is being done or receiving instructions when a major project is started. Similarly, other professionals too, including those in the medical profession, can provide their services to those in the rest of the world without crossing borders and being domiciled in a foreign country.

They are known as ‘virtual professionals’ who have been pretty much popular among large corporate employers, multi-national corporations and small start-up businesses. A virtual professional could provide his services in his individual capacity or as a firm of supplying such services. All that is necessary is to enter into a proper contractual arrangement and meeting the quality standards that are imposed on the virtual professional by such contracts. Even today, unknown to Sri Lanka’s Society for IT Professionals or other IT organisations, Indian IT men and women provide their services to Sri Lankan customers for web development, maintenance of web sites and writing software programs. This is happening without ETCA.

Every professional field is being captured by virtual professional services

In almost all the professional work, this has become a global industry today. This writer recalls when a stock-broking company was set up in Sri Lanka in 2010, macroeconomic research was outsourced to a team of virtual economists domiciled in New Zealand. The reason? There were no good macroeconomists who could do the job on time within the country.

What matters to an employer who hires a virtual professional is not the nationality of the person. Rather, he is interested in the quality, discipline, wide world outlook and ability to deliver on time. If the domestic professionals are not good at that, nothing can be done to protect their jobs. Even professional jobs as high as the Chief Financial Officer or CFO are now available on the virtual hiring platform (available at: http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2013-12-19/news/45377498_1_smes-clients-startups).

A virtual assistant is another mode where these virtual professionals offer their services to prospective clients (available at: https://ninjaoutreach.com/the-ultimate-guide-to-virtual-assistants/ ). The virtual assistant guide under reference has identified seven areas where virtual assistants provide their services online to customers. They are: general virtual assistant work that involves the work of a general clerk or an office assistant, web designing, work relating to audio and video development, graphic artistry, script and content writing, search engine optimisation (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) and general project management.

To support and keep the system going, professional employer organisations, known as PEOs, have been set up to assist anyone looking for a professional service from outside his own country (available at: http://www.businessnewsdaily.com/8117-best-professional-employer-organizations.html ). 

In the case of healthcare services, telehealth is now gaining ground and those in the medical profession in Sri Lanka would find a formidable competitor in virtual physicians (available at: http://medicaleconomics.modernmedicine.com/medical-economics/news/physicians-and-telehealth-it-time-embrace-virtual-visits?page=full ).

Prepare Davids to battle with Goliaths

These are the causes of real fear for Sri Lanka’s professionals and it is taking place irrespective of whether there is ETCA or not. Even the governments cannot stop the spread of such virtual services. All the governments can do is to strengthen the legal framework in the respective countries to compel the virtual service providers to stick to their contractual obligations.

In such a world, the obligation of Sri Lanka’s professional leaders is to prepare their membership to successfully compete with virtual competitors on one side, and train them to gain access to the growing virtual market on the other. That would be the way for them to use their energy and resources in a more productive way. That is how Davids should battle with Goliaths today.

Thus, the professionals’ fight against ETCA on the fear that it would open floodgates for Indian professionals to inundate the country’s job markets appears to be futile and irrelevant.

(W.A. Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, could be reached at waw1949@gmail.com )