Transit used as political weapon

The Daily Star, February 2, 2009
By Faruk Khan

Commerce Minister Faruk Khan yesterday blamed politicians’ attitude towards trade for their failure in understanding the potentials of trade.

The minister said trade is not seen as means of national development, rather a weapon in politics. The issue of transit is a case in point. “We have often failed to understand the requirement of the people,” he said.

“I have not heard a single well-focused discussion in parliament on trade. Politicians perceive trade as work of businessmen and economists,” he said at the inaugural session of a two-day regional seminar on “Mainstreaming International Trade into National Development” at Dhaka Sheraton Hotel.

South Asian Network on Economic Modelling (SANEM) and CUTS International organised the seminar to look into trade liberalisation issues from a South Asian perspective.

Centre for Policy Dialogue Chairman Prof Rehman Sobhan also spoke at the programme. Trade policy analysts and economists from Saarc countries also took part in the inaugural session.

Since the 90s trade liberalisation, countries have been coming out of their protectionism based on the argument that removal of barriers to free trade and closer integration of economies benefit all including the poor.

In line with other countries, such protectionism in Bangladesh has been weakened significantly since 1991-92.

On the transit issue, the commerce minister said it has not been discussed from an economic point of view rather from a political point of view and other issues like national security has been attached to it.

Other challenges, such as infrastructural problems, can be overcome if there is political will, he added. “Everything can be solved once the political will is there,” he said.

Faruk, referring to the Awami League electoral manifesto, said international and regional trade would be important for fulfilling the promises.

Rehman Sobhan stressed on the importance of carving trade policies in such a manner that benefits all.

He said trade liberalisation has broadened opportunities like foreign investment but it has also become disadvantageous to domestic industries as many of them were exposed to global competition at a premature stage.

He, however, said some sectors like the ready-made garments enjoy advantage in the liberalised trading environment.

Referring to some Bangladeshi products’ duty-free access to foreign developed markets, Rehman said such access was availed for the poor people. “Trade liberalisation was done in the name of poverty alleviation. Are we in fact passing the benefits to the poor?” he said.

He said wages have remained between $30 and $40 a month giving the excuse of competition.

“Industry does not consist of owners only but workers too,” Rehman said, adding, “Dealing the workers’ issues is also the responsibility of the elected government.”

SANEM Executive Director Selim Raihan and Research Director of CUTS International Siddhartha Mitra also spoke in the inaugural session.

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