Saarc meet to fast-track services trade, expand Safta regulation

Written by Rituparna Bhuyan | Kathmandu | Updated: Oct 30 2009, 04:55am hrs
Trade ministers of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) on Wednesday discussed ways and means to fast track a liberal services trading regime in the region to expand the ambit of the South Asian Free Trade Area (Safta) agreement, that was signed in 2004. The meeting held in Kathmandu also deliberated on increasing the number of goods that can be traded duty free under the duty free agreement.

Addressing the meeting here, Saarc secretary general Sheel Kant Sharma said, Expert group on trade in services have done a good job in clearing up the draft. Agreement on trade in services should be finalised before the next summit.

I am sure that with all Saarc members tabling their service sector requests, we are progressing towards greater integration of our trade in services, said commerce minister Anand Sharma at the meeting. An expert group has been negotiating a services deal within the ambit of Safta. At present, the group has agreed on general principles on the services talks after three round of negotiations.

As of now, Safta covers trade in goods between the seven Saarc nations. However, Pakistan has not given full access to Indian exporters, which is being seen as a roadblock for full implementation of Safta. On its part, India has given additional duty free access to goods manufactured in Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives and is considering a similar move for Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Indias effort to increase inter-regional trade in Saarc includes decreasing the number of goods without duty free access from 744 to less than 500 for Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Maldives, which are known as Least Developed Countries (LDCs).

Sharma asked its neighbours, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to give additional market access to India and the LDC members of Safta. I would take this opportunity to suggest that the non LDC should also consider reviewing their negative lists with respect to LDCs, the Anand said.

This view was endorsed by the Saarc secretariat as well. There is a need for size reduction in sensitive list. Next reduction should be before Saarc summit next year. It should be related to a fixed percentage of trade, the Saarc secretary-general added.

He also announced that a web portal on import policies on products will soon be made operational to improve intra Safta trade. The portal would act as a onestop shop for information on duties, licensing, as well as technical standards on specific goods for better dissemination of information for exporters from other Saarc countries.