Khawaza Main Uddin, NewAge, February 4, 2009
The Awami League-led government is intent on signing the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement with the United States and providing transit facilities for India, the commerce minister said.
Disclosing Dhaka’s latest position on the two proposed deals with Washington and New Delhi, the commerce minister, Faruk Khan, on Tuesday told a business gathering the government of Sheikh Hasina would not sign any agreements contrary to the national interest.
‘We have almost come to the final stage [of striking the deal]. We think this will be beneficial for both the countries,’ he said about the proposed agreement which the United States wants.
‘The deal will be shown to the cabinet [before signing],’ he said as he addressed the monthly luncheon meeting of the American Chamber of Commerce in Bangladesh.
As for giving transit facilities to India, Faruk said the matter had already been covered by an earlier bilateral agreement although it was yet to be made operational. ‘I see no reason why we should not give transit,’ he said and blamed the mentality of the politicians for hindering international cooperation in trade and economic development.
The government has not yet made public the draft of TIFA or the already prepared position paper, and it is yet to be ascertained whether the issue of transit will fall under a proposed bilateral free trade agreement with India. ‘A lot of studies have been done on transit,’ the minister claimed.
Indirectly accusing the opposition BNP of maintaining double standards on transit for political posturing, Faruk claimed a clause on transit to India for the use of Bangladesh’s waterways, roads and railways was included in the Indo-Bangladesh Trade Agreement of 1978, which had been renewed by all governments, including the previous BNP government in 2006.
‘The people who oppose these agreements have a problem of understanding,’ he said adding both TIFA and the transit agreement would be signed only if they were beneficial to Bangladesh.
Article VIII of the trade agreement the minister quoted is worded thus: ‘The two governments agree to make mutually beneficial arrangements for the use of their waterways, roadways and railways for commerce between the two countries for passage of goods between two places in one country through the territory of the other.’
Former AmCham president Aftab ul Islam and the North-South University vice-chancellor, Hafiz GA Siddiqui, raised questions about the contentious issue of transit, TIFA and Bangladesh’s market access to India at the meeting presided over by the chamber president Syed Ershad Ahmed. The US ambassador to Bangladesh, James F Moriarty, was present there.
When asked if Dhaka would link the issue of giving transit facilities to India with transit to Nepal and Bhutan through the Indian territory for the use of Bangladeshi ports by the two landlocked Himalayan states, Faruq said, ‘All issues can be resolved if political will is there.’
On the issue of duty- and quota-free access of Bangladeshi products, if not of all items but at least readymade garments, to India, Faruk said all such issues would be discussed when India’s external affairs minister, Pranab Mukherjee, who is now officiating as the head of the central government in the absence of Manmohan Singh, visits Bangladesh on February 9.
The issues which are major irritants in Bangladesh’s relations with India include equitable sharing of the water of common rivers, delimitation of the maritime boundary, frequent killing of Bangladeshis by India’s Border Security Force, widening trade gap in favour of Delhi, tariff and non-tariff barriers to exports from Bangladesh and lack of concessions to Dhaka pledged both under bilateral arrangements and the regional framework.
As for TIFA, Faruq said it was under active consideration of the government as three rounds of negotiations were completed earlier after the talks had begun in 2003.
Yet, according to the position paper, the government will need to further examine various aspects of the proposed TIFA. The issues of waivers which Bangladesh is entitled to under the World Trade Organisation regime in the areas of intellectual property rights, and environmental and labour standards might be eroded if Dhaka signs TIFA in its present form, said sources in the commerce ministry.
The preamble of TIFA’s draft has mentioned the issue of ‘corruption and bribery,’ something which, experts have pointed out, has nothing to do with trade and investment.
In the draft agreement, Washington has not yet pledged duty- and quota-free access of Bangladeshi products to the US market.
The US ambassador also refrained from making any specific commitment to this demand.