Mubarak Zeb Khan
Islamabad, 16 February 2012. The Pakistani side blew cold and hot during the two days of trade liberalisation talks with India.
Having disappointed the visiting delegation on Tuesday when the federal cabinet decided to defer completion of the negative list that was to replace the existing positive one, Islamabad on Wednesday assured New Delhi that it would have the list ready by the end of this month.
The two sides also finalised three more agreements on trade that will help improve economic relations between the two countries.
However, the most important step was the assurance regarding the negative list.
The damage control over the list came after a realisation that Tuesday’s cabinet decision had proved embarrassing for the Indians. The cabinet decision, which came at a time when the Indian delegation was present in Islamabad, earned the government criticism from a number of quarters. “The government should not have put the negative list on the agenda of the cabinet meeting if it had no plan to approve it,” Senator Ghulam Ali, president of the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI), told Dawn.
He conceded that the decision to defer the negative list was a disappointment for the high-profile Indian delegation that was visiting Pakistan.
In fact, it proved disappointing and embarrassing for the visiting delegation as it had already announced that it would return home from Pakistan with the new list.
“This (announcement of a negative list) is the understanding which was given to us when the Pakistan Commerce Secretary came (to New Delhi) in November,” said Indian Commerce Minister Anand Sharma in a media interaction before he left India for Pakistan.
However, once he had arrived here, the cabinet sent him a different message.
Once the Pakistani side realised what had happened, it salvaged the situation by assuring the visiting delegation that a decision on the list would be taken at the next cabinet meeting. In fact, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, during his meeting with Indian Commerce Minister Anand Sharma, assured the latter about this, adding the cabinet had mandated the ministry of commerce to normalise trade relations with India.
“The roadmap of trade normalisation, as agreed in the meetings of the commerce secretaries in New Delhi last November, will be implemented as per the agreement,” the prime minister told the Indian delegation.
Asked to explain why the cabinet had deferred a decision, Commerce Secretary Zafar Mahmood said comments on the proposed negative list had not been circulated to ministries, a requirement under the rules. He added that legal requirements had not been met before submitting the summary to the cabinet.
Commerce Minister Amin Fahim echoed the prime minister in a press briefing when he said the proposal would be taken up by the cabinet soon. “We do not want to rush…One or two of my cabinet colleagues wanted to have more information (on the negative list). We should address every single item.”
Dawn has learnt that during the cabinet meeting, a few ministries, including the interior ministry, expressed some reservations.
It was pointed out that the commerce ministry had not shared the draft summary with other ministries before submitting it to the cabinet meeting. These concerns will be addressed and then a fresh one will be submitted to the cabinet, Mr Fahim said.
Despite this hurdle, the two ministers were confident of clearing all hurdles and strengthening trade ties between India and Pakistan.
The Indian commerce minister said Pakistan had categorically reaffirmed that it would shift to a negative list by the end of the month. He added: “We have taken the steps we had said we would take. We hope that Pakistan will now take steps so that we can take the relationship forward.”
Asked how Pakistan would benefit from the trade liberalisation, Mr Sharma said it would provide a market of over one billion people to Pakistani exporters. He added that the three agreements would also facilitate trade between the two countries. However, he pointed out that the real results would be seen when more trade was allowed through the land route. “We are also looking to the Central Asian markets through the land routes of Pakistan.”
Asked about the import of diesel and electricity from India, Mr Sharma said that the issue would be taken up for consideration next month.
Multiple Visas: The Indian commerce minister said that it had been decided in principle to give multiple visas to businessmen for three years. A decision in this regard will be taken soon, he said.
He explained that the apex chambers will recommend names for issuance of visas. “We have nominated FICCI and CII and Pakistan will also nominate two chambers for this purpose,” he said.
Anand Sharma also added that the Reserve Bank of India and the State Bank of Pakistan were in negotiations over opening of bank branches.
He said a delegation from Pakistan would visit India during the first half of March for talks with the RBI on this issue. “India is committed to taking this matter forward.”