Vol. 5 Num 131 Mon. October 04, 2004  

Decide fast abou| free trade deals
Consultative committee suggests ahead of Safta experts' meet today

A consultative committee on free trade has suggested the government to make urgent political decision regarding its position on bilateral free trade agreement (FTA).

The suggestion comes ahead of today's scheduled meeting of trade experts of se~en South Asian nations in a bid to narrow trade gap in crucial |rade issues like tariff and rules of origin tha| need to be set|led to establish a free trade area by 2006.

The consultative committee styled as the Free Trade Group (FTG) was formed to provide inputs to government for FTA negotiations.

The suggestion from the committee came in view of slow progress on bilateral FTA negotiations with India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and with the multilateral talks in South Asian Free Trade Area (Safta) and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral, Technical and Economic Co-operation (Bimstec) fronts in progress.

Members of FTG, comprising leaders of trade bodies and associations, yesterday met Commerce Minister Altaf Hossain Choudhury at his secretariat office to apprise him of progress of the group's progress on FTA groundwork. The private sector expert group asked the government to pursue bilateral FTA talks side by side with talks in m}ltilateral levels.

Sources said a section of the government is opposed to FTA with India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and other Saarc nations arguing that such deals will overlap each other as proposed Safta and Bimstec FTA cover preferential trade issues with those countries.

Safta involves Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, the Maldives and Nepal while Bimstec involves Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan.

Talking to The Daily Star yesterday evening Shahab Sattar, a member of FTG, said the bilateral FTA negotiations have slowed down due to confusion raised with the purview of bilateral and multilateral FTA. "So the government now has to take a political decision and remove uncertainty and confusion," he said.

The FTG's meeting with commerce minister coincided with Safta expert committee meeting that begins today in Dhaka. Officials from the ministries of commerce and foreign affairs, Tariff Commission and National Board of Revenue of Saarc countries will discuss on rules of origin and tariff structure issues for Safta, which will come into effect from January 1, 2006.

FTG Chairman Kutubuddin Ahmed said the government should clarify its position on bilateral FTA to speed up negotiations.

On Safta talks, he said the government should talk with private sector for finalising Safta sensitive list.

About the issue of rules of origin under Safta, he said the local value addition should be between 20 percent and 30 percent.

"The non-tariff barrier issues must be settled first to start negotiations on Safta framework. If non-tariff barriers are not resolved, |he FTAs will help Bangladesh a little on trade. Everybody knows about battery row with India. Non-tariff barrier also halts cement export," said Kutubuddin Ahmed, also president of the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Dhaka.

The commerce ministry last year formed the FTG to get private sector inputs on FTA talks. The group earlier this year prepared a negative list of 1,398 items out of the total 5,226 to keep them out of the Safta deal.

Free Trade Group (FTG) members led by its Chairman Kutubuddin Ahmed meet Commerce Minister Altaf Hossain Choudhury at the latter's office yesterday. Commerce Secretary Aminur Rahman and other officials of commerce ministry were present at the meeting. PHOTO: MCCI