Consumer Unity & Trust Society (CUTS) International, an Indian think-tank headquartered in Jaipur, organised a few day-long conferences in New Delhi with the support of the Asia Foundation and Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID). The programme was to, firstly, promote a participatory approach to address non-tariff trade barriers in South Asian regional trade and, secondly, to achieve consensus on South Asian regional integration and connectivity.
CUTS had assembled focused participants to discuss, deliberate, and endorse the Business Plan and South Asia Regional Economic Integration Strategy that were presented at the two conferences. The eight-member Pakistani delegation consisted of two representatives of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), two from the Ministry of Commerce, two from NGOs, one from media, and I represented trade and industry.
Intra SAARC trade is Indo-Pak centric
Liberalisation of trade and investment, especially with reference to SAARC countries, is primarily focused on Indo-Pakistan bilateral relations and therefore assumes substantial importance whenever regional economic integration is deliberated within SAARC. Trade and investment liberalisation within the Indo-Pakistan context was, is, and would generally be a very delicate affair since this process is susceptible to non-trade factors that hold its progress hostage.
Indo-Pakistan trade policy decisions have been on a roller-coaster ride in the past two years. The process that melted the ice began in Islamabad in April 2011 when the two former commerce secretaries met and agreed upon a joint declaration. Over the past two years, at least fifteen initiatives have been undertaken by both countries and these have led to an upsurge in trade figures.
Trade and investment process between India and Pakistan has to maintain its own sustainability in spite of a high-low scenario where external factors impede as well as make the progress regressive at certain times. Be it military skirmishes at the border, be it the brouhaha of hardliners, or be it the dastardly misguided actions of extremists and perpetrators of terrorism, trade between India and Pakistan would remain captive to them and the events. The recent jingoistic statements, allegations of beheading of captured troops, and the recent gruesome and fatal attacks on high-profile prisoners in jails have muddied the environment and may affect the trade process.
However, acceding to these hindrances or resigning to these compelling reasons would throw the liberalisation course back to the dark ages and hand victory on a silver platter to those very forces that do not appreciate a conducive and peaceful environment. Therefore, in all sincerity, it is incumbent upon the stakeholders, such as business community, media, scholars, non-governmental organisations, etc, not only in the two large South Asian neighbors, but even those in other SAARC countries, to promote the need for India and Pakistan to go with full force towards liberalization of trade and investment. This would, of course, also motivate citizens of these other SAARC countries to endorse and promote the concept of regional economic integration and, at the same pace, providing the foundation to make SAARC a strong, meaningful, and effective organisational entity.
Notwithstanding the desire of stakeholders to enhance trade and investment within the region, the bare fact is that there are plenty of other roadblocks that have hampered a smooth progress and continued to provide an element of doubt and distrust. The most vitiating blockade is the blatant implementation of Non-Tariff Barriers (NTBs).
Today, while everyone talks of liberalisation of trade, free trade agreements, preferential treatment, and establishing trade blocs, the fact of the matter is that new NTBs are being regularly invented by various countries. As tariffs go down or become zero-rated, NTBs become more prominent and prove to be largest impediments to trade. Where there were once barriers at the borders, now NTBs have become non-border barriers. The role of SAARC, here, becomes very important as this organisation is the natural candidate as a focal point among member countries. The primary factor that can unite South Asia is trade, the easy movement of business people and strong links between the business communities of member countries.
The perpetual faithfulness to discriminatory applications of rules, regulations and laws have provided ammunition to the adversaries and opponents of free trade to strongly agitate any relaxation in trade policies, for example, Pakistan still not granting Most Favored Nation status to India in spite of the Pakistani Federal Cabinet’s decision in April 2012 to do so from January 01, 2013.
There is an imperative need to, first and foremost, recognise that the Track II approach is workable and practical. The main advantage of this process is that all interlocutors at various forums are serious and are more or less on the same page on most of the contentious issues or n the methodology and procedure of addressing these issues.
It is therefore in the best scheme of things that an institutionalised mechanism be developed to coordinate with all stakeholders and to set in motion a process to disseminate data and input through a centralised clearing house. The major reason for this approach is that a formidable movement can be evolved that would possess the critical mass to convince policymakers, naysayers, and hardliners that progress towards liberalisation of trade, that progress towards overall peace, and that progress towards bettering the lives of the people in the region could be possible for the mutual long-term benefit of the region. In fact, SAARC should set up a Council for NTBs if SAFTA is to become a reality.
Notwithstanding this optimistic outlook, the fact of the matter is that citizens in each country must also play their constitutional and fundamental role in boosting the morale of those who are out to achieve the desired objectives of peace, harmony, and better quality of life. American tycoon Henry Ford very wisely stated that “coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, and working together is success.
This article was originally published at: The News
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.