November 22, 2005, The Financial Express
Dhaka, Bangladesh

Commerce Minister Altaf Hossain Choudhury said that the time for resolving contentious issues ahead of the implementation of South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) could be extended beyond December, the deadline set for launching of body.

“The Committee of Experts (CoE) will be given three more months after December if they fail to complete negotiations towards launching of SAFTA by December, he said.

The minister was speaking as the chief guest at the inaugural session of a two-day national consultation on “Regional economic Cooperation in South Asia”

The consultation was jointly organised by Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI), Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), Unnayan Shamannay and Consumer Unity and Trust Society-Centre for International Trade, Economic and Environment (CUTS-CITEE) India. The preliminary session was also addressed by FBCCI president Mir Nasir Hossain, noted economist and Unnayan Shamannay chief Dr. Atiur Rahman, and Pranav Kumar, a policy analyst of CUTS.

SAFTA must be implemented through removing the existing tariff, non-tariff and para-tariff barriers, the commerce minister said.

He said dumping and antidumping issues, revenue losses, compensation package, negative lists; rules of origin and other related matters should also be addressed.

He said, “ The main focal point of the 13th SAARC summit was to settle some unsettled issues SAFTA implementation. The seven leaders have made a remarkable headway in this regard. Now we need a declaration before the World Trade Organisation’s next round of talks in Hong Kong about the access of our goods to developed and developing countries’ market including India.”

Identifying SAFTA implementation as a probable remedy for reducing the yawning trade gap among the SAARC countries he said: There should not be any further delay in reaching consensus on implementation of SAFTA.

Atiur Rahman said: “The volume of intra-regional trade is still less than five percent of the global trade compared with 29 percent among ASEAN countries and 63 percent in the EU. To enhance trade volume among the SAARC countries a strong political will is necessary as most of contentious issues can be resolved if the political leaders come to a consensus.”

In an era of growing economic integration across the world the SAFTA implementation can open up windows of opportunity for the poverty-stricken and disaster-prone people of this region, Atiur said.

He said the harsh reality is that 600 million poor are living in South Asia having no access to sufficient food, nutrition, safe and pure drinking water and quality primary education.

FBCCI president Mir Nasir Hossain said: “Flexible rules of origin with lower value addition criteria may pave the way for expanding the local export basket and reducing the existing trade imbalance.”

UNB adds: Commerce Minister regretted that the SARRC could not achieve any remarkable work for development for its members in the last two decades.

“…although 20 years have passed since the launching of SAARC, not much remarkable work for the development of the SAARC member countries could be accomplished,” he said.

But the Commerce Minister highlighted the success of the 13th summit of the seven-member regional body held in Dhaka early this month. The summit, he said, was an opportune occasion to draw up a roadmap for regional cooperation in South Asia for the next decade.

“I firmly believed that the 13th SAARC Summit provided an important vision to find new avenue for meaningful cooperation as well as to face the common challenges of globalization and the disastrous impact of natural calamities,” Altaf said.