India, Sri Lanka slip on oil, trade deals

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe’s visit preceded by opposition, disquiet.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe arrived in New Delhi on Tuesday for official meetings expected to finalise an MoU on developing energy and infrastructure projects in Trincomalee, as well as fast-tracking negotiations for the upgraded Free Trade Agreement —the ETCA (Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement) — both of which face opposition in Sri Lanka.

Mr. Wickremsinghe, whose visit is also expected to confirm a number of agreements to be announced during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka next month, May 12-14, will meet with Mr. Modi, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari.

Trincomalee oil storage

MEA officials said they hoped to see the agreement on the Trinco Oil storage, which was first negotiated in 2003, as well as the development of infrastructure — highways, power plants, a refinery and an SEZ — around the key port town of Trincomalee to be wrapped up during Mr. Wickremsinghe’s talks on Wednesday.

In a last minute hitch on Sunday night, oil union workers in Colombo went on a strike against the planned MoU with India for 84 tanks in the Trincomalee upper oil tank farm, of which Sri Lanka is keen to retain at least 10 for use by the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation. After day long talks with Sri Lanka’s Petroleum Minister Chandima Weerakoddy, and an intervention by Mr. Wickremsinghe, the unions called off the strike that hit fuel supplies in the country on Monday, but claim they have an assurance that their concerns over leasing the tanks to India will be taken into consideration before any announcement is made.

Backing their protest were members of the Joint Opposition (JO) and the leftist JVP, who said the deal would give India control over energy resources in the island nation.

Upgraded FTA

Meanwhile in Delhi, Commerce Ministry officials continued their three-day talks on the ETCA, that began on Monday, to iron out differences on the upgraded Free Trade Agreement of 2000 to include services, investment and technological trade, that has also faced opposition from political parties as well as some businessmen.

“There is widespread opposition to ETCA in Sri Lanka. Professionals are strongly against it, so are businessmen,” said Mr. G.L. Peiris, the leader of the Joint Opposition (JO), who is close to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

“The actual working experience of the FTA for the past 17 years is responsible (for the opposition). A variety of means have been resorted to, that make it difficult for Sri Lankans — import licenses, restrictions on ports, times of the year they are allowed to use the ports, certification and quarantine times,” Mr. Peiris told The Hindu in an interview in Delhi. He went on to warn of opposition protests if Prime Minister Wickremsinghe “shut his eyes to the problems.”

Acknowledging the problems, a Commerce Ministry official said India had sent a three member team to visit three or four cities in Sri Lanka recently to make presentations on the benefits of widening the FTA and has formally asked the SL government for a list of perceived “Non-Tariff Barriers (NTBs)” that businessmen were complaining about.

“Every country is hesitant these days to negotiate trade in services. This is an inevitable part and has to be navigated,” the official said, while MEA officials also conceded that the ETCA was far from being concluded at present.

Maoists used villagers as human shields in Sukma: Home Ministry official

Extremists had been monitoring movements of the CRPF jawans, says official

Maoists used villagers as “human shields” when they attacked CRPF personnel in Sukma district of Chhattisgarh on Monday, a senior Home Ministry official said on Monday. Twenty-five CRPF jawans were killed in the ambush, and seven critically injured.

Sudhir Sonwale, Assistant Commandant of the CRPF posted near the encounter site, told The Hindu that the body of at least one jawan had been mutilated by the Maoists. The CRPF team, which came under attack, was providing protection to workers and contractors engaged in constructing a 5.5 km road stretch near Burkapal and had been following a routine for the past few days. The attack took place on a main road, around 12.30 p.m.

A senior CRPF official said the Maoists were monitoring the movement of the CRPF personnel and they turned out to be “sitting ducks.”

On Monday, the Maoists, pretending to be villagers, pushed cattle near the road construction site. As per a precise plan, they struck when some of the jawans broke for lunch.

A CRPF camp is located barely 2.5 km away and the entire stretch is picketed. Describing it as an “act of desperation,” the official said the Maoists “used all that they had” in the attack and sprayed bullets on the jawans. “There were more than 90 personnel providing cover to the workers. They took turns to have lunch. They were attacked when one group sat down for lunch. There were 40 civilians working at the site, and the jawans ensured that no harm was done to them,” he said.

Former CRPF DG K. Durga Prasad who retired on February 28, said, “This (providing cover) is something they had been doing on a daily basis. It is for anybody to see the everyday movement. Road construction is fraught with danger. Why does it take five years to construct a road? The government has to think differently and we have to adopt new technologies.”

The Maoists also looted a huge assortment of weapons and ammunition belonging to the jawans. This included 12 AK-47 rifles, five of them fitted with under barrel grenade launchers (UBGLs), five INSAS machine guns and rifles, more than 2,800 rounds of AK-47 ammunition, 600 rounds of INSAS ammunition, 22 bullet-proof jackets, five wireless sets, two binoculars and a metal detector.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh visited State capital Raipur and met the injured jawans in the hospital. “The sacrifice of our brave jawans will not go in vain. A meeting of all Maoist-affected States will be held on May 8 to look at ways of rooting out Left Wing Extremism. We will review the strategy [of dealing with Naxailtes] and if necessary we will revisit it,” Mr. Singh told reporters in Raipur after paying homage to the CRPF personnel killed in the ambush.

Mr. Singh said the Maoists were seeking to destabilise development in the State and using tribals as fodder. “They are being used as human shields. It was an act of cowardice and desperation and a cold-blooded murder,” he said.

Asked by a reporter at the press conference if the attack indicated an “intelligence failure”, Mr. Singh said, “This is not the time for a blame game.”

On why a full-time director general of the CRPF had not been appointed, he said, “We don’t have a dearth of leadership…whenever needed we will appoint a senior officer here.”

A senior Home Ministry official ruled out “Army intervention” and said that Left Wing Extremism (LWE) was a “law and order” problem and it ought to be handled by “civilian forces.”