September 25, 2005, The News
Karachi, Pakistan

KARACHI: Federal Commerce Minister Humayun Akhtar Khan on Saturday called upon the business community, media and civil society to influence and pressurise the politicians to take bold steps for achieving greater regional economic cooperation in South Asia.

He was speaking at a three-day national consultation on ‘Regional Economic Cooperation in South Asia’ jointly organised by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) India, Sustainable Development Policy Institute Pakistan, CUTS Centre for International Trade, Economics and Environment, India and Pathfinder Group of Pakistan.

The country level consultation was part of a regional project that endeavours to assess the present status of South Asia regional bloc and analyse the future prospects of economic cooperation in South Asia. This regional project undertaken by CUTS is being supported by FES India.

The Commerce Minister lauded the consultation process saying this would help engage stakeholders in regional trade initiatives and give inputs to the regional governments to move forward on having more regional trade arrangements. He said Pakistan is having negotiations to finalise free trade agreements with a number of countries. Humayun said that the visa regimes within the region, particularly between India and Pakistan, should be flexible so that it could facilitate movement of people to engage themselves into multiple businesses.

He called for a great trade potential between Pakistan and India. He specifically called upon media in South Asia to encourage their respective governments and businessmen to take the initiatives that could expand trade volume. He mentioned that Pakistan has to still give the most favoured nation status to India.

He said that the WTO is going to be a global free trade arrangement in the coming years.

Earlier, Dr Abid Qayyum Suleri of SDPI, Ikram Sehgal of Pathfinder Group, Dr Prasad P Rande of CUTS India and Kabir of FES India spoke on the initiative of having regional and national level consultations by seeking opinions of the representatives from government, media, civil society, business community and intelligentsia.

M Sulaiman while speaking on South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) said that the agreement is going to be effective in January 2006, but it does not really address India-Pakistan trade in real sense. He said that until the visa regime between India and Pakistan remains tough and the immigration process humiliating, no real growth in trade would be possible. “We need to address this first before we open up free trade,” he said.

Huma Fakhar was of the view that SAFTA does not provide full benefit in terms of regional economic cooperation as it lacks services and investment sectors. She questioned how SAFTA would move forward in such an environment. She rather proposed a bilateral investment treaty between India and Pakistan.

Intervening in the discussion, Shafqat Munir, Regional Coordinator South Asia Centre for Economic Journalists, said that for an effective trade and visa regime, both India and Pakistan have to change the mindset of their establishments urging them to remove the ‘enemy image’ of each other.

“Without removing enemy image from their dictionary, they cannot move towards trade, economic cooperation and peace,” he said.

Kazi Abdul Muqtadir, Abdul Rauf Shaikh and Nasreen Ali during the session on Investment and Finance said there is an enabling environment in Pakistan for investment and the economy is moving in the right direction. They said Board of Investment promotes investor friendly atmosphere in the country. Dr Abid Suleri, Dr Sajajd Akhtar and Dr Qazi Masood and Shandana Gulzar touched upon different aspects of the Millennium Development Goals.

The speakers were of the opinion that South Asia is far behind in attaining the MDGs at the mid term and there is dire need to move further on fast track to achieve them. Dr Khalid Amin, Javaid Mansoor, Ahadullah Akmal and Irtiqa Ahmad Zaidi while speaking on the trade facilitating measures said that these measures could be a better solution towards achieving the goal of regional economic cooperation in South Asia.