“The continuing stalemate in the negotiations for enhancing regional trade integration in South Asia is hurting the interests of consumers,” said Faruk Khan, Commerce Minister of Bangladesh. He was delivering the inaugural address to a regional meeting entitled Cost of Economic Non-Cooperation to Consumers in South Asia (COENCOSA) at Dhaka on 28 June 2011. The workshop was organised by CUTS International, India and I-PAG, Bangladesh with the support of The Asia Foundation.
Terming it as ‘anti-people’, Mr. Khan condemned the indifferent attitude of policy makers of the South Asian countries toward regional cooperation on economic affairs. He said that cross-border trade and investment relations in South Asia is progressing at snail’s pace, while regional trade agreements have quickly delivered results in other regions of the world. Both European Union and North American Free Trade Agreement helped to increase intra-regional trade by about 20 percent within the last two decades whereas regional trade in South Asia registered only a marginal increase from 2.5 percent to 5 percent during this period, he added.
The Minister further said that a substantial change in the pessimistic mind set of our policy makers and other stakeholders is the need of the hour. All South Asian countries should show greater willingness to reduce the number of product categories included in the sensitive lists and bring them under the tariff reduction programme so that our consumers are benefitted.
Speaking as a special guest on the occasion, Dr. Gowher Rizvi, Adviser on International Affairs to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, said that even though many scholastic studies have been commissioned and completed in the past about potential benefits of South Asian Free Trade Agreement, none has been initiated to assess the costs that South Asian consumers are paying for the continuing stalemate in regional trade integration. In this respect, the COENCOSA project is a well-planned initiative as its results will be of immense value as a guide for further talks of trade liberalisation within the region.
Dr. Rizvi said that consumers are often unaware of the choices they have and as a stakeholder they are least organised and empowered. With free flow of goods and services within the region, the range of choices for consumers will increase and at the same time there will be competitive pressure on producers to offer best quality products at lowest possible price. He also pointed out that the main restrictions to free trade within South Asia are non-tariff barriers, especially infrastructure and transport related bottlenecks. He urged CUTS and its partners to take the results of this initiative to the political level by bringing diverse stakeholders into a platform.
This meeting was organised to discuss the preliminary findings of research work carried out under the COENCOSA project by taking into consideration the potential positive impacts of greater regional trade integration on consumer welfare in South Asian countries.
Syed Munir Khasru, Chairman of I-PAG, Rashid S. Kaukab, Associate Director & Research Coordinator, CUTS Geneva Resource Centre and Hasan Mazumdar, Country Representative of The Asia Foundation Country Representative gave introductory speeches in the inaugural session.
The day long deliberations included detailed presentations by researchers from CUTS and I-PAG on the reasons and solutions for the impasse to a greater regional trade integration in South Asia and on potential consumer welfare gains arising out of enhanced trade relations within the region. About 45 participants from various South Asian countries representing policy making bodies including the SAARC secretariat, academic institutions, civil society organisations and media attended the meeting.
This initiative is expected to culminate in this year with a final meeting in Kathmandu, Nepal where the results of this study will be presented to a wider audience. CUTS and its partners will take those results forward through evidence-based advocacy work in South Asian countries and also at the regional level.
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