By Uditha Jayasinghe
Sri Lanka should tap into the south Asian region, which is putting trade before politics, said a top official, calling for Sri Lanka to move ahead with the Comprehensive Economic Free Trade Agreement (CEPA).
South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Chamber of Commerce President Vikramjit Singh Sahney speaking to the Daily FT on the sidelines of a seminar last week insisted that the time had come for the region to move beyond politics.
Admitting that SAARC progress had been strangled by political mistrust, he nonetheless insisted that many countries including Indian and Pakistan were moving towards trade liberalisation on a higher level than seen previously.
“There is a growing consensus that SAARC must move together as a bloc and work to promote its synergies to do business with the rest of the world. South Asia has 22 per cent of the world’s population, but the total trade of SAARC accounts for less than five per cent. This needs to change for without economic growth there can be no end to poverty,” he said.
Insisting that SAARC trade has not taken off because of “quasi-political issues,” he stressed that trade talks should lead bilateral discussions between member countries. Admitting that SAARC has a long way to go before gaining European Union level integration, he nonetheless insisted there were basic steps that the chamber was lobbying for.
“We think that it is very important to have free access. At least 500 top businessmen should have SAARC visas that give them free access to our countries. The free movement of such people is essential for development. They can be picked from all members and would improve connectivity between countries.”
The chamber is also working on reducing clearance time on exports and imports as well as promoting intra-regional banking and financial services. A South Asia clearing mechanism has been suggested as basic steps for improving the business environment in the region.
In addition Sahney is enthusiastic about CEPA and expanding the current US$ 5 billion trade with India. “We understand that there is discrepancy between the two economies but that can be dealt with through negotiations as has been proved by other CEPAs signed with other countries such as Malaysia and South Korea. Indian businesses are bullish on Sri Lanka; this is why an ‘Indian Show’ featuring a large number of companies has been organised in August.”
The chamber is also working on a joint tourism package twinning Sri Lanka and the Maldives and hopes to popularise it as a ‘South Asian Safari’. Sahney is confident that joint ventures with Indian companies for low cost housing, health, education and food processing will take place as a result of the delegation visit here.
“Sun International is already considering a fertiliser plant here and there are many opportunities for public-private partnerships, especially when considering the needs of the north and east.”
When questioned as to how South India’s strained relations with Sri Lanka would affect trade, Sahney declined to comment, but remarked that “trade and investment is a great balm” on political issues. The chamber is also keen to promote women and youth entrepreneurs to take South Asia to the world.