“South Asian governments need the support of stakeholders, particularly business associations for taking forward the agenda of reforming non-tariff barriers for the advancement of intra-regional trade”, said Indira Murthy, Director, Foreign Trade (South Asia/SAARC/Iran), Department of Commerce, Government of India, while speaking at a South Asia Regional Conference on “Participatory Approach to Address Non-Tariff Barriers in South Asia”. The Conference was held at New Delhi on 11th April 2013. It was organised by CUTS International as part of a regional project supported by The Asia Foundation.
She said that specific policy proposals should emerge from important stakeholders including civil society organisations in order to initiate collective actions. Highlighting the importance of regional trade, she also said that trade related services should be seen as essential services and should not be allowed to come to a halt because of non-trade issues that affect South Asian relations.
Vikramjit Singh Sahney, President, SAARC Chambers of Commerce and Industry and Manab Majumdar, Assistant Secretary General, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry expressed industries’ concerns on hindrance to trade amongst South Asian countries owing to numerous non-tariff barriers. Acknowledging that apex business associations also bear a responsibility to assist the process of trade reforms at the regional level, they pointed out that time lost on reforms is resulting in huge amount of opportunity cost to prospective traders. He appealed to the South Asian governments that SAARC CCI should be given representation in the Committee of Experts created by the SAFTA Ministerial Council.
Welcoming the participants, Nick Langton, Country Representative, The Asia Foundation, said that fast changing external economic climate and worsening inequality and poverty within South Asia necessitates a speed up in regional trade reforms so as to equip the region to deliver on its developmental promises.
Bipul Chatterjee, Deputy Executive Director, CUTS International, presented a Business Plan for conducting NTB reforms in the region, which resulted from a year-long project undertaken by CUTS in partnership with like-minded organisations from five major South Asian countries. He pointed out that because of insufficient attention paid by member countries in the past, the policy tools, systems and institutions created for regional trade liberalisation in South Asia remain underdeveloped and far less prepared than other similar policy tools, systems and institutions that exist elsewhere in the world.
According to the proposed Business Plan for improving regional trade, it is important that South Asian countries identify products of high importance to regional trade, measured by supply capacity and matching import demand within South Asia. CUTS has conducted a thorough assessment and has identified many such products for each South Asian country which meets their export interests and import demand respectively.
The focus for the next few years should be to build supply capacity of selected products using provisions of respective national trade policies by all member states. In addition, they should use relevant provisions of the South Asian Free Trade Agreement for enhancing mutual market access for selected products.
For the success of these measures, promoting more inclusiveness in the trade policy making process is critical. Besides private business associations, civil society organisations, media and academia should also play a contributory role. A participatory approach will make the regional trade reform process more transparent by permitting accessibility of all relevant stakeholders in the system.
He also mentioned that with the implementation of the suggested measures, intra-regional trade in South Asia will increase by at least three times from its current level over the next five to seven years.
Among those who participated in the day long deliberations at the conference were Md. Khairuzzaman Mozumder, Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Commerce, Government of Bangladesh; Sandeep Kumar, Commissioner (International Customs Division), Central Board of Excise & Customs, Department of Revenue, Government of India, Shankar Prasad Poudel, Under Secretary, Ministry of Commerce and Supplies, Government of Nepal; Robina Ather, Joint Secretary, Customs and Trade Policy, Ministry of Commerce, Government of Pakistan; Saman Kelegama, Executive Director, Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka
The conference was represented by SAARC Development Fund, India Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Federation of Indian Micro and Small & Medium Enterprises, Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce & Industry, Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and Confederation of Indian Industry. Besides these leading business/industry associations, about 80 delegates belonging to civil society organisations, academia, inter-governmental bodies and media from South Asia participated.
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