Indian biz lobby group pitches for SAFTA to boost trade

Wednesday, 31 December 2003, 08:00 Hrs
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New Delhi, A leading Indian business chamber said Wednesday trade among South Asian countries could go up several fold with the formation of a long-pending regional economic bloc.

The South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) agreement will promote joint ventures and intra-regional investment among SAARC member states, said Y.K. Modi, president-elect of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI).

"Divisive tendencies in South Asia have long defied the process of regional economic integration the world over. In most regional economic blocs intra-regional trade accounts for the bulk of their trade," Modi told a press conference here.

"The experience of other successful trading blocs in raising the income levels through intensified trade within the region highlights the need for South Asian leaders to give priority to economic issues at Islamabad SAARC summit," he said.

The three-day South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit, which will bring together leaders from the seven South Asian countries, will begin in Islamabad on January 4 after a year's delay.

Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Pakistan, Nepal, the Maldives and Sri Lanka are members of the SAARC.

Modi said Indian industry was optimistic that the SAFTA agreement, on which the SAARC countries have been working for years, would be the high point of the 12th SAARC summit in Islamabad.

Modi will address a symposium on regional cooperation in Islamabad, being organised by the SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry, on January 2 as a run up to high-level discussions beginning January 4.

The symposium will also be addressed by several business and political leaders of the SAARC region including presidents of apex chambers of commerce and industry of Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan.

"The main purpose of the visit is to join hands with other SAARC business leaders to impress upon our respective leaderships to accelerate the process of signing the SAFTA agreement," he said.

He, however, said for SAFTA to become a reality free movement of people, goods and services was necessary.

"Easy visa regulations and ability of businessmen to visit freely within the region are an important pre-requisite for enhancing both trade and investment," said Modi.

Visa for business purposes should be multiple entry for a minimum duration of five years without the provision of taking city-wise visa, he said, adding one-time visa should be given "without any delay" for tourism and other purposes.

"Physical infrastructure, such as linkages through road, railways, shipping and appropriate air links, is most crucial for increasing intra-regional trade to substantial levels," Modi said.

"In fact, the current level of trade can be almost doubled provided appropriate regional agreement on roads, rail, shipping and air are put in place which enable seamless movement," he added.

According to FICCI, "SAARC regional agreement for investment promotion and protection" should be signed along with SAFTA.

"We are optimistic that this SAARC summit would mark a historic turning point and lay the foundation of economic integration in South Asia," said Modi.

The FICCI chief said after the finalisation of SAFTA all SAARC countries would begin the exercise of reducing their tariffs to zero level within five to 10 years for free trade among member-nations.

Source: IANS
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