One-time top government trade negotiator Gomi Senadhira Monday urged the ruling coalition to immediately halt the importing of garbage of all sorts in accordance with the Sri Lanka-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (SL-SFTA).
"Stop it now or face the consequences," Senadhira, who served successive government over a period of 32 years as a commercial diplomat told The Island.
The former Director General of Commerce (2009-2011) and Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative to the World Trade Organization (2004-2006), Senadhira called the much-touted agreement a total sell-out.
"I'm shocked, angry and disappointed at the way the government concluded such a dangerous agreement," Senadhira said.
Senadhira had served Sri Lankan missions in Baghdad, Kuwait, Moscow, Geneva, Washington (1998-2001)Brussels (2001-2003) before returning home to assume duties as Director General of Commerce.
In an exclusive interview with The Island, Senadhira faulted the Development Strategies and International Trade Ministry for causing irreparable damage to the country by finalizing an agreement inimical to the country's interests.
Development Strategies and International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrema, over the weekend, declared that the SL-SFTA had been in operation since May 01, 2018.
Responding to a query, Senadhira said that he hadn't been really interested in SL-SFTA and didn't bother to examine it though it was signed in late January this year. "But about two weeks ago, some interested party consulted me on this matter.
Therefore, I examined the relevant sections and what I found stunned me. In fact, SLSFTA is a one-sided document which totally neglected Sri Lanka," the former Senior Trade Advisor for policy and Negotiations to Government of Seychelles said.
According to him, the SL-SFTA in respect of 'goods' as well as 'services' hadn't brought any tangible benefits to Sri Lanka. Referring to 'goods', Senadhira said that Singapore received duty free benefits to the tune of USD 10 mn annually whereas Sri Lanka didn't receive anything.
Asked whether he felt the SL-SFTA should be abrogated, Senadhira asserted such a course of action wouldn't be in Sri Lanka's best interest. "What we can do is to halt the import of garbage now, and prevent Singapore from setting up a massive operation which can transform Sri Lanka into one huge garbage dump.
The veteran trade negotiator said that there couldn't have been a worse agreement negotiated by Sri Lanka ever under any circumstances.
Senadhira said that SL-SFTA should be examined against the backdrop of the world's biggest garbage buyer China halting the importing of a range of solid waste, including plastic waste from living sources, vanadium slag, unsorted waste paper and waste textile material.
"The Chinese ban came into operation by the end of last year. Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia, too, followed China," Senadhira said. Obviously, Singapore has no alternative but to look for other destinations for its plastic waste and recycle-sables, Senadhira said, adding that Sri Lanka was picked as the next importer.
Referring to large scale import of garbage by India, Senadhira pointed out that garbage hadn't been included in the positive list in the India-Singapore FTA. Therefore, there was no requirement on India's part to halt the import of garbage, he said, adding that for want of proper consultations among relevant government ministries. Senadhira alleged that Singapore had taken advantage of Sri Lanka in the absence of proper parliamentary scrutiny.
The former Director General Commerce pointed out that ministers were on record as having said that parliamentary approval was not required for an agreement like SLSFTA.
The Development Strategies and International Trade Ministry and those who represented Sri Lanka in negotiations with Singapore owed an explanation as to how a range of harmful items were accommodated in the positive list, thereby guaranteeing them market access, he said.
It would be interesting to know whether President Maithripala Sirisena, in his capacity as the minister in charge of environment portfolio knew inclusion of garbage in the positive list, Senadhira said. The government certainly should explain whether it was aware of impending China's waste ban followed by Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia at the time Development Strategies and International Trade Ministry negotiated SL-SFTA, Senadhira said.
Senadhira said that China had announced its decision in July last year and the notification was circulated in line with Article 10.6 of the WTO.
Sri Lanka struggling to cope with Colombo garbage was opening the entire country to foreign waste, Senadhira said, adding that unless the government acted swiftly and decisively now the country could experience unprecedented health risks.
Senadhira said that the threat posed by Meethotamulla garbage mountain couldn't be compared with forthcoming Singaporean operation. Sri Lanka could end up receiving massive stocks of harmful toxic waste via SL-SFTA, Senadhira said, calling for urgent intervention by parliament.
Senadhira emphasised that he was not absolutely interested in getting involved in ongoing protest campaign against SL-SFTA.
Those opposed to the SL-SFTA had been demanding the formulation of national trade policy as a remedial measure to prevent the government from entering international trade agreements harmful to Sri Lanka. However, Sri Lanka as a member of the WTO had a trade policy, Senadhira said, pointing out no country could be in that organisation without having its own trade policy. Senadhira explained the development of trade policy by different categories of countries with Sri Lanka's being updated in 2016.
Responding to another query, Senadhira asserted that those opposed to SL-SFTA hadn't really examined the agreement, hence their inability to comprehend the full implications.
The former official noted the appointment of a five-member committee by President Maithripala Sirisena to examine the disputed sections in the SLSFTA. Senadhira was responding SLFP spokesman Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe's recent declaration that the government would act on the recommendations made by the committee. Samarasinghe is on record as having said that amendments could be made within one year after the signing of the agreement.
Senadhira said that the government should act before Singapore went ahead with its plan to make significant investment in waste management operation. Referring to the SL-SFTA, Senadhira said that it envisaged setting up waste management operation in the North Western Province subject to the approval of NWP Environmental Authority.
He explained how systems and mechanisms could be manipulated by those immensely influential parties hell-bent on achieving their objectives.
Quoting from UN trade data, Senadhira pointed out that Singapore in 2016 exported approximately 42,000 tonnes of plastic waste to China, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia. "Hope our politicians realize that the SL-SFTA should not be implemented even for a specific period. It'll go until we are overwhelmed by foreign garbage."
Senadhira called for a national discussion on the matter without further delay.